Innovation at 3M Corporation
3M was and still is a worldwide leader in innovation. After a rough start in 1902, over decades, 3M enjoyed national and global growth as well as a reputation for remaining a hothouse of innovation.
In the 1990’s, 3M was trying to move away from the incrementalism and it sought to change the mix of new products to truly create something new to the world, instead of line extensions, which typically had provided two out of three new-product sales dollars.
By 1996, the 3M Medical-Surgical Markets Division, a world leader in surgical drapes market, had gone almost a decade with only one successful product. At this point, Senior Product Specialist Rita Shor has been charged with the mandate of developing a breakthrough product within existing business strategy. She was selected not only because her seniority but also because she was thought of as being creative and consensus builder.
Rita and the Medical-Surgical Market Division experiences with the traditional market research were disappointing. Traditional tools presented an abundance of data but contained little useful information for conceptualizing a breakthrough product as the current strategy of the company was desperate to find. In an in house lecture, Rita had heard about a new methodology for product development called "Lead User Research." In an in house lecture, Rita had heard about a new methodology for product development called "Lead
User Research." The premise of this novel methodology was that certain consumers experienced needs ahead of other consumers and some of the former would seek to innovate on their own. Shor decided to try since this might provide the key to the breakthrough product.
The Medical-Surgical Division focused largely on reducing infections from skin through surgical drapes and surgical prepping. The team decided to center their interest in a new product that should reduce infections, conform to the body, prove more effective than current products and be easy to apply and remove.
Shor and her consultants follow the “Lead User Research” methodology stage by stage. The first two stages run as planned. However, the diversity in lead users and fields of expertise was adding complexity to the third and fourth phase. Along the way, after a change of the division manager, Shor experienced a big barrier of skepticism from her superiors. They had reduction on the team and clear opposition. The third stage took six months instead of six weeks. Shor and her team had to sell the program starting from scratch, reminding the new managers the expected benefits and the old problems.
Finally, after one year and with the help of a dozen of lead users gather from backgrounds as diverse as cosmetics to surgery, the team ended up with three innovative product recommendations. Two of them represented a straightforward linear extension of 3M product lines. One more, the team though, might open the door to new business opportunities. However, the team had a fourth recommendation but it divided the team.
The fourth idea would change the business unit strategy, in fact could mean to associate and combine technology from more than one core area of the company.
Shor should decide if take the four recommendations to the senior management and revolutionize the company or just play safe and keep doing business as always.
There is no doubt of the excellence of 3M’s products. It is also known per decades that the company is a leader in innovation. However, this case represents the need for change in a moment where innovation was just predictable and the “new products” were the result of the same old ideas.
It is understandable, up to a certain point, the level of comfort in employees and management had within the company. When the company has a steady income and year after year and the results show growth, small but growth, it is hard to sell a change in the organization. Rita...
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