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The Secrets Behind 3M’s Innovation Labs and Collaborative Culture

Balancing innovation portfolios and fostering a culture of continuous innovation are critical challenges for large corporations aiming to sustain growth and maintain market leadership. Companies must strike a delicate balance between enhancing core products and exploring new, transformative opportunities. This dynamic approach ensures they stay relevant in a rapidly changing market landscape while driving long-term strategic goals. By cultivating an environment that encourages experimentation and collaboration, organizations can unlock creative potential and propel their innovation agendas forward.

In large corporations, the risk of stagnation is significant if innovation is not continuously prioritized. To avoid this, companies need structured approaches that integrate both incremental improvements and radical innovations. This involves setting up dedicated innovation labs, leveraging open innovation partnerships, and implementing agile development practices. Such strategies enable organizations to adapt swiftly to market changes, meet evolving customer demands, and maintain a competitive edge.

In a recent discussion, Cordell Hardy, Senior Vice President at 3M, shares valuable insights into how 3M achieves this balance and cultivates innovation. Listen to the full podcast episode here.

Balancing tradition with transformation

In navigating the complexities of innovation, 3M faces several critical challenges that are common among large, established corporations. These challenges must be addressed to maintain a competitive edge and sustain growth. Here are the key obstacles 3M faces in its quest for continuous innovation.

Maintaining innovation momentum

One of the significant challenges for 3M is keeping innovation alive within a large, established company. This requires cultivating a culture that supports continuous learning and experimentation. Without such a culture, there is a risk of stagnation, leading to a loss of market relevance. Organizations must encourage employees to push boundaries and continually explore new frontiers to combat this. A supportive environment that values experimentation can help in overcoming the inertia that often accompanies large-scale operations.

Balancing core and exploratory innovations

Another challenge is effectively allocating resources between core product improvements and exploratory innovations. Striking this balance is crucial for sustained growth and maintaining market leadership. Effective resource management ensures that both existing products are enhanced and new opportunities are explored. However, overemphasizing one aspect can lead to either missed opportunities or resource drain. Companies must develop strategies to manage this balance, ensuring neither core improvements nor exploratory projects are neglected.

Speed to market

Accelerating the time from concept to market is essential for staying ahead of competitors and meeting customer demands. In the fast-paced world of innovation, speed is a critical factor. Delayed market entry can result in lost market share and diminished competitive advantage. Companies need to implement agile practices and streamline their development processes to mitigate this. By doing so, they can rapidly prototype and launch solutions, ensuring they meet market needs promptly and effectively.

Innovation rules of thumb

Successful innovation within large organizations often hinges on a few key principles that guide creative and productive efforts. One widely recognized rule of thumb is the 70-20-10 rule of innovation. This framework suggests that companies should allocate 70% of their resources to core business activities, 20% to adjacent opportunities, and 10% to transformational initiatives. This balanced approach ensures that while the core business is maintained and enhanced, there is also room for exploring new ideas and breakthrough innovations.

Google’s “20% time” policy is another prime example of fostering corporate innovation. By allowing employees to spend 20% of their work time on projects they are passionate about, Google has been able to generate groundbreaking products such as Gmail and Google News. This policy highlights the importance of giving employees the freedom to experiment and pursue novel ideas outside their immediate job responsibilities.

70:20:10 Rule of Innovation Theory

Cultivating a strong collaborative culture

3M has employed several strategic solutions to address its key innovation challenges, ensuring sustained growth and market leadership. By establishing innovation labs, leveraging open innovation, and implementing agile development practices, 3M has created a robust framework for continuous innovation.

Establishing innovation labs

To maintain innovation momentum, 3M has set up dedicated innovation labs designed to foster creativity and cross-functional collaboration. These labs act as incubators for new ideas, providing a space where teams can experiment and develop concepts without the constraints of daily operational tasks. The innovation labs encourage a culture of continuous learning and experimentation, allowing 3M to keep its innovation engine running and preventing stagnation. By dedicating specific resources and environments for innovation, 3M ensures that creative efforts are not hindered by routine business activities, thereby nurturing a steady flow of breakthrough ideas.

Besides 3M, many other large-scale enterprises follow the concept of innovation labs. Some stellar examples include Volvo Group and Telekom.

Building effective corporate innovation labs

Creating successful corporate innovation labs requires strategic planning and execution. Here are key tips to consider:

  • Maintain connection to parent company: Ensure new ideas are integrated and accepted by keeping close ties with the parent company.
  • Provide strategic direction: Foster creativity while giving clear strategic focus to guide efforts productively towards relevant strategic areas, trends, technologies or pain points.
  • Adapt KPIs: Use tailored metrics to measure innovation, balancing tangible and intangible outcomes.
  • Leverage market scanning and acquisitions: Accelerate progress by utilizing existing solutions and reducing failure risks.

Learn all about how corporate innovation labs fail

Leveraging open innovation

To balance core and exploratory innovations, 3M has engaged in partnerships with external innovators and research institutions. This strategy, known as open innovation, brings fresh perspectives and accelerates the innovation process through shared expertise and resources. By collaborating with external partners, 3M can access a broader range of ideas and technologies, supplementing its internal capabilities. This approach allows 3M to effectively allocate resources to improve existing products and explore new opportunities, ensuring sustained growth and market leadership. Open innovation broadens the company’s innovation horizon and mitigates the risk of resource drain by integrating external expertise into the innovation pipeline.

Agile innovation practices

To accelerate the time from concept to market, 3M has implemented agile innovation practices. Agile methodologies enhance flexibility and responsiveness, enabling teams to adapt quickly to changing market conditions and customer feedback. This approach reduces the time to market by promoting iterative development and continuous improvement. Agile practices allow 3M to rapidly prototype and launch solutions, ensuring they meet market demands promptly. By incorporating customer feedback throughout the development process, 3M can refine its products in real time, maintaining a competitive edge and minimizing the risk of delayed market entry. Learn more about how to set up and run agile innovation portfolios.

Overcoming corporate innovation challenges with ITONICS

Maintaining innovation momentum in a large, established company requires the right digital tools that support continuous learning and experimentation. ITONICS provides a centralized platform where teams can input, rate, and discuss innovation data, ideas, and projects, fostering a collaborative environment that encourages creative thinking and innovative solutions. This platform acts as a digital engine for innovation labs, ensuring that experimentation and new ideas are nurtured without the constraints of daily operational demands.

ITONICS facilitates effective resource management by offering tools that help organizations manage their innovation portfolios. Companies can allocate resources efficiently between enhancing existing products and exploring new opportunities, ensuring a balanced and sustainable approach to innovation.

The platform’s comprehensive suite of tools supports the entire innovation lifecycle, from trend and technology scouting to roadmapping and portfolio management. By streamlining these processes, ITONICS helps organizations reduce time to market, increase their adaptability to market changes, and ultimately drive sustained growth and competitive advantage.


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