in Great Quotes

On Initiatives, Making Mistakes and McKnight Principles for Innovation

Recently, I was exchanging thoughts with one of my colleagues and he referred to innovation as a way to overcome routine hurdles that one faces in day-to-day work life. During discussion, he referred to 3M – a 100+ years old company which thrives on innovation. Their success as a company is a result of innovative ideas and its respective execution in simplest possible manner. They address real world customer needs – be it scotch brite or sticky notes. 3M also has 571 US Patents awarded to them! Amazing!

I could not wait more to get on to 3M’s website – and was astonished to see their product range across many different verticals. 3M is as famous for their leadership development initiatives as it is for innovative products. William McKnight was 3M’s first chairman in 1949 (he joined as an assistant bookkeeper in 1907) – a great leader and business philosopher who served 3M for 59 years and built a management culture that emphasized on delegation and innovation.

I Googled William McKnight to find an interesting article at CNNMoney.com which states –

“McKnight learned a crucial lesson about letting his engineers follow their instincts. He soon codified this lesson into a policy known as the 15% rule. “Encourage experimental doodling,” he told his managers. “If you put fences around people, you get sheep. Give people the room they need.” Still in place today, the rule lets 3M engineers spend up to 15% of their work time pursuing whatever project they like.”

I also read that Google’s culture is heavily influenced by McKnight’s management philosophy. Google encourages its engineers to spend 20 per cent of their time working on their own creative ideas.

Clearly, one of the greatest traits of 3M’s management culture is to delegate and allow people to make mistakes. The company thrives on unpredictability and failures – and the same failures leading to some path breaking innovation. How great is that!

I came back to 3M’s site read about amazingly simple management rules known as McKnight Principles – the guiding force behind 3M’s growth and prominence. McKnight principle states –

“As our business grows, it becomes increasingly necessary to delegate responsibility and to encourage men and women to exercise their initiative. This requires considerable tolerance. Those men and women, to whom we delegate authority and responsibility, if they are good people, are going to want to do their jobs in their own way.”

“Mistakes will be made. But if a person is essentially right, the mistakes he or she makes are not as serious in the long run as the mistakes management will make if it undertakes to tell those in authority exactly how they must do their jobs.”

Management that is destructively critical when mistakes are made kills initiative. And it’s essential that we have many people with initiative if we are to continue to grow.”

Great management is all about flat structures where people do what they love doing, are independent and do not hesitate making mistakes. Initiative only comes with independence – and McKnight Principles testifies this profound fact. As managers, lesson here is to never be over-critical about mistakes your team makes – it just pushes your people away from taking initiatives. All you have then is a bunch of “do-as-directed” people who fear taking initiatives. No fun managing such a team – and no fun working for such a manager!

  1. I agree with you on this, this is exactly the environment one really dreams of working in. An environment which will germinate the seeds of innovation. Though I would like to add here is with independence, what next generation companies are trying to highlight and expect is ‘trust’ and ‘personal responsibility’ from employees. Which I think is fair to expect when a company gives a such an environment to work on.
    Liked your previous post too on Perfection vs. GTD, a good insightful post on such debatable topic.

  2. Suchitra, Thanks for your comment – hallmark of a great leader/manager is his ability to draw a line between independence and control. Best strategy to manage this is when a team member is new, grant independence with some control and as a team member generates trust and takes accountabilities – more independence can be granted. However, point here is that providing independent and self managed environment should be a core value that a leader/organizations should practice and propogate – while expecting people to reciprocate, as you rightly say.

    As far as 3M is concerned – their business model has been a case study for best B-schools – because the entire business model depends on mistakes, experimentation and unpredictability – which is truely pathbreaking – something that most of the companies may not do in today’s scenario.

    Thanks for adding value and taking this topic one step forward.

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