How do we innovate?
Our economy runs on creativity and innovation. Innovation created light bulbs. It inspired the internet. It allows new ideas to flourish, like transistors, integrated circuits, and laser beams. But where does innovation come from?
Inventor Art Fry with Post-It note. Source: Wikipedia
Innovators often feel guilty, because they didn’t really do anything. They just connected a couple of ideas and saw something new. It seemed obvious at the time. A specific problem went searching for a solution—and that solution was adapted and generalized.
A great example is the post-it note. In 1968 a scientist at 3M—makers of Scotch Tape—was trying to develop a super-strong adhesive. Instead, he accidentally created a reusable, pressure-sensitive, low-tack bonding agent. The new product went practically undeveloped within the company for five years until another scientist—Art Fry—used it to anchor bookmarks in a hymnbook he used in the church choir. Now 3M sells over $1 billion of sticky notes per year in over 100 countries.
The best innovations are often staring us in the face. People just need the freedom to tinker, experiment, and fail—because a new recipe never comes out perfect the first time. Bill McKnight, an early leader at 3M, said that if you put fences around people you get sheep—and sheep never come up with new ideas. What innovators need is room.
Douglas R. Tengdin, CFA
Chief Investment Officer