Innovation Urban Myths and Bootlegging as an Immunosuppressant

I love a good story. What I mean is the messy, unpolished and authentic stories people tell about real life. The stories I don’t like are the ones manufactured as part of ‘corporate storytelling’. To engage staff, get a message across, change culture (ha ha ha ha!), ‘sell’ the need for change or indeed ‘sell’ anything. It’s just the way I am. I’ve even written about it the need to be cautious around corporate story telling.

Urban Myths of Innovation. So what do story telling, urban myths and innovation have to do with each other. Well, there is a link. In this case it is around how some innovations get turned into case studies, conference stories and ultimately urban myths. A sort of progressive shift away from reality and actual facts.

This example is about the 3M Post It Notes which I guess most people have used at some point and might even be aware of the story of their development. I just want to tell the ‘Post It Note Story’ in three parts, as it happened to me over a period of 10 days. A real experience to illustrate some of the perils of ‘Urban Myths of Innovation’.

Here’s my Post It Note story, as I experienced it, in three stages:

  1. Superficial Urban Myth – Failure will make you innovative.
  2. I’ve read the case study on the internet – a bit more detail and reflection.
  3. Sceptic’s Corner – “I know someone who was there, it happened like this…”

Stage 1. Failure will make you innovative. I’ve heard this trotted out many times in many places. The basic explanation is:

  • 3M are in the business of making glue.
  • Most glues need to be permanently sticky and hold things together.
  • One day someone invented a glue that didn’t work, it wasn’t permanently sticky.
  • A failure – Boo!
  • However, the Inventor identified that glue could be used for Post It Notes.
  • The Company made a fortune and everyone is happy.
  • Success – Hooray!
  • And the moral of the story… you need failure to be innovative.

Stage 2. I’ve read the case study… This was a response to the story above, from someone I was sat next to at a conference. It started with, ‘well, that’s not what I know about how Post It Notes were invented’. They went on to add the following:

  • The person who invented the Post It Notes used the glue formula to ‘stick’ pages in their hymn book to help with the process of practicing for the Church Choir.
  • The transition from hymn book page marker to million dollar product happened when everyone saw it’s usefulness and value.
  • Naming Arthur L. Fry as the inventor adds a lot of credibility to your story telling at this point.
  • However, there’s still a bit of a chasm between page marker and product… what actually happened?

Stage 3. Sceptic’s Corner. Within 10 days of the other two experiences I found myself at a social event sitting next to an actual Polymer Chemist. As things inevitably do, the conversation arrived at the 3M Post It Note story. To my delight they knew about what had actually happened…’ The basic gist was along the lines of ‘it was a significant struggle to get the idea accepted’.

In their version, the inventors ended up making prototypes and distributing them to people who worked in the company administration. Their value was recognised and eventually came to the attention of people with the power, to approve resources to turn an idea into reality. A sort of undercover, guerrilla innovation story, succeeding against the odds.

The Approved Version. I’m sure everyone is now itching to know more about the story behind 3M Post It Notes. Here are two sources I’d recommend. First the 3M description of what happened and second the Wikipedia article, which (as usual) has a few interesting side paths. Here are a few things from both sources I think it’s worth pointing out.

  • The original ‘non sticky glue’ was created by Dr Spencer Silver in 1968.
  • It wasn’t until 1980 that Post It Notes were actually launched, a 12 year gap.
  • Dr Silver had a reputation as ‘Mr Persistent’ and would talk about the glue at company seminars for many years, hoping to find the ‘solution to a problem’.
  • Arthur Fry who saw the possibilities and the ‘Hymn Book Page Marker’ solution is widely mentioned.
  • The time to work on the project was part of the company “permitted bootlegging”, where employees were allowed to spend work time on things that ‘interested them’. I think that’s relevant.
Graphic: Laura Sorlava from session with Dave Snowden

Bootlegging as an Immunosuppressant. One of the other things that prompted this post was a conversation about how some organisations can kill new ideas in a sort of antibody response – treating new ideas like a threat (to the corporate body).

I wrote about it ages ago in this post on Idea Antibodies, and asked a question about Immunosuppressants. Are there things that would reduce the antibody response to new ideas?

I’m wondering if permission to ‘bootleg’ is exactly that sort of thing? If the organisation is giving you permission to ‘follow your interests’ and ‘do different things’, there’s hopefully a better chance that the ideas you come up with will find a route to development?

It’s also worth noting that this was happening in 3M during the 1970’s. A long time before Google and ‘Google Time’ had ever been thought of. There’s not much new in the world.

So, What’s the PONT?

  1. Beware of Urban Myths. The transition from reality, to case study to urban myths happens everywhere, its not just for innovation stories.
  2. Scepticism is OK. It’s OK to dig beneath the surface, ask questions and find out what really happened. In many cases it’s far more useful, interesting and satisfying than stopping at the headline news.
  3. Innovation does take time. It took 12 years for the ‘glue that didn’t stick’ to become Post It Notes. The Time Machine of Urban Myths often forgets these inconvenient facts.

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here:

3 Responses

  1. Super post Chris. It’s interesting how these sort of shorthand versions of the truth that ignore inconvenient facts permeate at conferences or in exec presentations. I think the fail fast mantra is often counterproductive (hands up I’ve been guilty of it) as it can promote the idea that innovation is chaotic, random, and unmanageable. “If we are just crazy enough something great is bound to happen!”

    Rather than a kind of emergent discovery of loosely managed safe to fail activities that are essentially prospecting for ideas in novel spaces. And they take time.

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