For many decades, 3M’s executives have focused on a constant flow of terrific new products. In order to achieve this, in 1956, the company instituted a catalytic mechanism that is now widely known: design engineers and scientists are urged to spend 15% of their time experimenting and inventing in the area of their preference – no one is told which products to work on, just how much to work. That ensuing empowerment led to a stream of highly profitable innovations, from the famous Post-It Notes to less well-known examples such as reflective licence plates and machines that replace the functions of the human heart during surgery. 3M’s sales and earnings subsequently increased more than 40-fold since introducing the 15% rule and has resulted in frequent rankings in the top ten of Fortune’s most admired list.

It would seem that their vision – Innovative Technology for a Changing World – drives their quest to “create products that improve lives, enhance homes and inspire tomorrow”. This noble goal stimulates creativity, well-articulated by their head of design: “Change is ever-present, and the realities of evolving complexities require a new standard of innovation that is both collaborative and adaptive on a global scale. The greatest catalyst to build value for people and stimulate growth is the recognition that we participate in a connected world, one that requires an approach that is interactive as well as integrated. This principle of collaborative creativity reminds us that we are all part of an innovation ecosystem, uniting purpose with partnership” (Eric Quint – 3M Chief Design Officer).

The 15% rule for 3M introduced a catalytic mechanism which, in turn, produced ongoing impact. Catalytic mechanisms are fundamentally different from catalytic events. A spectacular road-show, a rousing speech, an impending crisis, excitement over a new slogan or the impressive launch of a new product – all these are catalytic events and some are helpful. They do not produce, however, ripples and perhaps even waves of impact that result from catalytic mechanisms. In fact, excellent catalytic mechanisms, as long as they evolve, can last for decades, as in the case of the 15% rule for 3M.

A leadership team that only relies on catalytic events are left wondering why the momentum stalls after the first phase of euphoria – the excitement dissipates and people gravitate back to the way things have always been done. To produce enduring results, however, management must move away from producing a series of events to developing catalytic mechanisms. The same should be tied to recognition and reward systems – in other words, a clear message is sent to the whole company communicating “this is the behaviour that we value and notice”. It should not only reward innovation in product development, but also focus on creativity expressed in client relations, solving problems, innovative marketing and communications, team behaviour and employee contributions. The whole “value chain” within and without the company is thus recognised and reinforced.

Institutionalising creativity and innovation within a company requires an executive team to find appropriate catalytic mechanisms – systems and processes that encourage and reward desirable behaviour. This new direction and the investment that’s tied to the process will reap enduring results.

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