Today’s smartphone, laptop and TV screens are all faced using a product called “multilayer optical film.” It’s a 3M innovation that helps diffuse light, making screens brighter while reducing energy use. And it came out of a project connected to what’s called “15% culture” at 3M — a license allowing employees to devote 15 percent of their time to exploring technologies and ideas beyond their day-to-day work.
You could argue that almost every new product we have at 3M came out of a 15% project, because it came out of an idea.
“You could argue that almost every new product we have at 3M came out of a 15% project, because it came out of an idea,” says John Banovetz, 3M’s senior vice president of research and development, and chief technology officer. “And that idea had to start somewhere — someone had to start working on it to solve the problem.”
Banovetz stresses it’s not a formal program requiring management approval. Rather, it’s set into motion as employees choose to dig into work they’re passionate about. From there, they can collaborate with one another, share their ideas at companywide “tech forum” networking events and submit success stories to annual competitions.
Why 15%? The idea is officially credited to William L. McKnight, a longtime 3M president and chairman of the board who in 1948 said, “Hire good people and leave them alone. Delegate responsibility and encourage men and women to exercise initiative. 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.”
The importance of initiative remains to this day. “It’s about encouraging people to set aside some time and resources for innovative ideas they want to work on,” Banovetz says. “It creates value for 3M, not just from a culture and philosophy point of view but actually in good ideas and good products.”
The 15% culture also serves as a workplace differentiator for 3M, especially as companies compete for skilled employees in areas such as data science and analytics. “It helps us convey that we’re not a programmatic culture, meaning you’ll come in and work on these three programs and then your boss will give you the next one,” Banovetz says. “You actually have some say on what you work on.”
That work increasingly focuses on purpose. “Particularly for millennials, it’s a fantastic message we’re able to convey,” Banovetz says. “You have the opportunity to follow your own personal purpose and initiative within the framework of 3M. That’s part of our advantage. It’s very rare that someone can’t find their own purpose within 3M.”
ILLUSTRATION by Greg Mably