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The 15 Percent Solution

by Paul D. Kretkowski

Summary: To continually create unheard-of products requires a big investment, as much in free-range experimentation as hard-corre resources, and 3M does this by handing out free time to employees who want to work on their own projects. [In our current excessively market-driven environment, creativity and long term intellectual investment have been suffering great losses. This is a refreshing breath of life for a more intelligent future. -rlv]

What if your boss said you could just daydream and play six hours each week, on the company's dime? A startling idea for those with stodgy supervisors, this is precisely what 3M Corp. asks of its scientists. [This could be stated in a better manner. The lead-in paragraph should appeal to creative people and to managers. As it stands now, to frightens managers. A bad start on a good topic. -rlv]

For decades, engineers at the St. Paul, Minnesota, company have spent up to 15 percent of work hours on their own projects, playing with ideas that have nothing to do with their job's mission. This unwritten rule of 15 percent dream time is so ingrained at 3M that "you can feel it right down to your toes," as one scientist put it.

3M bets heavily that informal, bottom-up scientific percolation will lead to profitable products, a wager reflected in its demands that 30 percent of each division's sales come from products less than four years old. And, of course, experimentation begets innovation. The 15 percent rule works a remarkable amount of the time; the best-known success story is scientist Art Fry's creation of Post-its while trying to create bookmarks that would stay put in the church choir's hymnals. By combining various paper coatings with a 3M colleague's adhesive invention, he made the first sticky notes.

John Martens, a scientist in 3M's industrial specialties division, says the 15 percent idea is "more of a philosophy that says you [can] pursue ideas of your own making.... And they can be totally outside what 3M is currently involved in."

Martens knows all about this. On 15 percent time in the late 1970s, he developed a polymer that hardens instantly when exposed to ultraviolet light. It was a cool concept, but sat gathering dust for years, until the laptop boom got 3M fired up about making "miles and miles of lenses cheaply." The lenses allow computers to project light onto the monitor in the most energy-efficient way possible, but old-fashioned processes to make them were time consuming.

3M's aggressive cross-pollination within the company introduced Martens' fast manufacturing process to other scientists' desire to make light-recycling lenses that saved on battery power - and now his invention helps make US$100 million worth of lenses a year. "We take a precision optical mold, and spread these materials into the mold, expose them to light, and in a fraction of a second they're hardened," Martens says.

3M is lucky to have "few boundaries on the way their engineers think about where the company can create a product," says management consultant Peter Ellis of Bain & Co. "Companies that have a narrower field of vision have to separate the efforts - they find you can't have the engineer who's working on Windows 98 have 15 percent of his or her day and walk around the Microsoft campus thinking about Windows 2010," he says.

But profit pressures and martinet bosses continually threaten 3M's research culture. Martens says that recently, he and other high-level scientists "discovered some laboratories where people are actually penalized for working ... on products that are unrelated to [that] division's business." Bill Coyne, a senior vice president of R&D, also saw a threat and created an Innovator Award in 1997, specifically for those who developed profitable items on 15 percent time.

Systematizing the 15 percent culture is something to be wary of, though, says Bain & Co. partner John Donahoe. "The whole notion of 'skunk works' [the term for Hewlett Packard's notoriously creative non-projects] is an informal- to maverick-oriented concept" that will wither if made formal, he says. [A distinction is required here, between any kind of formalization, or the intelligent kind as practiced by 3M. The earlier quote of "feeling it down to your toes", i.e. a part of the culture requires some kind of formalization in the company's processes. -rlv]

But most companies have a hard time with the notion of letting their staff work without structure. Much more common is Intel's expectation that new projects will be spawned without designated dream time. "There's no specific percentage of time that's allocated to creativity, but everyone's expected to be creative and take risks," says Intel spokesman Adam Grossberg. Hewlett-Packard has an "informal policy that encourages managers to give their scientists and researchers about 10 percent of their time to explore their own ideas," says spokesman Andrew Ould.

In the end, Bain & Co.'s Ellis thinks 3M's 15 percent time is valuable simply because it "makes it OK to daydream - and I don't think you can put that in a box and make it a two-hour slot in your day."