Line Thinking at 3M

September 9, 2013  

3mFrom my experience, 80% of innovations within most companies are “dot solutions.” That is, innovations are typically developed by individuals from a single domain of expertise. Deep expertise is valued. Dig deep wells.

(for more on my perspectives on dot vs line thinking, please read my article from a while back – this is a critical concept for innovation – I discuss it further in “Best Practices Are Stupid”)

While spending time recently at 3M, I learned that 80% of their innovations are “line solutions.” That is, multiple domains of expertise are involved. For example, they might blend expertise from adhesives with expertise from abrasives to develop a new solution. Although this may be unusual within other organizations, at 3M, this is the norm. They are masterful at connecting dots.

But is this connected approach valuable?

They shared with me some recent research they’ve been conducting. The results are fascinating.

In a nutshell, they found that…

Line thinkers within 3M – based on the number of patents they contributed to in different areas of expertise – contributed significantly higher financial returns for the organization.

In other words, the people who became exceptionally deep experts and never used that expertise to contribute to different parts of the business were less valuable than those who made contributions to a wide range of products.

The financial impact of line thinking is staggering.

And although this approach is not the norm in most organization, it can certainly be encouraged through shifting the culture to one that recognizes and rewards these types of contributions.

P.S. I’ll share more detail when the 3M research is officially published. But trust me, the results are impressive.

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