In their book, The Power of Pull, John Seely Brown and John Hagel write a lot about “innovation on the edges.” Instead of stocking assets and control in the center of an organization and managing and planning everything, they argue that organizations should pull resources in as they need them. They argue that a lot of critical innovations will be found on the edges of the organization or the network. I often describe the Media Lab as a place where we use undirected research to discover answers to questions that we haven’t asked yet because you don’t know to look there yet.
Truly disruptive innovation happens not through grants where you are paid to deliver an answer that you already suspect is true, or through other forms of incremental research. Instead, those novel, disruptive discoveries are found by searching in spaces where you don’t know the answer, or even what you’re looking for.
However, these “white spaces” where we “learn along the way” are often in areas adjacent to areas where we have core skills and knowledge. The ability to have strong peripheral vision and pattern recognition skills are essential to embracing serendipity and the exploiting opportunities to pivot into new areas while leveraging existing skills.
One of the best examples that I know of this kind of peripheral vision and pivoting is the story of the discovery of masking tape by 3M in 1925 by Dick Drew. In 1925, 3M was a sandpaper company. Back in those days, sandpaper was used to sand automobiles before painting. Apparently, two-tone cars were popular back then. Drew noticed that they were using strong tape and butcher’s paper to mask the paint. The problem was that when they took the tape off, it often ruined the paint job and they had to redo it.
According to the legend, Drew decided that 3M’s knowledge of adhesives and paper should help him invent a better adhesive tape for painting – masking tape.
Drew asked permission to develop masking tape from the then-President McKnight. McKnight told Drew that 3M was a sandpaper company and that he was not to conduct this research.
24 hours after giving up, Drew decided to start working on the development of masking tape anyway, contrary to McKnight’s express order. McKnight wandered into the lab where Drew was working on the tape, but instead of stopping him, walked away – a pivotal moment. Soon Drew discovered what he thought was the formula for making tape. Carefully staying under the radar by ordering equipment under the $100 limit of his authority by writing $99 checks, Drew ordered the equipment necessary to produce masking tape.
The rest is history. 3M developed a massive market in masking tape, and then expanded it further with Scotch Tape. Sandpaper, their original “core” mission, was shunted to the side, a mere ancillary revenue stream. Later, a similar story of innovation on the edges produced the Post It.
Many companies currently employ techniques such as Google’s “20 Percent Time” to allow employees to develop and pursue new technologies outside of their core. At the Media Lab, a little piece of me dies every time a visitor says, “That’s really interesting. Unfortunately, that’s not part of my area of work.”
As the speed of change and disruption increases and companies are challenged to be increasingly more agile, I think it’s essential to remember the story of Drew and McKnight and the healthy disobedience that turned 3M from a small concern into a giant corporation. Permission to innovate—and to play particularly in those contiguous spaces where serendipity has full reign—were the happy anomaly in the last century. But in our new one, they’ll prove to be the key to survival.
Photo by Fuzheado CC BY-SA