Have you ever been frustrated when your sticky note didn’t stick? When a note loses its adhesiveness too quickly it is often because it is not a genuine 3M Post-it Note. Why can’t competitors match the original after all these years? The answer lies in small ideas.
A while ago I had the opportunity to talk with Art Fry, the 3M scientist who came up with the original Post-it Note, and ask him about the reason behind the staying power of one of his company’s most successful innovations. Dr. Fry quickly separated the legend of his breakthrough idea from the reality.
He confessed that while the concept for the Post-it did indeed come from a flash of insight for how to use an experimental adhesive that had failed its lab tests, the reason for the product’s ongoing commercial success is because of lots of small ideas from himself, technicians in the lab, production people, marketing staff, and many others. A number of these ideas addressed the challenge of keeping the sticky part of the note sticking to note rather than to the pad and the first surface it is tacked to.
We are easily fascinated by a break-through innovation while missing the importance of all of the little ideas coming from the front-line people across our organizations that are needed to make the innovation successful. Lots of small ideas are needed to refine the original concept to make it work effectively, produce and deliver it to customers or users, continually built upon it to increase its performance, lower its cost, and develop complementary products and services that enhance its utility. And, small ideas are often the seeds of breakthrough innovations.
The multi-faceted and synergistic interplay between innovation and small ideas means that if an organization wants more success with its innovation efforts, the most productive thing it can do is often to set up and develop an effective high performance idea system to generate lots of front-line ideas.
Perhaps the most ironic aspect of the relationship between small ideas and innovations is that small ideas actually provide more sustainable competitive advantage than innovations. As in the case of the Post-It, competitors can quickly copy the innovation, but find it much more challenging to duplicate all of the small ideas that gave an innovation its sticking power.