“Innovation” might be an overused buzzword in defence and security circles, but since the stand-up of the Canadian Innovation Commercialization Program (now Build in Canada Innovation Program) and the release of the Jenkins and Emerson reports, it has been central to the federal government’s message.
Randy Frank, technical director for 3M Canada and responsible for the company’s new product activity, has been telling 3M’s innovation story since 2005. He spoke with Vanguard editor and CGE associate editor Chris Thatcher about 3M’s approach to innovation and how those principles might be applied to a public sector organization like the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Armed Forces.
Governments and industry have placed a lot of emphasis on being innovative. Every federal budget seems to include new measures or incentives to encourage innovation. Why are we not innovative (or innovative enough)? How should we define innovation?
The word does get used very loosely, so it truly depends on how you define it. As a company, we define innovation as solving a problem in a new and creative way. And solving a real world problem is the key. It’s not just about being creative, it’s about actually getting to that practical outcome. Generally speaking, it is also not small, incremental change, and it is not obvious change; it is usually something that is out of the box and very different. That is how we define innovation and the culture we try and foster in the company.
Is Canada an innovative place to be? In many ways it is. There is some great work going on. But it is not so much the creative element as it is the practical element: how do you take a great idea and turn it into something real? That is the piece in the framework that needs additional support. We talk about funding, innovation process, access to markets, etc., which are all real issues, but having great people with passion able to approach problems in a new and creative way is also critical. The people part is a piece that is often overlooked, in my mind. I know from our own experiences that the most innovative products we have brought to market have been the result of very passionate and persistent people.
Most organizations will say their strength is their people. Is there a key to encouraging and supporting that passion that then spurs innovation?
We had very early leadership in the ’30s that instilled in the organization tolerance for mistakes, that allowed people freedom to do their job the way they wanted to do it. We live by a set of principles called the McKnight Principles, named after our chairman at the time, William McKnight, who really tried to instill the idea of giving people the latitude to do their job their own way. That kind of internal freedom creates an environment where people feel comfortable taking a few risks – responsible risks; they feel supported when they try new things and they don’t work out. True innovation is challenging by nature.
Culture isn’t something you just decide to change, it has to grow and evolve over time. William McKnight was a very forward thinker about how to create a culture of innovation but it didn’t happen overnight. We are very conscious of that winning strategy as a company and that we have to maintain that culture. If we find ourselves becoming in some instances overly structured, that squashes creativity and people’s passion. That being said, you have to be accountable and you have to be responsible at the same time, so it is a real balancing act to be able to say we want to foster creativity and innovation and at the same time be responsible and accountable to our shareholders.
Are there some key factors other organizations could adopt to find that balance?
Part of what allows us to collaborate well as a company internally is having a multi-disciplinary approach to problems. Typically we might have a chemist, an engineer, a marketing resource and a manufacturing person all working together to solve a problem. That multidiscipline approach ends up making our solutions both creative and practical.
Cultural change is a slow moving glacier. It takes a long time to get there, but that doesn’t stop it from happening one person or one team at a time. That is truly about identifying the innovators within your organization and connecting them with the right people. Having a truly innovative person matched with a get-it-done person works well and too much of one or the other often leads to failure. You need that balanced approach.
You mentioned change that isn’t obvious. Where do you find the “unobvious”?
That is another element of our culture that was also instilled some time ago – something we call 3M’s 15 percent time policy. It allows our researchers 15 percent of their time to do whatever it is that intrigues them. I’ll be walking through one of our laboratories and stop to chat with a researcher about what they are working on and, if they tell me it’s their 15 percent project, I’ll turn and walk away. Those projects need to be given time, since they are often where the truly innovative stuff comes from. There is typically some end-game in mind when they are doing the work – it’s not play – but it is usually in a space that has not been prescribed by management.
How do you then get that from the shop floor to the C-suite?
There are two answers. One, it is dangerous to try and move those ideas up too soon. They have to have some time to incubate; researchers need time to flesh them out before we start talking about them openly. That’s one of the reasons I turn and walk away; I don’t want to know too early in their thought process. If we elevate them too soon, they get killed.
The other piece is that those projects don’t always fit into an organization at the onset. Sometimes it has to sit on a back burner and simmer for a time. And later we might come back and say, we were working on something 10 years ago that might be perfect to solve this problem. And that is when you bring it to the forefront, make it visible and build it into a program. The best examples in our company, like the Post-It and Scotchgard, there was a lot of serendipity that went into those. Persistence and stubbornness also helped make those ideas a reality. People just wouldn’t take no for an answer and continued to work away at them. They were told no, went underground and kept at it. That might not be inherent behaviour in a military organization.
Is there a risk of losing ideas? Do you have a method to ensure good ideas don’t disappear when people move on?
For intellectual property reasons, we do have a rigorous process for capturing ideas including capturing the data that supports those ideas, in order to support patent filings in the future. Most folks in the research area would be capturing anything they invent through that system. But those ideas, because they are at a very early stage, typically aren’t on any project plan. We allow them just to incubate until we can say, this is ready for prime time. And then we will build a project plan around it. Generally it is very free flowing at that stage. Once you start structuring things, the creative element tends to go sideways.
Many innovations at some point involve the integration of other ideas or technologies: How do you select your partners?
In many cases we will work with an OEM (original equipment manufacturer) and provide them some innovative technology that they can use to make a product better. But we also do a lot of work with small and medium sized companies. We have several different models by which we work with them. For example, we have a group called 3M New Ventures that makes venture investments in SMEs to help fund their growth and at the same time provide them with technology that is going to help their products or services. This model allows us to offset risk, and improve the level of certainty about the return you’ll get on your investment. Working with SMEs can be risky because they are small and may not be around in 10 years – those things are always going to be a barrier to collaboration. But at the same time, if they are working in a space that is important to our customers or to economic trends, then the risk goes down. But we need to be very selective about who we chose to work with.
How well does that translate to a public sector organization that has even more difficulty with managing risk? Can you apply those 3M principles to an organization like National Defence?
It is certainly a different dynamic than it is for a publicly held company. But we have an accountability to the shareholders that is not dissimilar to what the government has to taxpayers. The other piece of the puzzle is that we always have a commercial end-game in mind when we do our work which doesn’t always align with the objectives of a defence organization. So it can be a very different equation that you want to consider but you can take those exact same principles and apply them to any aspect of any organization and benefit from them. Maybe how you balance them has to be a little different.
Public sector organizations like DND face the added challenge of trying to establish relationships without risking precluding companies from participating in a future procurement.
That is a big issue. To be candid, it is often a barrier to joint research with government because, at the end of the day, R&D is an investment decision and we decide based on our perceived return. If you do five or 10 years of research that then goes to an RFP, that’s a risky venture. It can be a barrier to innovative collaboration between government and industry.
Are there ways to address that, like strengthening the IP protection regime?
I think the fact that that conversation is happening is a great step in the right direction. We have regular dialogue with government and others on how to improve our innovation process, how to foster collaboration. Because it involves investment, it’s about certainty. The more certainty anybody can bring to the discussion is a good thing. It makes it an easier decision to say, yes, this is an effort worth making. When I talk about intellectual property with people, that is probably the biggest barrier within any creative-collaboration discussion: who owns intellectual property? How do you manage it? How do you decide where the ideas came from? Who is responsible for them? And, ultimately, who should benefit from them at the end of the day? It’s always a very complex conversation. It is one reason, frankly, why collaboration among industry consortia often breaks down.
Does a focus on key industrial capabilities help or limit how you operate?
It certainly doesn’t restrict or limit what we can do. What it does maybe do is redirect some of the incentives to SMEs versus a big multinational. The same investments we make in Canada on a small scale we make on a global scale; an OEM has to not only compete in the Canadian landscape but also the global landscape. Incentive from government is one of the levers I use to justify investment in Canada. As those things face attrition, it becomes a more challenging discussion. If we want to tackle a problem that is important to the people of Canada or the Canadian government or the military, then I have to compete for resources with the other parts of the world – that can prove challenging.
Is something like the Build in Canada Innovation Program approach too narrow, then?
It is a little bit narrow since the focus is very much on entrepreneurs and it’s not clear how it applies to multinational companies with innovation capacity in Canada. Like in any company or organization, you have to have some overlying strategy behind what you are doing. What objectives do we hope to achieve? Create jobs and drive innovation? I think those kinds of programs are intended to drive that. The danger is to slip between the strategic level and the operational level, and that happens a lot, where you have an overlying strategy but you end up applying too many operational guidelines that stifle creativity and innovation. Lay out the strategy, know what you want your outputs to be, and then let the people do the work.
Are there steps you would like to see government take?
Many of the current government initiatives are focused on SMEs and although this is an important piece of the puzzle, it leaves a large and innovative group of companies out of the equation. Frankly, from the perspective of a large multinational like 3M, I think government should explore other ways to work with big companies as well as those small and medium sized enterprises.
Finally, do you see areas for innovation that perhaps military organizations are not yet capitalizing on?
We are primarily a material science company and there have been lots of advances in material science over the years – things like composites, nanotechnology, alloys and so on – that I’m not sure military organizations have kept up with or had enough time to think through what the best application spaces are. I often talk about problem definition versus solution definition; some more dialogue around the problems military organizations face that is not overly prescriptive about defining what the solution should be would be an interesting approach to take. When we work with our customers, we are really trying to understand our customer’s problem. We’re not trying to get our customer to tell us what to do to solve their problem. I think the same approach could be taken in this context, to talk about the root cause of a problem and then let the creative people figure out the solution.
Is this discussion happening early enough?
Recognition that something has to change is really what it is about. And certainly that recognition is there today. What the solution looks like is not clear, but everybody recognizes that there is a problem and the problem needs to get solved. How we are going to do it is still a bit of a question mark.