33 3M's Post-it Notes: A Managed or Accidental Innovation?
P. RANGANATH NAYAK AND JOHN KETTERINGHAM
In late 1978, the bleak reports from the four-city market tests came back to the 3M Corporation. The analyses were showing that this "Post-it Note Pads" idea was a real stinker. Such news came as no surprise to a large number of 3M's most astute observers of new product ideas, for this one had smelled funny to them right from the beginning! From its earliest days, Post-it brand adhesive had to be one of the most neglected product notions in 3M history. The company had ignored it before it was a notepad, when the product-to-be was just an adhesive that didn't adhere very well. The first product to reach the marketplace was a sticky bulletin board whose sales were less than exciting to a company like 3M. But why was this adhesive still around? For five years, beginning before 1970, this odd material kept coming around, always rattling in the pocket of Spencer Silver, the chemist who had mixed it up in the first place. Even after the adhesive had evolved into a stickum-covered bulletin board, and then into notepad glue, there was manufacturing saying that it couldn't mass-produce the pads and marketing claiming that such scratch pads would never sell. So by 1978, when the reports came in from the test markets, it seemed everyone who'd said disparaging things about the Post-it Note Pad was right after all. 3M was finally going to do the merciful thing and bury the remains. At that critical moment, it was only one last try by two highly placed executives, Geoffrey Nicholson and Joseph Ramey, that kept "those little yellow sticky pads" from going the way of the dinosaur.
To understand Silver's persistence with his innovative commercial challenge, it is necessary to go back to his moment of discovery. Silver's role in the development of Post-it Note Pads began in 1964 with a "Polymers for Adhesives' program in 3M's Central Research Laboratories. The company has always had a tradition of periodically reexamining its own products to look for ways to improve them. "Every so many years," said Silver, "3M would put together a bunch of people who looked like they might be productive in developing new types of adhesives." In the course of that "Polymers for Adhesives" research program, which went on for four years, Silver found out about a new family of monomers developed by Archer-Daniels Midland, Inc., which he thought contained potential as ingredients for polymer-based adhesives. He received a number of samples from ADM and began to work with them. This was an open-ended research effort, and Silver's acquisition of the new monomers was the sort of exploration the company encouraged. "As long as you were producing new things, everybody was happy," said Silver. "Of course, they had to be new molecules, patentable molecules. In the course of this exploration, I tried an experiment with one of the monomers to see what would happen if I put a lot of it into the reaction mixture. Before, we had used amounts that would correspond to conventional wisdom." Silver had no expectation whatsoever of what might occur if he did this. He just thought it might be interesting to find out. In polymerization catalysis, scientists usually
This article is a modified, shortened version of a chapter from P. R. Nayak and J. M. Ketteringham's book Breakthroughs, an Arthur D. Little international study of 16 major innovations (Rawson Press, 1986). Published with permission of ADL with...