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The year of innovation

A 3M chemist made a sub-par batch of glue that wouldn’t bond properly; another worker used it to stick bookmarks in his hymnal. The post-it note was born. It’s a legendary story that brought world fame to 3M — a small sandpaper company that has grown to $23 billion in annual sales worldwide.

Companies have been trying to duplicate the corporate climate that encourages such accidental brilliance ever since the 1968 Post-It® invention. 3M’s Alex Cirillo, who preaches innovation to organizations across the country, from the Coast Guard to major manufacturers, says it’s all about mixing up thought patterns to let ideas emerge. “The most creative people are able to bring solutions from all different kinds of sources — apparently unrelated to the problem.”

“Children are born with habit of mind to discover. As we grow up, we’re taught by our educational system to modify this habit. In some ways, the more education you have, the less innovative you become because you develop patterns on how to solve problems and how to think. Most innovation doesn’t seem to follow a pattern.”

“One of most creative people I know at 3M is a farm kid,” Cirillo says. “When a tractor breaks down, the farm kid gets the blasted thing fixed … with whatever he has on hand. That’s the way innovators attack a problem. They ask, ‘What do I have available that I can bring to bear on this problem?’ The most important question in the innovator’s mind is, ‘what if…’”

Teresa Spaeth, AURI executive director liked what Cirillo said about innovation when she chatted with him at a BioBusiness Alliance meeting last summer. “You hear about farmers or kids from farms being exceptional employees,” Spaeth says.“The assumption is it’s the work ethic. Yes, of course it is — but they’re also able to do anything with machinery. It’s the innovation style they are from.”

AURI asked Cirillo to lead an innovation workshop for AURI’s staff and board, which he did in October at 3M’s Innovation Center in Maplewood. The center brings in businesses from across the country — from automotive manufacturers to health-care companies — to find solutions with new technologies and products. “Someone like Boeing may want to solve a problem with rivets — they might find an adhesive that works better.”

Managing by inspiring

Cirillo, born in upstate New York, received his masters and doctorate in chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He has been with 3M for the past 28 years as a physicist, technical director, 3M Canada president, and various other management positions. He is now vice president of both 3M Community Affairs and the 3M Foundation.

Spaeth says she was intrigued by Cirillo’s description of 3M’s management style.

“They give permission to scientists to spend 15 percent of their time doing whatever they want to do — that fosters innovation. … Innovation is not top down — you can’t require it; you inspire it.”

Spaeth says last year’s AURI strategic plan was themed “collaboration and partnership.” In 2008, it’s “a year of innovation.” The two themes follow nicely, she says. “As Alex says, knowledge is power but shared knowledge is ultimate power.”

“We’re talking a lot about entrepreneurship and opportunity,” Spaeth says. “We’re looking for ways to inspire and energize Greater Minnesota. Research shows that communities that address innovation — and just have a conversation about innovation — show positive results.”

Gasifying biomass like corn stalks and sawdust for fuel — creating opportunity from waste — is a prime example of rural innovation, Spaeth says.

History of innovation

Many new products that AURI has helped bring to market came from unusual ways to solve a problem. In the early 1990s, a frugal cat owner didn’t want to buy expensive scoopable cat litters so he started trying his own recipes. Cement didn’t work, neither did airplane glue. But the ingredient “semolina” on a spaghetti box got him thinking that the high-gluten content might make litter sticky. Years later, after many refinements and ownership changes, “Swheat Scoop,” a wheat-based scoopable cat litter, is thriving in the marketplace. A variation just went on the market for horse bedding. (See Ag Innovation News, Oct-Dec 2007)

Around the same time, a company was looking for a way to make bigger batches of popcorn, used to protect breakables in shipping packages. AURI scientist Bill Stoll suggested going to Malt O’ Meal to check out their rice-popping technology. The cereal company, instead, suggested an extrusion process for “popping” starches. The biodegradable packaging peanut was born and is now a standard in the loosefill packing market — although the product name and owners have changed.

More recently, Bill Lee, an ethanol plant manager in Benson, went far outside the corn-fuel box to tap some unlikely markets. Chippewa Valley Ethanol Company now produces Shakers Vodka, organic and kosher alcohol for cosmetic, food and other markets, and has produced more E-85 in the past five years than any other plant in the country. It is also installing a biomass gasification system to produce its own power and is looking at ways to make ethanol from syngas. (see story page 8)

“The pace of innovation around the world has been tremendous” largely because of global access to the internet, Cirillo says. For example, an entrepreneur who “needs a decal that will stick on a truck for seven years, then can be removed, might look at technology from a wound-care dressing” that he finds on the internet, Cirillo says. “You need to see a problem in a different light.”

“Innovation has to do with access to information,” Cirillo says. “The Soviet Union hid their scientific
information up to the 1980s. Now they share with everyone in the world. When people give and get access to information, they have a leg up.”

What is AURI’s innovation challenge? “To use Minnesota resources to create energy, to create businesses and economic development, and to create intellectual property that creates investment in Minnesota, Cirillo says.

“The challenge is to bring up innovation and ideas.”

3M’s Alex Cirillo gives presentations nationwide on inspiring innovation in organizations. Creative problem solving doesn’t follow a pattern, Cirillo says. “The most important question in the innovator’s mind is, ‘what if…’”

7 laws of innovation

Alex Cirillo, 3M vice president of community relations and the 3M Foundation, gives presentations across the country on innovation. From observation and experience, he has developed seven laws that are the basis of his workshops.

1 Just because you can doesn’t mean you should To illustrate this point, Cirillo shows a Swiss army couch – a couch expanded from a jackknife. The caption reads “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” It is possible to make this couch, but who wants it or needs it? An innovation needs demand to succeed.

2 There is no such thing as a “long-term quick fix”

“Innovation takes its own time,” Cirillo says. “You might have a brilliant idea in the first 3 minutes or never have a brilliant idea. You can’t time it … it’s going to take as long as it’s going to take.”

3 Be multilingual — speak the language of other disciplines

The “languages” Cirillo refers to are different ways of thinking and speaking, “getting ideas and concepts from different sources.” Look at a solving a problem from the viewpoints of a mathematician, artist and philosopher, not just a scientist. The real innovator is the one who can translate and understand material from other disciplines.

4 Be clear about the context in which you are working

Keep your perspective: “Don’t bring major innovations to small problems and don’t bring small attempts to major problems.” Cirillo illustrates his point with a cartoon showing one fish saying to the other in a fish bowl, “If I’m right in my guess that this is the Atlantic, then we’re the biggest fish in the world.”

5 Know when to think in black and white and when to think in color

When approaching a problem, we need all types of people. Creative “rainbow” people know how to innovate but if they are left alone, “you’ll never get anything done.” You also need the analytical, driven “black and white” people and the “grays” who can see the anomalies. High performing, innovative teams almost always contain a diverse group of people.

6 Work hardest at building confidence in your people

“The worst kind of environment for innovation is censorship. Innovation is built around people taking chances, trying and failing. The last thing you want to teach adults is to put them in a box and make them feel uncomfortable when they get out of the box. Don’t start solving a problem from limitations — what I can’t do — start from the possibilities. The only way people can do that is if they’re confident.”

7 Make yourself and others excited about innovating

“Creative organizations are formed by the belief that anyone can be creative. If we don’t expect the secretaries and bean counters to be creative, they won’t. It’s not healthy for any organization to just coddle the scientists.”