In 2002, 3M published a paper celebrating its 100-year history and the lessons they have learned about developing a culture of innovation titled 3M – A Century of Innovation. It is a wonderful look at the innovative nature of this company.

Here are a few lessons from 3M that illuminate the relationship between innovation, protective environments, and patience.

Give Protection to Embryonic Ideas

New ideas that lead to innovation require protection until they can grow, become sharper, and the potential becomes known. Greenhouses, like innovative ideas, provide protection for new plants that can’t survive in the outside environment until they are stronger and more resilient.

I live in a cold climate and towards the end of spring, I want to start planting seeds. However, spring is unpredictable and cold snaps can kill flowers or vegetables if they are planted outside too soon. A greenhouse allows early planting and protection.

Organizations who want more innovation need to find their version of idea greenhouses. What are the ways your organization can protect new ideas or ways of working? Are there places that new ideas can incubate? How do we encourage original thinkers in our organization? Is there an openness to heretical ways of thinking or do they get “killed off” because the culture is inhospitable to an idea whose value is not yet recognized?

Big Ideas Need Time to Germinate

Like greenhouses, we plant seeds that need time to germinate and grow. We don’t plant them in the garden until they are grown enough to sustain life outside the greenhouse. Ideas also need time to germinate. Innovative ideas require people who are patient with the time delays associated with growing an idea into a powerful innovation.

Greenhouse seedlings

In an organization, we need people who are willing to invest in ideas that take time to manifest and are willing to give people the time and resources to allow an idea to grow. This is what made 3M so successful at innovating. They unleashed people’s creative capacity by allowing their employees to experiment with new ideas of their own. Over time, products like post-it-notes and painter’s tape became strong revenue streams for the company.

This strategy required managers and leaders to take a longer view. They weren’t focused on being efficient in the short-term; rather, they focused on investing in daily creativity that would pay off over time. This long-term view has allowed 3M to support the germination of the ideas that come from their employees. The number of patents they hold as a company is proof of this culture’s value. In 2014, they surpassed 100,000 patents – a remarkable achievement.

Organizational Greenhouses

If we were to learn from 3M, we would design our organizations to create conditions conducive to innovation. One way they do this is through their 15% program that encourages employees to set aside a portion of their work time to proactively cultivate and pursue innovative ideas that excite them. While day-to-day responsibilities are still executed, employees get the space to try something new and different, think creatively and challenge the status quo. Whether it’s experimenting with a new technology, forming a special interest group around a fresh idea or finding a new way to run a process, 3M’s 15% culture gives employees in all areas the license to innovate.

The foundation of 3M’s collaborative and organizational culture started with William McKnight, who served as President and then Chairman of the Board for 37 years. He was a visionary in his perspective on people and innovation. These principles are how 3M creates conditions conducive to innovation:

  • Hire good people and leave them alone
  • Delegate responsibility and encourage men and women to exercise their initiative
  • Discourage management that is destructively critical when mistakes are made because it kills initiative
  • Develop and encourage as many people as possible within the organization to take initiative, so we can continue to grow

What are your organization’s greenhouses? Places that protect new ideas, so they can grow strong and live in less protected environments? Where are your pockets of innovation in your organization and what can you learn from them? Remember, nature experiments all the time but only replicates what works.


Dr. Kathleen E. Allen is the author of Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World (2018) and President of Allen and Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in leadership, innovation, and organizational change. She writes a blog on leadership and organizations that describes a new paradigm of leadership that is based on lessons from nature and living systems at