Joe’s Journal: On Opportunity and Post-it Notes

Posted on: July 30th, 2011 by bobmorris

Here is the latest post by Joseph A. Maciariello featured in the Joe’s Journal series at the Drucker Exchange (Dx) sponsored by the Drucker Institute. The Drucker Exchange (the Dx) is a platform for bettering society through effective management and responsible leadership. It is produced by the Drucker Institute, a think tank and action tank based at Claremont Graduate University that was established to advance the ideas and ideals of Peter F. Drucker, the father of modern management.

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“When a new venture does succeed, more often than not it is in a market other than the one it was originally intended to serve, with products or services not quite those with which it had set out, bought in large part by customers it did not even think of when it started, and used for a host of purposes besides the ones for which the products were first designed. If a new venture does not anticipate this, organizing itself to take advantage of the unexpected and unseen markets; if it is not totally market-focused, if not market-driven, then it will succeed only in creating an opportunity for a competitor.” – Peter F. Drucker

Peter Drucker thought the unexpected event, success or failure, was one of the most important sources of innovation. I love the story behind the development by 3M of Post-it notes. We discuss it in our book Drucker’s Lost Art of Management: Peter Drucker’s Timeless Vision for Building Effective Organizations, published by McGraw-Hill (2011), because of its power to illustrate one of Drucker’s most important sources of innovation. He urges us to systematically look for opportunities in unexpected successes and failures.

In 1970 Spencer Silver, a 3M researcher, was trying to invent a strong adhesive product but found that the one he had been working on was too weak for its intended use.Meanwhile, in 1974, his associate, Arthur Fry, was trying to keep his place in his hymnal at church and the pieces of paper he used as placeholders for various hymns were always falling out leading to frustration and time waste. So, he remembered his colleague Silver’s failed attempt to develop a strong adhesive and was able to retrieve some of the material and try it out in his hymnal. While it was too weak for Silver’s use, it was perfect for Fry’s. He could insert it and pull it off a page and then re-insert it on another page. Wondering if he had a successful product, Fry received permission to carry out a low-cost probe within 3M, and then he sent it to the CEO of the company. Then it went to major CEOs around the country as part of a market research effort. When the results came back positive, 3M launched the Post-it note commercially.

Now there are Post-it note dispensers, tabs, flags, highlighters, etc. The Post-it note became one of the most successful office product lines in business history. All this from an unexpected failure! Here is Drucker’s advice that I have found useful: Read The Wall Street Journal or The Economist from cover to cover (easier now to do online). If you find your nose “twitching” over something you did not expect, make note of it [on a Post-it?] and follow it up from time to time. [Isaac Asimov once observed, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka’ but ‘That’s funny’…”] You may have discovered a potential innovation from the unexpected news event. The early blogs on The Daily Drucker were frequently from investors looking for investment opportunities. No one had targeted investors with that book, but it was a heck of an idea. An unexpected market. If you try to innovate and fail, think of other markets for your products or services. You may be surprised. Good luck!

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Joseph A. Macieriello

Joseph A. Maciariello is the Horton Professor of Management & Director of Research and Education, The Drucker Institute. You can contact him directly at joseph.maciariello@cgu.edu.

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