Creativity isn’t always about sudden insights that work perfectly. No matter how good an idea is, it’ll probably need some work before it can mature into a helpful innovation.
The invention of 3M Post-it (or the sticky note) is a particularly illuminating case in point that innovation requires actionable and differentiated insight. Cross-functional collaboration can help ensure creative involvement throughout the development process.
A Glue That Doesn’t Stick: A Solution Without a Problem
In the winter of 1974, a 3M adhesives engineer named Spencer Silver gave an internal presentation about a pressure-sensitive adhesive compound he had invented in 1968. The glue was weak, and Silver and his colleagues could not imagine a good use for it. The glue could barely hold two pieces of paper together. Silver could stick the glue and reapply it to surfaces without leaving behind any residue.
In Silver’s audience was Arthur Fry, an engineer at 3M’s paper products division. Months later, on a frigid Sunday morning, Fry called to mind Silver’s glue in an unlikely context.
Fry sang in his church’s choir and used to put little paper pieces in his hymnal to bookmark the songs he was supposed to sing. The little paper pieces of bookmark would often fall out, forcing Fry to thumb frantically through the book looking for the correct page. (This is one of those common hassles that we often assume we’re forced to live with.)
In a flash of lightning, Fry recalled the weak glue he’d heard at Silver’s presentation. Fry realized that the glue could be applied to paper to create a reusable bookmark. The adhesive bond was strong enough to stick to the page but weak enough to peel off without leaving a trace.
The sticky note was thus born as a bookmark called Press’n Peel. Initially, It was sold in stores in four cities in 1977 and did poorly. When 3M offered free samples to office workers in Boise, Idaho, some customers started using them as self-attaching notes. It was only then that Post-it notes started to become popular. They were first introduced across America in 1980 and Canada and Europe in 1981.
Ideas Intermingle and Evolve: Creativity Needs Collaboration
In all, it took twelve years after the initial discovery of the “glue that doesn’t stick” before 3M made Post-it available commercially. The Post-it continues to be one of the most widely used office products in the world.
This case study of the Post-it is a persuasive reminder that there’s a divergence between an idea and its tangible application that the creator cannot bridge by himself. The creator will have to expose the concept to diverse people who can evaluate, use, and trial the product.
In other words, the creative process does not end with an idea or a prototype. A happy accident often undergoes multiple iterations and reinterpretations that can throw light on the concept’s new applications. In the above example, Art Fry was able to see Spencer Silver’s invention from a different perspective and conceive of a novel use that its creator, Silver, could not. And all this happened in 3M’s fertile atmosphere that many companies aspire to create to help ideas intermingle and creativity flourish.
Idea for Impact: Creativity Is About Generating New Possibilities
Creativity is a mental and social process involving the generation of new ideas and concepts—and new associations that connect the ideas with existing problems.
Excellent new ideas don’t emerge from within a single person or function but at the intersection of processes or people that may have never met before.