Post-It Notes: 4 Lessons for Innovators

philmckinney | January 20, 2014

Article

3M Post-It

I love the behind-the-scenes story of Post-it notes. How many of these little, yellow sorta-stickies are flagged around your house or your office? Did you know they were originally a mistake? A very very fortunate mistake.

As the story goes, Spencer Silver was a chemist and a very smart man. In 1968, he worked in the research labs at 3M. What he was trying to accomplish was a very strong and very quick-drying super glue. But something went awry, and he found himself with an adhesive that couldn’t keep its stick. Despite the error, he had a hunch that it came with potential. He just couldn’t figure out what that potential was.

He yammered to anyone at 3M who would listen that there was something–some use–for this failed formula. For years, the invention languished.

Then, in 1974–six years later–another 3M scientist, Art Fry, had an epiphany at church choir practice. The scraps of paper he used to keep place in his hymnal routinely fell out. This annoyed him. In a beautiful Hallelujah Chorus moment he realized what he needed was some kind of temporary adhesive, something that would keep the bookmarks in place but be easily removed without damaging the pages.

He returned to 3M and, using Silver’s adhesive, made himself bookmarks.

Eventually, he began using the adhesive to write simple notes to other colleagues around the office. The idea caught on. After being told by 3M that the company did not have the manufacturing capacity to make these sticky notes, Fry built a machine in his basement and did it himself. The demand outgrew the company’s perceived limitations, and Post-it notes went commercial in 1980.

There are important lessons for innovators in the Post-it note story:

1. Mistakes aren’t always mistakes. Look for potential.

2. Pay attention to your gut. Trust your instincts. Follow your hunches.

3. Persist.

4. When you’re told there isn’t a way, make one.

What do these four lessons mean to you, and how have you seen them at play in your own efforts? I’d love to hear your stories. Contact me.

  • Francisco De Jesùs

    Some or most of the inventions and innovations are cause of accidents or abandoned ideas even already patented. Brings to my memory the XEROX case who did not really invented the photocopy, the company just picked-up the abandoned patent buying it and surprise: success.

    • http://www.philmckinney.com/ Phil Mckinney

      Its a rare case where an innovator invents 100% of all of the elements needed for idea to be a commercial success … in fact, I can’t come up with one example.

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