Look for the Gap

plant-714583_640In the 1920’s, two-tone automobiles were popular. Body shop employees, however, were often frustrated with the process of painting the vehicles. To mask off the cars, they used newspaper or butcher paper glued to the vehicle. The process was messy and the paper was difficult to remove once the painting was completed.

As a salesman, Richard Drew was regularly subjected to the complaints (and profanities) of those involved in the work. Drew worked for the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company and sold the sandpaper used to prepare automobiles for painting. Identifying a gap, he went to work on developing a better solution to the paper and glue method of masking vehicles.

For two years, Drew worked on perfecting a new tape that would make the masking process easier. An executive at the company told him to “stop messing around” and focus on his job of selling sandpaper; but Drew continued working on his idea in his spare time after hours. Eventually he delivered a sample for the body shop employees to try out.

Drew’s tape had adhesive along one edge and didn’t hold very well. The workers told him to go back to the drawing board. They had no use for his “Scotch” tape. At the time, “scotch” was a term used to describe something cheaply made and not worth much.

Drew perfected his design and created what we now know as masking tape. The name Scotch Tape stuck and he received a patent for his work in 1930. His success prompted him to continue working on a clear, cellophane-backed tape still widely used today. You probably have some sitting on your desk.

Success often lies in identifying a gap and finding a way to fill the need that’s represented. It takes time, dedication, a desire to learn from failure, and even the ability to persevere in spite of opposition from others. If the idea is sound, it can take on a life of its own and create even more opportunities for growth.

Drew went on to be a division head at his company, which changed its name to 3M. He encouraged his team to experiment, saying “If it’s a dumb idea, you’ll find out. You’ll smack into that brick wall, then you’ll stagger back and see another opportunity that you wouldn’t have seen otherwise.” By 2000, products originating from Drew’s small department had earned 30 patents and accounted for 20% of all sales.

Drew referred his Scotch tape experience “the gift of finding something valuable in something not even sought out.” William McKnight, the executive who told him to stop pursuing his idea, became chairman of 3M’s board of directors. He created a policy that allowed engineers to spend 15% of their time on passion projects. That same policy has been implemented by numerous other organizations and has resulted in innumerable new innovations across many different industries.

How much does your team value innovation?