Scotch Tape and Incentivizing Innovation

Do you know why scotch tape is called scotch tape? I’ll tell you soon. First let’s explore its invention and the 3M business culture—where scotch tape was invented.

In <The Myths of Innovations>, author Scott Berkun pointed out that Google was not the first company willing to give its employees time to work on their own projects; 3M did the same thing but decades before. Back in 1925,lab assistant Richard G. Drew felt the need to mark borders on objects, and “after some experimentation on his own time, masking tape was born, and the history of 3M was changed forever.” (Scott Berkun, <The Myths of Innovations>,page 49) In 1930, after numerous experiments, Drew invented transparent sellotape. During the Great Depression this kind of tape was heavily used by people to mend items.

If the story ended here, then 3M would not have become a well-known international company. The key of 3M’s success lies in William McKnight (3M’s president)’s philosophy— making 3M a place that encourages innovation. In 1948, he stated his philosophy like this:

As our business grows, it becomes increasingly necessary to delegate responsibility and to encourage men and women to exercise their initiative. This requires considerable tolerance. Those men and women, to whom we delegate authority and responsibility, if they are good people, are going to want to do their jobs in their own way. Mistakes will be made. But if a person is essentially right, the mistakes he or she makes are not as serious in the long run as the mistakes management will make if it undertakes to tell those in authority exactly how they must do their jobs……’ (these remarks came from http://www.answers.com/topic/william-l-mcknight, and you can learn more about William McKnight from this page)

Tolerance in workplace is so hard to achieve, but a culture that encourages innovation will certainly boost more benefit in the long run. Innovation is a seed that needs proper soil and temperature. I remember last year a set of pictures taken in Google’s offices fascinated young people in China—we can’t imagine slides, hammocks and aquariums in offices. But the stylish office setting of Google is just a start. Today’s inventors need not only beanbag chairs in the meeting room, but also an ‘OK’ smile from their bosses when things don’t go right.

I believe the experiences of 3M or Google or any other companies that embrace innovation are worth our attention here in the public sector: Though the nature of public service may remain the same, the challenges of the environment, the change of learning tools all require new ways of thinking and collaboration. In here I am just touching the fringe of this broad topic—incentivizing innovation, but I know something to expect: in November, at ASTD’s conference, Mr. John Berry will give a speech–‘Workforce 2012 and Beyond: Plans to Incentivize Collaboration and Innovation to Improve Agency Outcomes.’

Finally, the answer you’ve been waiting for lies in page 49 of <The Myths of Innovations>:

‘According to legend, prototypes of the tape failed so miserably that Drew was scolded, told to take his tape back to his Scotch (i.e., parsimonious) bosses, and put more adhesive on it. He kept the name, and Scotch tape was how the product was marketed.’


Scott Berkun, The Myths of Innovation, August 2010, published by O’Reilly




Xin Wen is working for The Public Manager while studying communications at Georgetown University. She received her undergraduate degree from NanKai University in China, where she grew up. Contact her at [email protected] or [email protected].

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Andrew Krzmarzick

Great post – love how you made us wait for the answer at the end!

But that McKnight quote was awesome…I am printing it out and posting it on my wall!