Innovation: The Story of Post-It Notes

I’ve been mulling how you synthhesize leadership with meeting the real needs of customers. I think the answer lies in prototyping.

Bringing ideas to market that touch the hearts and minds of customers is best accomplished via rapid prototyping, using small pilot projects. People react to prototypes more reliably than to surveys or coming up with ideas themselves.

The story of how Post-It Notes came to market is instructive.

They’re little and they stick — but not too hard. That’s why everyone loves Post-it® Notes! Yet the unique adhesive that makes these little notes so indispensable waited more than a decade for its chance to change the world.

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Dr. Spencer Silver, a 3M scientist, discovered the formula for the sticky stuff back in 1968. But it was Silver’s colleague, Art Fry, who finally came up with a practical use for it. The idea for repositionable notes struck Fry while singing in the church choir. His bookmark kept falling out of his hymnal, causing him to lose his page. So, taking advantage of a 3M policy known as the “bootlegging” policy, Fry used a portion of his working hours to develop a solution to his problem. Now the world is singing the praises of his pet project: Post-it® Notes.

After years of product development, 3M introduced the concept of Post-it® Notes in four major markets in 1977. But, without actual samples in hand to try, consumers didn’t catch on.

A year later, 3M blanketed the Boise, Idaho, market with samples upon samples of Post-it® Notes. After trying the notes, more than 90 percent of users said they’d buy the product themselves. The test was a success! By 1980, Post-it® Notes were being sold nationally. Today, they’re used and enjoyed throughout the world.

“If a picture a picture is worth a thousand workds, we’ve found a good prototype is worth a thousand pictures.”

Tom Kelly CEO of IDEO

Reacting to the success or failures of prototypes allows a company to lead and be customer focused. At the same time it allows a company to manage the cost of its R and D and product development areas, manage its risks and be in the position to seize opportunities.

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1968 Dr. Spencer Silver discovers a unique, repositionable adhesive while working as a Senior Scientist in 3M’s Corporate Research Lab.

1974 Silver shops his adhesive around to other 3M scientists, trying to discover a problem that the adhesive can solve.

1977 While singing in his church choir, Art Fry, another 3M scientist, tires of losing his place in the hymnal. He dreams of a bookmark that’s lightly adhesive. Then he remembers Silver’s adhesive, and his dream begins to become real.

1978 Fry overcomes manufacturing obstacles to produce enough Post-it® Notes to supply 3M’s corporate headquarters, and 3M employees are soon hooked.

1979 After test markets show mixed reactions to Post-it® Notes, marketers realize that the secret to success depends upon sampling the product. Marketers travel to Boise, Idaho, to launch the famous sampling effort known as the Boise Blitz. After saturating the office supply industry with samples, an astonishing 90 percent of consumers who try the product say they’ll buy it. The product is given the green light by management.

1980 Post-it® Notes are introduced in 11 Western states with heavy sampling. The test is such a success, that consumers start shipping the notes to their co-workers in cities where the product is not yet available.

1981 Post-it® Notes are introduced nationally in the United States. Lee Iacoca and other Fortune 500 CEOs write to say how much they love the product.

1990 Post-it® Notes are introduced in Canada and Europe.

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