How to Champion an Idea: Tips from the Invention of the Post-It Note

Last Updated May 6, 2010 11:04 AM EDT

This month marks the 30th anniversary of the Post-It note. The story of this great invention is a classic. A Brit, Geoff Nicholson, came to the U.S., where he joined 3M in 1963. Working in the commercial tape division, he ran into Spencer Silver, who had invented a pressure-sensitive adhesive that no one else took any interest in. Another 3M employee, Art Fry, had the idea of using it on a notepad made from yellow scrap paper, and he started using his notes to mark the pages of a hymn book.

Nicholson believed the product was great, but his managers weren't interested. He started passing around samples for his colleagues to try, and soon everyone wanted more. But the marketing director of the commercial tape division still didn't get it. Finally, Nicholson decided that each time he was asked for more of those handy note pads, instead of fulfilling the request, he'd pass it along to his obtuse marketing director. Eventually, the company tested the product by offering free samples to the citizens of Boise, Idaho. When 90 percent said they'd buy it, even the most recalcitrant executives could see they had a winner. Today, over 6 billion Post-Its are sold each year.

The story is justly famous because it defines an experience many of us have had: seeing something that our bosses simply can't appreciate. So what can we learn from Nicholson's frustrations?
  1. Don't just argue. In the end, what won the day was the fact that everyone in the division started using the product. They proved that demand existed and was persistent.
  2. Your own department is a great laboratory. If people around you won't use a product, it might not be as great as you think it is. You don't always need expensive market research tests to get some early data.
  3. Pilots work. Although they didn't think of it as a pilot, Nicholson and Fry essentially piloted the product when they made up their prototype notepads and started to use them. Pilots are a low risk way to test ideas and get substantial feedback.
  4. Don't give up. If you think you're right, stick to your guns and be prepared to be subversive.
There's one more important lesson here: We all, when we hear this story, imagine being the frustrated but brilliant inventor or the enlightened product champion. But imagine instead being the marketing boss, the guy who couldn't see the winning product in front of his nose. What are you doing to make sure you don't miss the next Post-It?
  • Margaret Heffernan On Twitter»

    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.

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