A Book from 2017: Stretch Goals and Prescriptions

Happy New Year!

Today’s post is a little outside my usual DevOps geekery, but it’s been an influencer on my work and my career choices this year so I wanted to share it.

For the record, I have zero connections to 3M.

In my teens, I noticed that whenever I bought something with the 3M logo it was noticeably better than the other brands. I didn’t know what 3M was, but this pattern kept repeating and I started to always choose them. Years later, deep inside a career in technology, I was still choosing 3M. I started to ask myself how they did it. Why were all their products better than everyone else’s?

I didn’t know anyone at 3M, so I found a book. The 3M Way to Innovation: Balancing People and Profit.

the3mwaytoinnovation.jpg

Balance? At work? And still better than everyone else? Bring it on.

The book approaches 3M through their innovations. They built hugely successful product lines in everything from sandpaper to projectors, and it turns out other companies have long looked to them as the top standard for the innovation that drives such diverse success.¬†As I worked through the book, one thing really stuck with me: 3M’s definition of Stretch Goals.

I’ve seen a lot of managers ask their teams what can be accomplished in the next unit of time (sprint, quarter, etc.). Often, the team replies with a list that’s shorter than the manager would like. The manager then over-assigns the team by adding items as “stretch goals”. If the team works hard enough and accomplishes enough, they’ll have time to stretch themselves to meet these goals. The outcome I usually see is pressure for teams to work longer hours (with no extra pay) so they can deliver more product (at no extra cost to the company).

This book described 3M’s stretch goals very differently, which I’ll summarize in my own words because it’s characterized throughout the book and there’s no single quote that I think captures it. 3M sets these goals to stretch an aspect of the business that’s needed for it to remain a top competitor, and they’re deliberately ambitious. For example, one that 3M actually used: 30% of annual sales should come from products introduced in the last four years.¬†Goals like these drive innovation because they’re too big to meet with the company’s current practices.

The key difference is that 3M isn’t trying to stretch the capacity of individuals. They’re not trying to increase Scrum points by pushing everyone to work late. They’re setting targets for the company that are impossible to meet unless the teams find new ways to work. They’re driving change by looking for things that can only be done with new approaches; things that can’t be done just by working longer hours. And after they set these goals, they send deeply committed managers out into the trenches to help their teams find and implement these changes. Most of the book is about what happens in those trenches. I highly recommend it.

There’s one other thing from the book I want to highlight: the process of innovation doesn’t simplify into management practices you can choose off a menu. There’s more magic to it than that. It takes skilled leaders and a delicate combination of freedom and pressure to build a company where the best engineers can do their best work, and trying to reduce that to a prescription doesn’t work. Here’s a quote from Dick Lidstad, one of the 3M leaders interviewed for the book, talking about staff from other companies who come to 3M looking to learn some of the innovation practices so they can implement them in their own teams:

They want to take away one or two things that will help them to innovate. … We say that maintaining a climate in which innovation flourishes may be the single biggest factor overall. As the conversation winds down, it becomes clear that what they want is something that is easily transferable. They want specific practices or policies, and get frustrated because they’d like to go away with a clear prescription.

I heard truth in that quote. Despite being a believer in the value of tools like Scrum, which are supposed to foster creativity and innovation, I’ve spent a lot of my career held back by the overhead of process that’s good in principle but applied with too little care to be effective. Ever spent an entire day in Scrum ceremonies? There’s more value in the experience of 3M’s teams overall than there is in any list of process.

This book was written in 2000, but not only has 3M stock continued to perform well, I found many parallels in the stories this author tells and my own experience in the modern tech world. It’s heavy with references and first-hand interviews, and I think it’s a valuable read for anyone in tech today.

If you read it, let me know what you think!

Adam