Jayshree Seth is a Corporate Scientist at 3M who currently holds 80 patents for a variety of innovations, with several additional pending. She was appointed 3M’s first ever Chief Science Advocate in 2018 and is using her scientific knowledge, technical expertise and professional experience to advance science and communicate the benefits of science and the importance of diversity in STEM fields to drive innovation. She has a MS and PhD in Chemical Engineering from Clarkson University, New York and bachelors of tech in chemical engineering form the prestigious NIIT Trichy in India.
On the Outthinkers Podcast, she dove deep into topics from her books, especially her latest, The Heart of Science, along with the fascinating Fast Company article she co-wrote with Outthinker Networks Thought Leader Advisory Board member, Rita McGrath, titled, A guide for managing innovation: 4 big mistakes technologists wish their business leaders would stop making. Seth has a lifetime of experiencing building bridges between science and business, something 3M is uniquely good at.
The Essence of Strategy: A Scientific Approach
Seth shared her definition of strategy, likening it to the scientific method—a systematic approach to solving a problem or understanding a situation. Strategy, at its core, involves observing a situation, raising questions, formulating hypotheses, conducting experiments, and analyzing results to draw conclusions. This iterative process emphasizes the importance of a strategic mindset over outcome orientation. The focus should not be on outcomes but on what needs to be done to achieve those outcomes. Strategy is the scientific approach to get to desired outcomes.
Bridging the Gap: Business Leadership and Technical Expertise
A significant chasm exists between business leadership and technical teams. Left unaddressed, that gap can undermine strategic execution. Seth underscored the importance for business leaders to understand micro-cultures and mindsets within organizations, for example, on their technical and engineering teams.
There is a significant difference between business and technical mindsets. Business leaders are under pressure to make an impact. Failure is discouraged. On the other hand, the technical community is typically much more comfortable with the unknown. Technical teams thrive in environments where experimentation and learning from failure are valued. Failure is an integral part of innovation.
Seth advocates for business leaders to embrace the technical mindset, understanding that failure is not a setback but a step forward in the innovation process.
Managing Innovation: Four Mistakes to Avoid
Drawing from her article, “A guide for managing innovation: 4 big mistakes technologists wish their business leaders would stop making,” co-authored with Rita McGrath, Seth highlighted four critical mistakes business leaders make in their interactions with technical teams and how to avoid them:
- Misdefining Ambition: Setting overly ambitious goals without understanding the technical complexities can lead to skepticism. Technical people know that big projects take time. Leaders should seek to understand the technical perspective and demonstrate commitment to long-term growth.
- Limiting Collaboration: Innovation thrives on collaboration and technical people are inherently curious. Leaders should encourage input from technical teams on strategic decisions, fostering a culture of mutual respect and curiosity.
- Underestimating Technical Challenges: While business leaders want to reduce cost while improving performance, technical people understand the real challenges of doing so. Significant advancements often require new scientific, technological, or infrastructure discoveries. Short-sighted strategies can have an impact on the long-term health of the organization. Business leaders should invest time and resources in understanding how to overcome these challenges by focusing on adding value for customers.
- Dismissing Technical Processes: When business priorities change, technical people lose time and innovation progress. For new leaders, it’s important to understand the current priorities to be able to make changes. Technical people want to feel reassured that their business leaders possess sound logic and reasoning.
Preventing these four mistakes can help business leaders work more effectively with their technical teams.
Empowering Innovation: 3M’s Unique Approach
3M stands as a beacon of innovation, largely due to its unique culture and practices that empower technical teams. In the episode, Seth shared three key characteristics that define 3M’s approach to fostering innovation:
- Culture of Empowerment: A “15% culture” allows employees to dedicate time to projects they feel will help the company, even if it’s something outside their job area.
- Technical Collaboration: The “Tech Forum” brings technical employees together to share challenges and solutions, promoting a collaborative environment that transcends organizational silos.
- Grant Programs: These programs support employees who pursue their innovative projects, providing financial resources and peer recognition, thereby nurturing a vibrant ecosystem of ideas and attract new talent.
Through these initiatives, 3M teaches skills like creative thinking, networking and influencing, and fundraising while building a strong legacy and culture of empowerment and collaboration.
Conclusion: A Call to Strategic Innovation
Seth’s insights offer a compelling call to action for strategy and innovation executives. By embracing a scientific approach to strategy, fostering a culture of collaboration and empowerment, and bridging the gap between business and technical teams, leaders can unlock the full potential of their organizations. In the ever-evolving landscape of business and technology, these principles serve as a roadmap for cultivating innovation and driving sustainable growth.