Innovation lessons from Silly Putty

In times like these, many people are waiting for better times to take action, to try new things or to create change but that is not the solution. To succeed, you must act, seek and welcome change and go beyond the norm, today. Here are 8 lessons from Silly Putty on how you can "eggceed" expectations.

During these challenging, turbulent times, you need to work even harder to survive and thrive. There are continual waves of change that you need to ride. Many people will be frozen – waiting for better times to take action, to try new things or to create change but that is not the solution. To succeed, you must act, seek and welcome change and go beyond the norm. Here are 8 lessons from Silly Putty – that pliable stuff packaged in small egg-like containers – on how you can “eggceed” expectations.

1. Have fun: Silly Putty was one of the most successful toys of the 20th century, loved by children of all ages for how it bounces, stretches and copies. Use it in meetings, training classes, conferences or while you are at your desk to develop a fun, but productive environment and to help keep the enthusiastic, innovative, no-boundaries child in you alive. It is easy to get frustrated with work and be negative in this economy. Focus on the positive and make your work enjoyable. If you enjoy your work and have fun, you WILL be more successful.

2. Stretch in many different ways: You need to be flexible as Silly Putty and take on new tasks and seek out work that you may never have done. Continually learn new skills, go after work in different areas to broaden you background, agree to take on some work previously done by laid off staff, but remember not to stretch yourself too thin. Otherwise, as with Silly Putty, you may ‘snap’.

3. Continually try new things: An engineer in a GE lab in 1943 was trying to develop an inexpensive substitute for synthetic rubber for the WWII effort when he developed what would become Silly Putty. Only experimenting will new successes be developed. What new ideas have you tried at work lately?

4. Expand and work your network: GE sent the putty developed in 1943 to engineers around the world trying to find a use for it, but the engineers could see no practical use for it [editor's note: This looks like a very early example of open innovation, doesn't it?]. Who beyond your team, department or company do you ask for new ideas, support, advice or see as part of ‘your team’? Develop your network within your department, company and beyond. The people might not always be able to help you, but will probably be able to guide you to someone who can. The larger your network you develop, the greater your success.

5. Reframe: Look at things in new ways, through a different frame of reference – looking for potential. Silly Putty was developed in 1943 in a GE Lab but only 6 years later did someone, Peter Hodgson, see the potential of it as a toy. The rest is history. After Silly Putty was successful as a toy, practical uses were found for it. Some of the many varied and unique uses found for silly putty include being used on the Apollo 8 flight to fasten down tools during the weightless period, being used by athletes to strengthen their grip and endless other non-toy uses. Strive to welcome different ideas, challenges, processes, products or concepts as positive opportunities. How you see the opportunity, your ‘frame of reference’, will determine how you approach it. Look for the positive in each opportunity and for its potential. What challenging opportunity are you currently dealing with and how can you reframe it into a positive?

6. Take risks: Peter Hodgson was unemployed and in debt by $12,000. when he borrowed $173. for the initial production of Silly Putty. That was in 1950 and it is still sold today, about 60 years later! Silly Putty made Peter very wealthy – when he died in 1976 at 64, his estate was worth $140. million US. Remember, there is often greater risk is doing nothing or not changing, than in taking action, even if it seems risky. What “risks” have you taken lately at work?

7. Stay confident. Don’t give up: Have confidence in your skills and ideas and their potential. Remember, though, it often takes a lot more time than you would expect to implement change or get buy-in for new ideas and produce the desired results. In 1949, a toy store owner who came across the putty GE could not find a practical use for, worked with Peter Hodgson to create her new catalogue and they decided to include the putty in it. Even though the putty outsold everything in the catalogue but Crayola crayons, the toy store owner didn’t keep selling it. A setback for Peter, but he did not give up.

In February 1950, Silly Putty was introduced at the International Toy Fair in New York, a great opportunity for it to be seen by marketers but almost all of them encouraged Peter Hodgson to give up on his idea of selling silly putty. Another set back but Peter again did not give up. He got Silly Putty into a few stores – Neiman-Marcus and Double Day Bookstores. He created a company and began shipping the eggs of Silly Putty. In 1951, the US government put restrictions on silicone for it was needed for the Korean War and that almost put Peter out of business for it was needed to make Silly Putty. Again, another setback. Again, Peter did not give up. Would you have?

The next year, in 1952, the restriction was lifted and the production of Silly Putty resumed. How do you deal with set backs? Believe in your ideas, as Peter did, even if others don’t support you or try to knock you down, or they take longer than you expect to put into action, keep working to make your ideas reality. Your degree of confidence and persistence will determine your degree of success.

8. Communicate for results: Communicate your ideas, concerns or messages about your services or products in a way so that they are heard and get the desired result. Silly Putty was for sale in Doubleday Bookstores around Easter 1950 but not until August that year, about 5 months later, when it was mentioned in The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” section, did sales really take off – over three-quarter million orders in 3 days!

People often can’t keep up with the amount of information that they receive – whether it be by via email, voice mail, meetings or otherwise. How you communicate with people makes a difference and helps determine if you will get their attention or not. Stay focused on the end result every day. You may have a great idea, concept or concerns that need to be addressed, but only when you can make them known to and heard by the decision makers or those who can and will take action, will you be able to ‘go beyond’ and be even more successful. What can you change about how you communicate to improve the results that you get?

Determine your definition of success. Write down ways that you can use each of the above lessons to help you to ‘eggceed’ expectations and go beyond to reach your goals. By using all 8 lessons, you will survive and thrive in today’s challenging times.

Wendy Moore is an innovative HR professional with a passion for researching innovative, high performance cultures and developing innovative training to help teams reach new heights. She has over 10 years HR experience, works for an international HR consulting firm in Toronto and always strives to “eggceed” expectations. Wendy can be reached at wmoore@altunltd.com.

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