Unleashing smart people (5×8 – 8/3/12)

Lessons from the LED bulb, waiting on Mars, aiming low for happiness, return of the photo booth, and the shelf cloud.


If you’re a longtime fan of 3M’s approach to inventions, you have to love today’s Pioneer Press account of a new lightbulb — an LED lightbulb — that will debut in stores in a few weeks. The lightbulb that sips, rather than sucks, electricity — even with a $25 pricetag — is interesting enough, but the story is a reminder of what can happen when a business lets smart employees do what they’re capable of doing — being smart — even if it means coloring outside the lines that we’re taught to obey.

This section of the story is the key:

Long-term success for the bulb could involve licensing the technology to others, he said, or finding a way to mass produce the bulb to bring down the price.

3M’s Johnston started dabbling in LED light technology a few years ago after talking to Tom Simpson, a laboratory manager in the company’s display and graphics business in Maplewood. Simpson, who gets credit for the bulb’s inception, had a group that was starting to focus on solid-state lighting.

“I told Ray to go talk to the lighting guys and try to hit a home run,” he said.

Johnston worked on the idea for two to three years, and it started to secure “strong business interest” from within 3M about 18 months ago, he said.

The 3M team involved in developing the bulb “joyfully ignored boundaries to make this thing go, and go quickly,” Simpson said.

For a company long recognized for approaching things differently, it’s a good reminder that while the CEOs get the big bucks in today’s universe, it’s still the smart employee who makes or breaks companies.

This is a reality that has been well documented in a number of books about the nation’s top companies. That so many businesses haven’t followed suit is, at best, puzzling.

Today’s discussion point: Does your company unleash you?


We’re just a few days away now from the Mars science lab landing on the planet. If the event is half as good as some of the animated videos about the Curiosity, it’ll be fantastic. Here’s the latest:

Related: A manned landing on Mars could be a decade away, one expert says. Don’t hold your breath.


Sometimes we think about things too much. NPR reports today that silver medal winners at the Olympics tend to be unhappier than those who finish third.

For decades, psychologists have noted an irony in elite athletic competition: If you set aside the happy people who win gold and look only at the people who come in second and third, it’s the men and women with bronze medals who invariably look happier than the athletes who won silver.

More than a century ago, William James noted: “So we have the paradox of a man shamed to death because he is only the second pugilist or the second oarsman in the world. That he is able to beat the whole population of the globe minus one is nothing; he has ‘pitted’ himself to beat that one; and as long as he doesn’t do that nothing else counts.”

Researchers claim people who finished second tend to compare themselves to the people who finished first, while people who finished third tend to compare themselves to people who didn’t win a medal.


Photo booths are making a comeback. Digital is so yesterday, the L.A. Times says:

So what’s behind the photo booth revival? At heart, I think it is a longing for authenticity. When we don’t like a cellphone photo, we hit delete and do it over. Photo booth photos are of the moment. Once the money is plunked into the little metal slot, we have to live with the consequences.

“I’m so over digital,” said Bess Byers, a Venice marketing researcher darting out of the One-Eyed Gypsy’s vintage booth. “With film you only have one shot and that’s that. You have to make it count.”

In the digital world, “you could take a picture of a cockroach and make it look like Godzilla,” Orange County resident Fernando Lazaro, an office worker, said, explaining why he and a friend ducked into the photo booth one night last week at the One-Eyed Gypsy bar downtown. But in the photo booth world, “this is real.”

Related: Sort of.


Here are three things most Americans take as an article of faith, according to CBS: The sky is blue. The pope is Catholic. And politicians are liars. Why do they lie so much? Because we expect them to, some experts say. Is that on us? Or them?

Bonus I: Time lapse of a shelf cloud in La Salle, MN. Filmed on Wednesday. As I’ve said before, nobody has better clouds than Minnesota.

Bonus II: Is a sign calling for the deportation of people in the U.S. illegally “hate speech?”


The players kicked out of the Olympics by the Badminton World Federation for intentionally playing to lose were doing nothing that other players haven’t done, their defenders say. The doubles teams were trying to line themselves up to play less formidable opponents in later rounds. Today’s Question: Was it wrong for badminton teams to throw a game in pursuit of an Olympic medal?


Daily Circuit (9-12 p.m.) – First hour: The weekly roundtable.

Second hour: The Minneapolis City Council passed a resolution Thursday demanding that Backpage.com stop running ads it says facilitates child sex trafficking. The website claims they’re protected by the First Amendment, and so far in a Washington state lawsuit, the legal system has agreed. Tom Weber talks to Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, who says if he can’t prosecute Backpage.com, he wants to embarrass them.

Third hour: The drought.

MPR News Presents (12-1 pm): From the Aspen Ideas Festival: Three doctors debate the pros and cons of “individualized” medicine.

Science Friday (1-2 p.m.) – A look at the attempt to land on Mars.

All Things Considered (3-6:30 p.m.) – Actress Rashida Jones is known for playing lovable girlfriend characters. In her screenwriting debut, love is the problem. “Celeste and Jesse Forever” explores first love, and what you do when it ends. NPR profiles her.

  • Sam

    Today’s discussion point: Does your company unleash you?

    I worked for the same company under three starkly different management teams. One ignored the employees almost completely, one sought out the smart, ambitious ones and looked for ways to allow them latitude to innovate, and one stifled and devalued everyone and regularly used the HR department like a cudgel just to remind us who was in charge.

    I know which style led to my wanting to be the most productive. But good times never seem to last when corporate types are involved.

  • MikeB

    Great point on #1. Having worked in a few large companies in the TC there is a large gap between the rhetoric of empowerment from the actions of management and colleagues. Many of these organizations are intellectually sedentary, they need people to fill the cubes, push some work around, and stay out of trouble. The backlash from taking a risk and failing is greater than maintaining an inefficient status quo. Most transformative efforts dissolve into indifference and resistance, and from lack of leadership.

    Kudos to 3M for allowing its people to color outside the lines.

    And, ironic that we’re making small items like light bulbs last longer and large household appliances that wear out sooner.

  • Kassie

    While I’m not in a corporate environment, I’ve been able to work for the last few years on a project that was my idea. Ultimately it will save money and make life easier for people who determine welfare benefits. It isn’t a light bulb that will change the world or even totally unique nationwide, but it sure makes going to work a lot easier on the bad days and pretty fun on the good days. I love explaining the project to people who don’t know much about it, which I get to do regularly.

  • bsimon

    Today is my last day at a company that pays lip service to unleashing creativity – its even in the mission statement. But they really don’t. I have higher hopes for the new job, check back in a year.

  • allie

    I’m a state employee, and am fortunate enough to work on a team that encourages us to think outside the box, and try to find new and innovative ways to delivery necessary services in more cost-effective ways. It’s what keeps me there. I love it.