William McKnight (1887-1978) was an American businessman and philanthropist who served his entire career in the 3M Company (Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company). He joined the business which became 3M as an assistant bookkeeper in 1907 when it was on the brink of bankruptcy. He established a small laboratory to ensure that research and development was an integral part of the company, and he also allowed engineers to spend 15% of their time on projects of their own in order to spark creativity and innovation.
McKnight encouraged autonomy and created an environment where employees are trusted and make mistakes even if those could have been avoided through micro-management. Mistakes that were made were broadcast to the rest of the employees so that they Known and celebrated as a business philosopher, McKnight said in 1948:
As our business grows, it becomes increasingly necessary to delegate responsibility and to encourage men and women to exercise their initiative. This requires considerable tolerance. Those men and women, to whom we delegate authority and responsibility, if they are good people, are going to want to do their jobs in their own way. Mistakes will be made. But if a person is essentially right, the mistakes he or she makes are not as serious in the long run as the mistakes management will make if it undertakes to tell those in authority exactly how they must do their jobs. Management that is destructively critical when mistakes are made kills initiative. And it’s essential that we have many people with initiative if we are to continue to grow. (William McKnight)
Lesson: Encourage autonomy among employees because this leads to innovation and although there might be mistakes along the way, innovation is the key to success. Google has also been celebrated for creating this type of culture which has led to the creation of products such as gmail.