McKnight’s Management Methodology

The odds are you’ve never heard of William L. McKnight.

William McKnight joined Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company (3M) in 1907 as an assistant bookkeeper. At the time, the company was only five years old but had already pivoted from mining corundum to making sandpaper. Persistence and innovation was in the company DNA from the very beginning.

McKnight rose quickly through the ranks at 3M, becoming President in 1929 and Chairman of the Board from 1949 to 1966. Perhaps influenced by the company’s initial experience, McKnight always stressed a culture of innovation and individual initiative over top-down management control. He believed people were the secret of 3M’s success.

McKnight’s basic rule of management was laid out 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.

While these paragraphs are nearly 70 years old, they ring just as true today. Without my realizing it, McKnight has influenced my own management philosophy. Here’s how I interpret his writing using my own words:

  • Delegate → Hire good people and let them do their jobs
  • OK to fail →  When things go wrong, be hard on the issues but not on the people
  • Encourage initiative → Experiment with new ideas, learn what works, and scale

The more I read about McKnight, the more I believe his contribution to business management is under-appreciated. This 2003 article in CNN Money makes the case that McKnight should be best known for “innovation and risk taking.” That is a compelling legacy.

What do you think?

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