What's Thwarting American Innovation? Too Much Science, Says Roger Martin

By pushing the principles of scientific management too far, corporations are short-circuiting their own futures, says the designiest dean of all the business schools. "The enemy of innovation is the phrase 'prove it,'" Roger Martin says.

<a href=Roger Martin" width="190" height="183" />The folks at McKinsey, Bain, and BCG should be happy that Roger Martin likes his job. Otherwise, he could cause them a heap of trouble.

As it is, the dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto is traveling the country, throwing down the gauntlet to companies who hope to analyze and strategize their way out of a recession by bringing in armies of management consultants. You'll get what you pay for, he warns, and it won't be innovation.

"The business world is tired of having armies of analysts descend on their companies," he says. "You can't send a 28-year-old with a calculator to solve your problems."

the design of businessThe problem, says Martin, author of a new book, The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage, is that corporations have pushed analytical thinking so far that it's unproductive. "No idea in the world has been proved in advance with inductive or deductive reasoning," he says.

The answer? Bring in the folks whose job it is to imagine the future, and who are experts in intuitive thinking. That's where design thinking comes in, he says.

"If I didn't like my job, I'd go out and create a killer firm that would take on McKinsey head-to-head in their own market. A company would get better results, at a fraction of the price." McKinsey, a $5B company, bills out freshly minted MBAs at $1M a year, Martin says. Their billing structure is 10 times what a design firm typically gets.

We spoke to Martin about why MBAs and designers should learn to get along prior to his coming to New York for the Rotman School of Management Design Thinking Experts series with IDEO's Tim Brown and Target's Will Setliffe.

Fast Company: As we slowly climb out of the recession, everybody's looking for where the next innovation will come from. Why does our pace of innovation seem to be slowing?

Martin: Most companies try to be innovative, but the enemy of innovation is the mandate to "prove it." You cannot prove a new idea in advance by inductive or deductive reasoning.

Fast Company: Are you saying that the regression analysis jockeys and Six Sigma black belts have got it all wrong?

Martin: Well, yes. With every good thing in life, there's often a dark shadow. The march of science is good, and corporations are being run more scientifically. But what they analyze is the past. And if the future is not exactly like the past, or there are things happening that are hard to measure scientifically, they get ignored. Corporations are pushing analytical thinking so far that it's become unproductive. The future has no legitimacy for analytical thinkers.

Fast Company: What's the alternative?

Martin: New ideas must come from a new kind of thinking. The American pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce called it abductive logic. It's a logical leap of the mind that you can't prove from past data.

Fast Company: I can't see many CEOs being comfortable with that!

Martin: Why not? The scientific method starts with a hypothesis. It's often what happens in the shower or when an apple hits you on the head. It's what we call 'intuitive thinking.' Its purpose is to know without explicit reasoning.

Fast Company: So, if you're not getting these Newtonian moments from your management consultants, where are they likely to come from?

Martin: In a knowledge-intensive world, design thinking is critical to overcoming the biggest block: overcoming analytical thinking and fear of intuitive thinking. The design thinker enables the organization to balance exploration and exploitation, invention of business and administration of business, originality and mastery.

Fast Company: Who's been brave enough to embrace that idea in this market?

Martin: When he first took over, A.G. Lafley at P&G was brilliant enough to realize they were missing a lot about the holistic consumer experience by sticking to things that were rigorously quantified. For example, when the company moved into beauty products, they were looking at face cream. And the scientists decided it must be about pore coverage. So they analyzed the hell out of pores and said 'We can cover pores better than anybody.' So when women in their research started talking about wanting to feel beautiful and desirable, they'd say, 'Don't talk about that. We don't know how to quantify that!' And they couldn't understand why stupid women would go off to department stores and pay ten times more when they could cover pores just as well. Ten years ago, P&G couldn't prove they could sell women billions of dollars of Oil of Olay face cream at $30-$60. They could imagine it, but not prove it. Lafley took it as a management challenge to see across the divide.

Fast Company: If you don't have A.G. Lafley or Steve Jobs at the helm, how can you sell your organization on the idea of an intuitive leap instead of a scientific leap?

Martin: You don't have to convert the whole organization to design thinking. Propose a little experiment—say, three months in length—where you test out a bite-sized chunk of a problem using this method. If you have a little success, be sure to then attach metrics to it. In that way, you turn the future into the past in a way they understand.

Fast Company: We're a little biased toward the designers here. Don't they bear some of the responsibility for the gap in understanding?

Martin: Absolutely. Like anybody who takes a job in another country, and needs to learn the local language in order to function, design thinkers need to learn the language of reliability, terms such as proof, regression analysis, and best practices.

Fast Company: Sounds like there's a promising future for somebody who's bilingual and can combine both approaches.

Martin: This is a fascinating time, and there's an interesting battle coming. One of these smallish design firms might combine the best of the analytical from the business world and the best intuitive thinking from the design world and become gigantic. There would be massive traction for it. It wouldn't be the first time that a little company in a garage saw things differently.

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  • Ed Brenegar

     The question that I have is whether design-thinking, which I happen to like a lot, is just the next cool idea that never gets implemented. The problem isn't simply how we think. It is how we implement also. I'm finding with clients and my projects that starting with implementation gets us quicker to the real design solution. The innovation and adaptation doesn't happen in isolation from output and impact.  This is where the real change needs to happen.

  • kemal kamiloglu

    @Chris Perkins:

    Have you read the book Risk - The Science and Politics of Fear?

  • Chris Perkins

    We must never forget that we make decisions emotionally first, then rationalize...

  • jerry bono

    I'm working on a resumé composed of anecdotes; my intention is to offer it only for sale; in order to quickly rule out people that are just going to be wasting my time because they can't handle my creativity. I'm working on a portfolio of graphic design solutions that will be text only, because the images, the copy, etc. are only incidental. My abilities to creatively think abductively are off the charts. I'm ready to lead. bonojerry@earthlink.net or 646-942-0688

  • jerry bono

    I'm working on a resumé composed of anecdotes; my intention is to offer it only for sale; in order to quickly rule out people that are just going to be wasting my time because they can't handle my creativity. I'm working on a portfolio of graphic design solutions that will be text only, because the images, the copy, etc. are only incidental. My abilities to creatively think abductively are off the charts. I'm ready to lead. bonojerry@earthlink.net or 646-942-0688

  • Jim Norris

    It's an even bigger problem at small businesses.

    I call it binder consulting. A team of MBAs arrives and spends the next 10 days pouring over the books, interviewing everybody and observing all the processes. Then they put all of their findings, recommendations, and implementation plans in binders. They collect a check for $25K-$100K and leave. The business owner places the unread binders on a shelf and continues to do what they've always done.

    I've run across millions of dollars worth of these binders and too many embittered business owners who now feel more isolated and more certain that there are no solutions to their problems. Traditional consulting approaches simply don't work for small and medium sized businesses. The damage done far outweighs any boilerplate insights buried in those binders.

    Jim Norris

  • Patrick Stähler

    To be honest, I get a bit sick about the mantra that design thinking will solve the problems of large corporation. Well, when I go through the case studies at Ideo I am extremely impressed by their client list but not about their output. I have seen several design thinking sessions and I am not impressed at all. Very much: More-of-the-Same but with fancier design.

    Where is the invention that changed the industry? Where is the iTunes or the kindle of Ideo? The problem with design thinking starts very early in the process with the problem definition. And that is where large corporations fail. They define the scope too narrow and than you get nice new things that sustain your current business but not new business models that rock your industry.

    Ideo is a very good (self-)marketing & design firm but not a industry rocking firm. Large firms just love Ideo because Ideo just offers such a well designed process to solve the big problem of "being not innovative". You hire Ideo for comforting yourself for not using your own common sense. You just outsource your understanding of the customer to Ideo.

    And how innovative are Ideo ideas?

    Let's take the example of the insulin pen Ideo describes on its homepage as a case http://www.ideo.com/work/item/... . They did the work for Lilly in 1997. Well, that is not really outstanding since Danish firm Novo Nordisk introduced the pen in 1985. So Lilly was just catching up to this formerly unimportant drug firm from Denmark that solved 12 years earlier the problem that Ideo solved for Lilly. Novo Nordisk was a business innovator. Lilly is not.

    We have to watch out that design thinking will not become the next management fad like scientific management. I propose we go back to what God gave us, our common sense or in German "gesunder Menschenverstand".

    Best regards

  • Gerald de Jaager

    “Every great cause begins as a movement, degenerates into a business and ends up as a racket.”-Eric Hoffer Whether it's 6 Sigma, strategic planning, and continuous improvement--as mentioned by posters here--or any of many other fundamentally excellent forms of analytical thinking that come quickly to mind, they so often have been undermined by consultants who drained them of energy and turned them into little more than rackets. People in organizations have watched this happening for years, one initiative after another run top-down and enriching so many for so little gain, and they have learned that their own ideas and insights are not really valued. (We wrote a book in response to this problem, but not "about" it: that is, we provide a bunch of resources for stimulating abductive thinking throughout an organization, but we don't delineate the problem--in part because the problem is, or should be, so doggone obvious to anyone willing to notice it.)

    Jerry de Jaager

  • Julian Keith Loren

    There four things that limited the scope of critical thought and hamper effective collaboration. Four enemies of innovation. Four things that make brilliant people come to really half-baked conclusions. They are:

    1. Dogma
    2. Defensiveness
    3. Smugness
    4. Cynicism.

    How many of these can you find in the first 6 paragraphs of this piece?

    Come on folks! We're losing the Innovation War out here! We can't deliver the innovations that we need to keep the global economy in order, let alone the innovations that we need to address looming challenges. It's not time to take potshots at each other in the trenches. It's time to be allies and jointly dismantle those innovation-crippling silo walls and start replacing inflexible organization processes.

    McKinsey, Bain, and BCG have a lot of ridiculously intelligent people (of all ages) who can add tremendous value and be formidable allies in this work.

    Here's an overview of the "Innovation Puzzle" showing where McKinsey and BCG Innovation practice areas fit in (versus companies like IDEO):


    Let's work together! We have a world full of problems waiting for our innovative solutions!

    Julian Keith Loren

  • Barry Dennis

    The old AT&T labs, fathers of the transistor, used to have the equivalent of today's Beer Bong sessions, in which the only requirement was to throw out ideas without criticism, only with "you'd have to," or, "what if"type of commentary.
    Eureka moments happen anytime and everywhere, IF THE OPPORTUNITY IS ENCOURAGED AND ALLOWED.
    I know of no modern idea of note, no concept, no earth-shaking epiphany that was built by a committee.
    No idea that makes it to fruition without help, help which in most cases "fleshes out" the concept into something workable.
    Stephen Hawking's concepts of the universe may have happened in his brain, but the math proofs that make them work was developed by others, part of his "support group."
    Ideas are personal; realization is collaborative.

  • Chris Reich

    FINALLY! I have written extensively on this subject for the past 7 years. I looked for new approaches when I saw a 6 Sigma "Black Belt" destroy a company I was working with. Now I'm watching a 28 year old with a calculator manage a "supply chain"---but the company can't get an order out the door.

    I see this stuff every day and it is such a horrific waste of money. For anything to be science, it must provide a principle or tool to make predictions. None of the sexy business 'tools' can predict. In fact, they blind.

    When a company gets stuck on continuous improvement, it' becomes nearly impossible to introduce 'new' into the thinking. Had that concept come around in 1880 there would be companies improving gas lamps, candles and horse shoes. Not that we couldn't use better designs of those items today, but you'd have to admit the market for those items has shrunk a bit.

    If we don't shake this nonsense, we're going to fall behind. The painful truth is that the real business solutions are very inexpensive but management is so fooled by the emperor's clothes they believe there must be a relationship of cost to result. Hire a 6 Sigma BB for $150,000 or get some common sense, creative work for $75,000? The typical CEO will go with the Acronym over change every time.

    Chris Reich, TeachU.com

  • J.Tito Coronado

    As a Project Manager for a project to implement innovative ideas into the portfolio of a major IT corporation (recently departed from the scene) I can personally attest to this.

    By the time we were ready to roll out the selection process there were so many requirements "proving" that the new idea was "worthy" to be funded. That most innovations were still born. Worthy equated to: prove that the idea will achieve revenue and profitability goals. Without that proof most truly innovative ideas were dropped - they couldn't be proven because they were new.

    In the end the whole project was killed by pulling the funding and it became a simple internal sugestion box.

    The true killer in this case was a bad case of aversion to risk.

  • Ed Loessi

    This point here is true across almost all areas touched by the big consulting firms:

    "The business world is tired of having armies of analysts descend on their companies," he says. "You can't send a 28-year-old with a calculator to solve your problems."

    We see the same thing in the related space of strategic planning where the MBA's have complicated the whole idea beyond belief such that most people cringe when they think about having to come up with a strategic plan.

    It's the same thing with innovation it gets talked about then complicated and then shelved all to often.

    Bravo to Martin for shaking things up!

    Ed Loessi