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  • 11.05.09

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.

roger martin

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.

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“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 business

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

About the author

Linda Tischler writes about the intersection of design and business for Fast Company.

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