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

The folks at McKinsey, Bain, and BCG should be happy that Roger Martin likes hisjob. Otherwise, he could cause them a heap of trouble.


Asit is, the dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University ofToronto is traveling the country, throwing down the gauntlet to companies whohope to analyze and strategize their way out of a recession by bringing inarmies of management consultants. You’ll get what you pay for, he warns, and it won’t be innovation.

“Thebusiness world is tired of having armies of analysts descend on theircompanies,” he says. “You can’t send a 28-year-old with a calculator to solveyour problems.”

the design of business

Theproblem, says Martin, author of a new book, The Design of Business: Why DesignThinking is the Next Competitive Advantage, is that corporations have pushedanalytical thinking so far that it’s unproductive. “No idea in the world has been proved in advance withinductive or deductive reasoning,” he says.

Theanswer? Bring in the folks whose job it is to imagine the future, and who areexperts in intuitive thinking. That’s where design thinking comes in, he says.

“IfI didn’t like my job, I’d go out and create a killer firm that would take on McKinsey head-to-head in their ownmarket. A company would get betterresults, 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.


Wespoke to Martin about why MBAs and designers should learn to get along prior tohis 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 ofthe recession, everybody’s looking for where the next innovation will comefrom. Why does our pace ofinnovation seem to be slowing?

Martin:Most companies try to be innovative, but the enemy of innovation is the mandateto “prove it.” You cannot prove a new idea in advance by inductive or deductivereasoning.

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

Martin:Well, yes. With every good thing in life, there’s often a dark shadow. Themarch 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 thingshappening that are hard to measure scientifically, they get ignored. Corporationsare pushing analytical thinking so far that it’s become unproductive. The future has no legitimacy foranalytical thinkers.


Fast Company: What’s the alternative?

Martin:New ideas must come from a new kind of thinking. The American pragmatistCharles Sanders Peirce called it abductive logic. It’s a logical leap of themind 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 startswith a hypothesis. It’s often what happens in the shower or when an apple hitsyou 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 managementconsultants, where are they likely to come from?


Martin:In a knowledge-intensive world, design thinking is critical to overcoming thebiggest 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 realizethey were missing a lot about the holistic consumer experience by sticking tothings 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 aboutpore coverage. So they analyzed the hell out of pores and said ‘We can coverpores better than anybody.’ So when women in their research started talkingabout wanting to feel beautiful and desirable, they’d say, ‘Don’t talk aboutthat. We don’t know how to quantify that!’ And they couldn’t understand whystupid women would go off to department stores and pay ten times more when theycould 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 yousell your organization on the idea of an intuitive leap instead of a scientificleap?

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


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

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

Fast Company: Sounds like there’s a promising future for somebody who’s bilingualand can combine both approaches.

Martin: This isa fascinating time, and there’s an interesting battle coming. One of thesesmallish 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 thefirst 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.