The two words that kill innovation

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The smartest people in business know that if you want to get ahead, it’s not about what you’re reading –  it’s about what the boss is reading. For many CIOs, the boss has probably been reading Roger Martin for a long time, which made him a natural keynote speaker for the close of the 18th World Congress on Information Technology in Montreal.

It was also appropo that Martin would speak on innovation, since that’s what so many CIOs say they want to demonstrate (and what so many experts tell them they should demonstrate). Without once using the word “CIO,” however, Martin gave the WCIT audience some of the most counter-intuitive advice on the subject imaginable: he said we should all stop being quite so scientific about making a business case for ideas.

“There are two words that will kill innovation,” he said. “Those two words are, ‘Prove it.’”

The problem in so many organizations is that ideas get generated by bright people who are then told to “crunch the numbers” to get the go-ahead from senior management and execute them. This is what he Martin described as analytical thinking, which uses inductive or deductive reasoning and strives for reliability. Contrast this with intuitive thinking, a way of knowing without reasoning that strives for establishing validity. This is the domain of artists, Martin said, who seem to speak their own language when describing the potential of an idea. In between these two extremes is what Martin called “design thinking,” which is where CIOs have the greatest potential to be innovative.

How does design thinking work? Martin sketched out a process of how we achieve breakthroughs. Start with a mystery, create a heuristic or way of understanding it then develop an algorithm to solve the problem behind the original mystery. As design thinkers move through the “knowledge funnel,” Martin said, they become more efficient. This is particularly true when the algorithms become accelerated and made repeatable through information technology.

“We added a step to knowledge. What that did for us is create an incredible efficiency of the sort we’ve never seen before,” Martin said. “The wrong way to think about software is as an industry. The better way is to think of it as the resting place for all knowledge in the world.”

Having spent so much time trying to be more business-focused and ready to present their business case with mathematical rigour to CEOs, Martin’s talk might have been discouraging to CIOs, but he wasn’t suggesting they ignore the things that are important. In fact, he differentiated between invention – where new products or services are developed out of curiosity and uniqueness defines merit – with innovation, where products and services are driven by the desire to add customer value and profitability drives merit.

Design thinking can take the hypothesis-testing of the scientific method and pair it with the art of filtering through a range of possibilities. This, Martin said, was the key skill set for any innovator.

“Leaving things out is what makes you knowledgeable,” he said. “It’s a subtractive, not an additive process.”

And yet, for anyone who sat through that particular talk at WCIT, there was hardly a single word you’d want to forget.

ShaneSchick ShaneSchick (22 Posts)

Shane Schick is a writer, editor and speaker who helps people create value with information technology. As Editor-at-Large with IT World Canada, Shane recently oversaw the launch of, a new brand that empowers senior IT decision-makers through articles, videos, events, social media and a cloud-based sourcing platform. Shane was previously IT World Canada’s Vice-President, Content & Community (Editor-in-Chief), leading a digital-first strategy that included a transition from print publications to online portals and magazines. Shane regularly speaks to CIOs and IT managers at events across Canada about how they can contribute to organizational success, and comments on technology trends as a guest on CBC, BNN, CTV and other programs. A former columnist with the Globe and Mail, Shane has been recognized for journalistic excellence by the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance and the Canadian Online Publishing Awards.

  • Bruce Stewart

    Opening the doors to design thinking means that IT professionals will have to overcome two things we’ve needed to move past for quite a while now. 

    The first is the obsession with process. Our “process myopia” forces us to treat the world our clients work in as more ordered than it is, and simpler than it is overall. Working with things as they are and should be is better than trying to forcefit everything into a single model of how it ought to be.

    The second is our obsession with use cases for minor conditions. The best use case is the informed and authorized-to-act person working with the system as a support, but adapting to conditions to serve customers. Trying to figure out every possible interaction makes the organization hard to do business with. It also encourages upper management to think that every situation can be figured out in advance and that therefore they needn’t delegate authority, give room for manoeuvre, etc.

    Martin is on to something useful here.

    • DonSheppard

      Is it not one of the goals of “automators” that they automate as much as possible to relieve the human from as much work as possible?  In theory.  Hence the effort to capture as many use cases as possible.
      What we need are intelligent systems that are adaptive enough to support people with the “non-standard” aspects of their work.

  • DonSheppard

    Not sure I grok all of what you said he said, but it certainly sounds interesting!  It is a direction Martin’s been on for a while, so the real question is whether he’s had success using his ideas in practice.

    I think this probably needs to be a top down cultural shift – starting with the CEO.  Wouldn’t this make it easier for the CIO to use the ideas?   Then he could develop a process for innovation :-)

    What was the audience reaction?

  • Chris Lau

    There are many good design decisions already being made in the process: 1) less is more, prototyping, RAD (but in a creative sense). If companies that wanted to acquire products could think in these same terms (ie draw something game from Zynga..UDraw or THQ)…these two companies would not be where they are right now.