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.