Two Words That Kill Innovation

MartinHere is an excerpt from an article written by Roger Martin for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

* * *

Over the past 50 years, management practices have become ever more scientific and quantitative. Managing by the numbers, using business analytics and leveraging Big Data are all considered to be unalloyed goods, indicative of enlightened management. Without question, data and analytics have their roles and their benefits. But they have a really important dark side too, and when managers don’t see that dark side, they accidentally kill innovation.

The implicit logic behind the scientific management doctrine is that you must prove — analytically, and in advance — that a decision is correct before making it. To be clear, it is not the explicit doctrine — few managers think this themselves, but they’re swayed by their training to be scientifically analytical. This works productively for most of their everyday decisions. They analyze the pattern of sales per square foot in their stores and make the bottom quartile stores look more like the top quartile stores. They analyze their warehousing costs and shift the locations of their hubs. They analyze their assembly line and optimize the throughput. But when genuine innovation is required, there’s a problem. As the clever early 20th century American pragmatist philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce pointed out — not about business but about the world in general — it is not possible to prove analytically that a new idea is a good one in advance. Why? It’s pretty simple when you think about it. There is no data about how a genuinely new idea will interact with the world in advance of said new idea actually interacting with the world.
Therefore there is no way to prove it will work in advance.

Set your organization on a path toward powerful new ideas.

This creates a real problem for managers who believe that their job in life is to make sure that a decision should be made only when there is analytical proof that it is the right decision. It causes them to ask for something that cannot be delivered. When an innovator comes to them with an idea, they say, “Prove it.” These are the two managerial words that are most deadly to innovation.

* * *

Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Roger Martin ( is the Premier’s Chair in Productivity and Competitiveness and Academic Director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto in Canada. He is the co-author of Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works and of the Playing to Win Strategy Toolkit. For more information, including events with Roger, click here.

Posted in

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.