Last month Princeton’s Keller Center for Entrepreneurship, Education, & Innovation, held an Innovation Forum event where scientists showed off inventions, based on scientific research, that they are trying to turn into businesses. Later this month a speaker at the same venue will tell an audience that scientific thinking is holding back innovation.
Roger Martin, a professor at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto and a frequent writer for the Harvard Business Review, believes that businesses are in a “crisis of innovation” because of an over-reliance on the scientific method where it is not appropriate.
Martin will speak at the Keller Center’s Creative Mind and Leadership Lecture Series on Wednesday, March 29, at 4:30 p.m. at the Friend Center Convocation Room on William Street. For more information, visit www.kellercenter.princeton.edu.
Martin acknowledges that scientific thinking brought about the Industrial Revolution and many of the inventions that shape the modern world. But as businesses in the latter half of the 20th century adopted rigorous approaches borrowed from the world of science, they have inadvertently closed themselves off from doing new things. “Science has fully invaded the world of business,” he says. “You have to be scientific in your decision making, so you need to prove things before doing them, because that’s what science is about. In science, to be rigorous is meritorious.”
The problem with this approach is that using data from the past cannot open the door to new approaches. If every decision must be justified using empirical data, it is difficult to justify an innovative approach for which reliable data does not yet exist.
“We are having sort of a crisis of innovation,” Martin says, pointing to a recent poll of CEOs that showed 80 percent were disappointed with the innovation in their companies.
To find the root cause of this problem, as well as its solution, Martin goes back to Aristotle, the father of scientific thinking. In the text Analytica Posteriora, written in 350 B.C., Aristotle explains the system of deductive reasoning that became the core of scientific thought: that it was possible to produce knowledge about how the world worked by demonstrations that showed causes and effects, and which proved that things cannot be other than the way they are.
“If I hold a pen in my hand and I let it go one time, or 10 times, or a million times, it will do the same thing. It will fall and accelerate at 23 feet per second squared,” Martin says. “The purpose of science is to understand the causes and effects of what we see.”
But innovation means thinking beyond what already exists and imagining something new. Fortunately, Aristotle also provides a method for exploring not what already exists, but instead what could be. In another text, Rhetoric, Aristotle describes rhetoric as a social process for imagining possibilities, then choosing the one for which the most compelling argument can be made.
“Hence innovation is a social process,” Martin says. “A great rhetorician was somebody who imagined the possibilities and was compelling enough about it to convince people to give it a try and enable the society or the organization to be the cause of a new and better effect. What has happened in the modern world of business is that nobody read Rhetoric, and nobody really understood this. Science has taken over, and science is not for innovation.”
Going back to Aristotle for business ideas may be unusual in the world of business consulting, but it’s not out of character for Martin, whose previous big ideas for business, integrative thinking, and design thinking drew heavily on philosophy. He believes business education could be improved by integrating more of the deep traditions of western thought. “I’d like to enrich its underpinnings in a way that changes business philosophy in a fundamental way,” Martin says.
Martin says his thoughts on the scientific method in business were influenced by the philosopher Charles Pierce, who observed that analysis cannot be used to create anything new. “Inductive and deductive logic are methodologies for formally crunching data from the past to demonstrate whether a proposition is true or false,” Martin says. “But with neither of them can you actually generate a new idea.” Pierce, writing in the late 19th century, described a logical method called abductive reasoning, in which a theory is created to account for an observation. Martin says abductive reasoning provides a methodical way of taking data and turning it into a new idea. The only problem is that this kind of reasoning isn’t taught in business schools.
Instead, business schools only teach their students to be analytical but uncreative. “One reason MBAs are kind of mocked, and kids from garages make great companies, is that those kids in garages aren’t as ensconced in applying science to business as all those who come out of Harvard Business School and analyze everything to death,” Martin says.
To Martin, a good example of a businessman not mired in analytical thinking was Steve Jobs, who was famously described as creating a “reality distortion field” wherever he went. As described by Macintosh developer Andy Hertzfeld, the reality distortion field was Jobs’s ability to convince himself and others to believe almost anything through sheer force of personality. He would ignore number-crunching analysis that said his ideas wouldn’t work, promoting his grandiose vision instead. To critics, this was nothing more than arrogance and delusion. But to Martin, this is just a sign that Jobs was good at rhetoric.
Martin points out that while Jobs is revered in the business world, he is also considered a rogue personality because of his failure to pay attention to expert assessments of his plans.
To Martin the kind of good design thinking that created the Macintosh computer and the iPhone is different from the scientific thinking that has revealed the natural laws that computer technology is built on. “The job of scientists is to analyze data that exists. The job of an innovator is to create data that doesn’t exist,” he says. Martin advocates a process of design by creating a prototype, handing it to users, and making multiple iterations of the product until it’s ready to be released.
To be clear, Martin is by no means anti-science. “We need to know more about why things are the way they are, and why they can’t be other than why they are, and the more we understand that, the more we can innovate on top of that,” he says. “Science can create a fruitful territory for innovation, but its overuse is really problematic.”
If anyone knows the chinks in the armor of business school thinking, it is Martin, who was a business consultant for 17 years before joining the faculty at the University of Toronto. He grew up in a village of less than 50 people in southwest Ontario, where his father owned a company called Wallenstein Feed and Supply Limited, which is now one of the biggest companies of its kind in Canada. Watching the success of his father’s company inspired Martin to pursue business. He studied economics at Harvard, then earned an MBA from Harvard Business School. He then went straight into consulting, where he was a strategy advisor to companies like Procter & Gamble, Lego, and Verizon. In 1998 he returned to Canada to become dean of the Rotman School of Management, and, he says, also take a 94 percent pay cut. He served as dean until 2013, and he now is the institute director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the school. He has written 10 books on business and numerous articles.