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Innovation is Too Essential for Businesses to Be Precious About

Roger Martin | Jun 27, 2018

Roger Martin

Writer, Strategy Advisor

Roger Martin: Design thinking in my view is the productive combination of analytical thinking and intuitive thinking that enables you to both exploit to the maximum what currently exists while exploring new things to invent the future so that you have both reliability, a consistent enough outcome that keeps you going and validity.  You're pursuing great things that are wonderful for users that enable you to invent the future not invented by somebody else and imposed on you.  So it's that combination, the middle ground between the extremes of pure analytical thinking and pure intuitive thinking.

A big topic in innovation is the skunk work. And it's a big topic because there's a question, and the great Clay Christiansen friend of mine, great scholar in some sense raised the profile of this question by asking the question when you're dealing with a disruptive technology you want to disrupt yourself in particular, can you do it in the main mainstream part of the organization or do you have to have it off in a skunkworks, by which is meant that this organization is outside the mainstream organization and in some sense protected from the main stream organization so they can work away and work away and come up with something?  And Steve Jobs famously created a skunk works to do the Apple Mac development.

It's an area where I'm not convinced.  I'm not as convinced as my friend Clay, although he might be right because he's super smart, I'm not as convinced that that is the optimal design.  Because I've seen too many cases where when it comes out of the skunkworks it gets killed.  So the purported functionality if you will of the skunkworks, which is protection, actually makes the need for protection greater.  So there's a feeling in the mainstream organization that those people over in the skunk works got to play by different rules, didn't have to have the same rigor that we would've had to and now they're taking their thing that came out of it and thinking that they can just give it over to us and we'll welcome it with open arms.  No, in fact we're going to hate it because it's the product of in some sense a privileged system.  We'd love to have that system but we can't it's only the skunk works.

If you really want to be an innovative company and make innovation sustainable and not just this incidental thing that happens every once in a while in a skunk works, you just got to train the whole organization to think both analytically and intuitively to both figure out how to be good at exploitation and exploration, set up your systems so that they don't stifle that and make the entire organization an organization about innovation.  That it's an organization that thinks about innovation while it's thinking about exploitation.

People think that innovation comes from R&D departments.  That's another way of hiving it off those R&D people innovate.  It shouldn't be.  The key people, a key source of innovation in and well functioning company should be the sales force.  The sales force are going to spend one way or another more time with the customers than anybody else. The people who are closest to the customer have got to be involved in innovation otherwise you're going to waste your time on innovations that seem cool for the producer but aren't awesomely needed by the user. Anybody can be innovative and if you hive off innovation and put it elsewhere I don't think it's great for the organization.


True innovation and design thinking do not necessarily originate only with the sequestered brain trust of a “skunkworks” research & development style team. Instead, it is the productive combination of pure analytical thinking and pure intuitive thinking.

According to Big Think expert Roger Martin, Institute Director at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto in Canada, innovation originates from training a whole organization to think both analytically and intuitively, and by leaning on the insights of its sales force. Doing this helps leaders develop organizations that think about innovation while also contemplating exploration, exploitation, and the needs of the customer.

Martin says that leaving innovation only to a separate internal group can lead to the creation of ideas that may not align with the goals of the organization and also may generate a sense of distrust from the mainstream organization’s employees.


Roger Martin

Roger Martin Roger Martin is the Institute Director of the Martin Prosperity Institute and the Michael Lee-Chin Family Institute for Corporate Citizenship at the Rotman School of Management and the Premier’s Chair in Productivity & Competitiveness. His research work is in Integrative Thinking, Business Design, Strategy, Corporate Social Responsibility and Country Competitiveness. He writes extensively and is a regular contributor to: Harvard Business Review’s The Conversation blog, the Financial Times’ Judgment Call column, and the Guardian Sustainable Business. In 2013, Roger placed 3rd on the Thinkers50 list, a biannual ranking of the most influential global business thinkers, moving up from 6th in 2011 and 32nd in 2009.