Roger Martin and Design Thinking

Earlier this month, the Mutually Human team took a field trip to the JW Marriott for Roger Martin’s talk on Design Thinking. Roger Martin is a senior advisor and author of several books on management and business strategy. He is also the Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. Martin’s premise for Design Thinking is that business leaders often unknowingly get in the way of their company’s ability to innovate. Design Thinking is a method of recognizing different approaches and facilitating conversation between different types of thinkers for a realistic approach to risk and innovation.

Martin himself is an affable speaker who seems to have no problem using the strategies of Design Thinking to communicate his own points. His main proposition is that conflict often arises between intuitive and analytical thinkers. He assumed both types were present in his audience, and varied his presentation accordingly. Martin provided plenty of charts and statistics, but he also told stories, gave several examples and inspired the audience with the possibilities of integrated thinking.

Like many thought leaders in business, Roger Martin did not invent this problem or this solution. He simply articulated a common issue and codified the communication skills that have been solving this problem for decades. Some people are able to use personal insight or natural diplomacy skills to deal with conflict. Others, sometimes, need help understanding exactly what’s gone awry. What Design Thinking does, exactly, is lay out the steps necessary to reach a productive consensus.

A Human Problem

There is a reason some companies struggle to innovate, while others blindly innovate themselves off the side of a cliff. It comes from a critical imbalance. Martin explains that there are multiple types of thinkers. In particular, there are Analytical thinkers, who value Reliability, and Intuitive thinkers, who value Validity.

Analytical thinkers like results to be repeatable. They tend to be fundamentally pragmatic. They look to hard evidence from the past to determine the course of the future. They often have direct control or access to the company’s cash flow, and they get anxious when asked to spend money on a project with no clear “if – then” proposition. As much as possible, they avoid acting on faith. They want reliability.

Intuitive thinkers feel comfortable going on feeling, on gut-level instincts. Because the process of arriving at a feeling is impossible to document, and because instincts often lead to uncharted territory, intuitive thinkers get frustrated with this constant demand for “data” and “precedent”. They want to achieve validity through experimentation. Because they have no authoritative way to justify themselves, their ideas are often rejected or scaled back to safe, predictable proportions.

This leads to a good deal of frustration for Analytical and Intuitive thinkers alike. Yet they both need to work together for a company to succeed in the long run.

A Logical Leap

Taking the stance that innovation requires intuition (which, remember is not perfectly reliable) Martin cites the pragmatic philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce for his emphasis of “Abductive” logic. Abductive logic is presupposing that a particular behavior, product, or event will cause a particular result. In other words, guessing.

Intuitive thinkers, who are most often the creatives of the company, will push for a particular project because they feel that it will result favorably. They can’t know this, because it’s never been done before exactly the way they want to do it. Their guess, or their intuition, is good enough for them. It is not always good enough for their bosses or account managers. However, without intuition, they are stuck performing the same repeatable tasks with the same reliable outcomes. Innovation doesn’t come from reliable outcomes. Intuition, or Abductive logic, is necessary for innovation.

The two more common forms of logic are Inductive and Deductive. Martin asserts that all three types of logic: Inductive, Deductive, and Abductive, are necessary in a healthy business strategy.

For a brief explanation, Deductive Logic is the process of drawing a necessary conclusion from a set of premises which are given to be true. As long as the premises are true, deductive logic can produce absolute proof of a conclusion. For example:

  1. All humans need oxygen to live.
  2. Billy is a human.
  3. Billy needs oxygen to live.

Deductive logic is primarily a thought experiment. Givens and absolutes are mostly tools of convenience, and do not really exist in nature. Perhaps some humans can live without oxygen. Highly improbable, but never scientifically impossible. Inductive logic is a bit more permissive of a messy reality.

Inductive logic allows one to infer b from premise a. It generates a conclusion from an existing data set, but this conclusion is only a strong inference, not proof. Inductive logic usually makes a caveat for known experience. There are different types of Inductive reasoning, but here’s one example:

  1. All animals known to exist require oxygen to live.
  2. Billy is an animal.
  3. Billy is highly likely to require oxygen to live.

Inductive reasoning allows for the conclusion not to be true, even if the premises are true. There is an outside chance that Billy might be a human mutant hitherto unknown to man. And by definition, if Billy did not require oxygen, would he still be a living animal? These questions are important in the pragmatic sense, especially as science gives us the gifts of reanimated mice and hearts without pulses, but I digress.

Inductive logic is the logic most often used to determine the future course of action in a business. Analytical thinkers like to make a strong inference from existing data, but not a guess. Hence:

  1. Company A sells widgets and has many customers.
  2. Many customers would prefer that their widgets were cheaper.
  3. If we make cheaper widgets, we will have more customers than Company A.

Deductive logic is applied to more abstract principles, like policy and cash flow. One might not be able to conclusively predict or create revenue, but one could still assert:

  1. We need X revenue to be profitable.
  2. We do not have X revenue.
  3. We are not profitable.

Deductive Logic, like Inductive Logic, is a tool of Analytical thinkers and necessary to run a company.

Charles Sanders Pierce’s contribution to logic theory is the assertion that we need Abductive reasoning to reach any new conclusion. One must make a leap of logic. Instead of inferring b from only existing data a, one must assume a and see if it produces b.

Does this sound familiar? Abductive logic, or Abductive “Validation” (to refer back to Martin’s original chart) is a common practice of forming a hypothesis. As I discussed earlier, a hypothesis, in the business sense, is an MVP.

By integrating all three types of logic: Inductive, Deductive, and Abductive, a company is empowered to take calculated risks, which are necessary both for innovation and stability.

In the next installment, we’ll talk about Martin’s philosophy of innovation and explore some tips for communication between Intuitive and Analytical thinkers.

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