Several months ago, a colleague sent me a link to Roger Martin’s latest article, “The Presumption of Guilt: The Hidden Logical Barrier to Innovation.” Even though the article was authored by one of the preeminent thinkers in the field of innovation and strategy (in 2017, Thinkers50 voted him the #1 most influential management thinker in the world), I didn’t have too much hope that I would read something new or interesting. After all, I read A LOT of articles, and 99 times out of 100, I’m disappointed (80 times out of 100, I roll my eyes so hard I give myself a headache).
This one blew my mind.
With just a few sentences and applying a well-known analogy, Martin explained a phenomenon that plagues every organization and kills most innovation.
Presumed Innocence is a fundamental human right
Martin begins by pointing out that in the legal systems of modern democracies, all citizens are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. In 1948, the United Nations extended this concept to all nations (not just democracies) in Article 11.1 of their Declaration of Human Rights.
The presumption of innocence is so important because “the presumption of guilt (or even neutrality) puts an almost impossible burden on the defendant. The State is strong and has resources far beyond that of the individual.”
Presumed Innocence is not a fundamental innovation right
Now let’s apply this analogy and the lens of presumption of innocence or guilt to business, arguably a field where we spend much more time and make far more judgments.
You, and your fellow decision-makers, are judges and jury.
It is up to you to determine whether the projects in front of you are innocent (worthy of additional investment) or guilty (not worthy).
If you presume all defendants are guilty, you place the burden of proof on them. They must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they will succeed and are, therefore, worthy of investment.
If you presume all defendants are innocent, you place the burden of proof on yourself (or the business as a whole). You must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they will fail.
What type of judge are you? What kind of decision-making system do you preside over? Do you presume guilt or innocence?
In most boardrooms, projects are presumed guilty.
Presumptions in practice
Let’s consider the two “defendants” (types of projects) that appear before you – core business projects and innovation projects.
Each defendant has a team of advocates. The core business typically has a large team with ample resources and a history of success. Innovation has a much smaller team with far fewer resources and few, if any, “in-market” successes.
To be fair, you ask the same questions of both defendants – questions about market growth, performance versus competitors, and what the P&L looks like.
The team advocating for the core business produces data-filled slides, reports from reputable third parties, and financials blessed by Finance. In the deluge of facts, you forget that all the data is about the past, and you’re making decisions about the future. You find the evidence compelling (or at least reassuring), determine that the team met their burden of proof, declare the Core Business innocent, and allocate additional funds and people.
Innovation’s team also comes with slides, reports, and financials, but it’s not nearly as compelling as what you just saw from the current business team. But you are a fair judge, so you ask most questions like
- We believe we can get X% of a Total Addressable Market estimated to be Y
- There are no direct competitors, but consumers rated this better than current solutions
- We don’t have a 5-year NPV or P&L for this business at scale because we’re not asking for permission to launch. We’re asking for $100,000 to continue testing.
Believe? We need to know!
No direct competitors? Perhaps there’s a reason for that!
No P&L? I’m not going to throw scarce money away!
“Guilty!” you declare, “no more resources for you! Try again!”
This example illustrates what Roger Martin considers corporate innovation’s fatal flaw. In his article, he argues,
“the status quo must play the role of the prosecutor and prove that the innovation is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. The innovation asserts its case, laying out the future that it imagines is plausible and explains the logic that buttresses the plausibility. The onus is on the status quo to demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that the innovation’s logic is flawed — e.g., the proposed economics are unrealistic, customers haven’t shown a hint of caring about the unique selling features of the innovation, competitors already have a lead on us in the proposed area, etc.
If the status quo can do so, then the innovation is guilty. If it can’t, then the innovation is not guilty, and the organization should invest.”
As much as I love the idea of requiring the status quo (managers? Executives? Stockholders?) to prove that investments should not be made (i.e., the default answer is “Yes” to all requests), it’s just not a practical solution.
Burden of proof as barrier
There’s another fundamental principle in our legal system that Martin doesn’t touch on: the burden of proof shifts as the stakes increase.
Specifically, the State’s burden of proof increases from warrant to arraignment to grand jury to trial. For example, the State must provide probable cause based on direct or other reliable information to get a warrant. But the State must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt when the defendant goes to trial and risks losing their freedom or even their life.
But in the example above, the questions (proof required) remained the same.
The questions were appropriate for the Current Business because it’s already in the market, consuming massive resources, and its failure would have a catastrophic impact on the company.
But the questions aren’t appropriate for innovation in its early days. In fact, they were the business equivalent of demanding proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt to get a search warrant. Instead, a judge evaluating a project in the early Design phase should ask for probable cause based on direct or other reliable information – observed consumer behavior, small-scale research findings, or simple prototypes.
The Verdict is In
I love the concept of Presumed Guilty vs. Presumed Innocent. I see it all the time in my work, and it is painfully prevalent in Innovation Council meetings and other boardrooms where managers sit as judge and jury over a project’s (ad a team’s) fate.
I want to flip the paradigm – To make “yes” the default instead of “No” and to require managers, the keepers of the status quo, to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a project will fail.
But I don’t think it’s possible (if I’m wrong, PLEASE tell me!).
Instead, our best bet for true innovation justice is not to shift who bears the burden of proof but rather how heavy that burden is at various points. From probable cause when the stakes are low to beyond a reasonable doubt when they’re high. And certainly more than a ham sandwich at any point
It just landed on your desk. Or maybe you campaigned to get it. Or perhaps you just started doing it. How the title of “Innovation Leader” got to your desk doesn’t matter nearly as much as the fact that it’s there, along with a budget and loads of expectations.
Of course, now that you have the title and the budget, you need a team to do the work and deliver the results.
Who should you look for? The people that perform well in the current business, with its processes, structures, and (relative) predictability, often struggle to navigate the constant uncertainty and change of innovation. But just because someone struggles in the process and structure of the core business doesn’t mean they’ll thrive creating something new.
What are the qualities that make someone a successful innovator?
A lot of people have a lot to say about the qualities and characteristics that make someone an innovator. When you combine the first four Google search results for “characteristics of an innovator” with the five most common innovation talent assessments, you end up with a list of 70 different (and sometimes conflicting) traits.
The complete list is at the end of this article, but here are the characteristics that appeared more than once:
- Continuously reflective
It’s a good list, but remember, there are 62 other characteristics to consider. And that assumes that the list is exhaustive.
It’s not. Something is missing.
There is one characteristic shared by every successful innovator I’ve worked with and every successful leader of innovation. It’s rarely the first (or second or third) word used to describe them, but eventually, it emerges, always said quietly, after great reflection and with dawning realization.
Whether you rolled your eyes or pumped your fist at the word made famous by Brene Brown, you’ve no doubt heard it and formed an opinion about it.
Vulnerability is the “quality or state of being exposed to the possibility of being attacked or harmed, either physically or emotionally.” Without it, innovation is impossible.
Innovation requires the creation of something new that creates value. If something is new, some or all of it is unknown. If there are unknowns, there are risks. Where there are risks, there is the possibility of being wrong, which opens you up to attack or harm.
When you talk to people to understand their needs, vulnerability allows you to hear what they say (versus what you want them to say).
In brainstorming sessions, vulnerability enables you to speak up and suggest an idea for people to respond to, build on, or discard.
When you run experiments, vulnerability ensures that you accurately record and report the data, even if the results aren’t what you hoped.
Most importantly, as a leader, vulnerability inspires trust, motivates your team, engages your stakeholders, and creates the environment and culture required to explore, learn, and innovate continuously.
n + 1 is the answer
Just as you do for every job in your company, recruit the people with the skills required to do the work and the mindset and personality to succeed in your business’ context and culture.
Once you find them, make sure they’re willing to be vulnerable and support and celebrate others’ vulnerability. Then, and only then, will you be the innovators your company needs.
Here’s the full list of characteristics:
- Action-oriented, gets the job done
- Analytical, high information capacity, digs through facts
- Associative Thinker, makes uncommon connections
- Breaks Boundaries, disruptive
- Business minded
- Compelling Leader
- Continuously reflects (x3)
- Creative (x3)
- Curious (x4), asks questions, inquisitive, investigates
- Delivers results, seeks tangible outcomes
- Divergent Thinker
- Driven (x3)
- Experiments (x2)
- Financially oriented
- Flexible, fluid
- Formally educated and trained
- Giving, works to benefit others, wants to make the world better
- Has a Growth mindset
- Highly confident
- Imaginative (x2)
- Influential, lots of social capital
- Iterating between abstract and concrete thinking
- Learns through experiences
- Likes originality, seeks novelty
- Motivated by change, open to new experiences
- Networks, relates well to others
- Opportunistic mindset, recognizes opportunities
- Opportunity focused
- Passionate (x2)
- Persistent (x4)
- Rapidly recognizes patterns
- Respects other innovators
- Seeks understanding
- Socially intelligent
- Takes initiative
- Takes risks
- Thinks big picture
- Thrives in uncertainty
- Tweaks solutions constantly
- Unattached exploration
- Wants to get things right
- Willing to Destroy
And the sources:
Characteristics of innovative people
What are innovators made of
The five characteristics of successful innovators
7 characteristics of highly successful innovators
Many years ago, Clay Christensen visited his firm where I was a partner and told us a story*.
“I imagine the day I die and present myself at the entrance to Heaven,” he said. “The Lord will show me around, and the beauty and majesty will overcome me. Eventually, I will notice that there are no numbers or data in Heaven, and I will ask the Lord why that is.”
“Data lies,” the Lord will respond. “Nothing that lies can be in Heaven. So, if people want data, I tell them to go to Hell.”
We all chuckled at the punchline and at the strength of the language Clay used (if you ever met him, you know that he was an incredibly gentle and soft-spoken man, so using the phrase “go to Hell” was the equivalent of your parents unleashing a five-minute long expletive-laden rant).
“If you want data, go to Hell.”
Clay’s statement seems absolutely blasphemous, especially in a society that views quantitative data as the ultimate source of truth:
- “In God we trust. All others bring data.” W. Edward Deming, founding Father of Total Quality Management (TQM)
- “Above all else, show the data.” – Edward R. Tufte, a pioneer in the field of data visualization
- “What gets measured gets managed” – Peter Drucker, father of modern management studies
But it’s not entirely wrong.
Quantitative Data’s blessing: A sense of safety
As humans, we crave certainty and safety. This was true millennia ago when we needed to know whether the rustling in the leaves was the wind or a hungry predator preparing to leap and tear us limb from lime. And it’s true today when we must make billion-dollar decisions about buying companies, launching products, and expanding into new geographies.
We rely on data about company valuation and cash flow, market size and growth, and competitor size and strategy to make big decisions, trusting that it is accurate and will continue to be true for the foreseeable future.
Quantitative Data’s curse: The past does not predict the future
As leaders navigating an increasingly VUCA world, we know we must prepare for multiple scenarios, operate with agility, and be willing to pivot when change happens.
Yet we rely on data that describes the past.
We can extrapolate it, build forecasts, and create models, but the data will never tell us with certainty what will happen in the future. It can’t even tell us the Why (drivers, causal mechanisms) behind the What it describes.
The Answer: And not Or
Quantitative data Is useful. It gives us the sense of safety we need to operate in a world of uncertainty and a starting point from which to imagine the future(s).
But, it is not enough to give the clarity or confidence we need to make decisions leading to future growth and lasting competitive advantage.
To make those decisions, we need quantitative data AND qualitative insights.
We need numbers and humans.
Qualitative Insight’s blessing: A view into the future
Humans are the source of data. Our beliefs, motivations, aspirations, and actions are tracked and measured, and turned into numbers that describe what we believed, wanted, and did in the past.
By understanding human beliefs, motivations, and aspirations (and capturing them as qualitative insights), we gain insight into why we believed, wanted, and did those things and, as a result, how those beliefs, motivations, aspirations, and actions could change and be changed. With these insights, we can develop strategies and plans to change or maintain beliefs and motivations and anticipate and prepare for events that could accelerate or hinder our goals. And yes, these insights can be quantified.
Qualitative Insight’s curse: We must be brave
When discussing the merit of pursuing or applying qualitative research, it’s not uncommon for someone to trot out the saying (erroneously attributed to Henry Ford), “If I asked people what they wanted, they would have said a horse that goes twice as fast and eats half as much.”
Pushing against that assertion requires you to be brave. To let go of your desire for certainty and safety, take a risk, and be intellectually brave.
Being brave is hard. Staying safe is easy. It’s rational. It’s what any reasonable person would do. But safe, rational, and reasonable people rarely change the world.
One more story
In 1980, McKinsey predicted that the worldwide market for cell phones would max out at 900,000 subscribers. They based this prediction on solid data, analyzed by some of the most intelligent people in business. The data and resulting recommendations made sense when presented to AT&T, McKinsey’s client.
Five years later, there were 340,213 subscribers, and McKinsey looked pretty smart. In 1990, there were 5.3 million subscribers, almost 6x McKinsey’s prediction. In 1994, there were 24.1M subscribers in the US alone (27x McKinsey’s global forecast), and AT&T was forced to pay $12.6B to acquire McCaw Cellular.
Should AT&T have told McKinsey to “go to Hell?” No.
Should AT&T have thanked McKinsey for going to (and through) Hell to get the data, then asked whether they swung by earth to talk to humans and understand their Jobs to be Done around communication? Yes.
Because, as Box founder Aaron Levie reminds us,
“Sizing the market for a disruptor based on an incumbent’s market is like sizing a car industry off how many horses there were in 1910.”
* Except for the last line, these probably (definitely) weren’t his exact words, but they are an accurate representation of what I remember him saying
All eyes are on you,
You have the data. You heard everyone’s opinions. Now it’s time to decide.
Which projects get funding?
How will headcount change?
What projects are “deprioritized?”
You know that making tough decisions is the essence of leadership, but you’re starting to wonder if maybe life wouldn’t be a whole lot easier if you just stood up, walked out, and moved to a hut on a remote island and ate mangos and fish the rest of your life.
You make 35,000 decisions each day, and some of those decisions are really tough.
They’re tough because you don’t have enough data to be 100% certain of the answer. Or because everyone has a different opinion on what the correct answer is. Or because the consequences, even if you’re right, are breathtakingly high.
But these aren’t the reasons people struggle, even resist, making decisions. After all, you worked hard to get to a position where you could make these decisions.
Decisions are tough because when you say “Yes” to one thing, you’re saying “No” to something else.
Say No to Loss Aversion
When you say “No,” your brain doesn’t focus on what you gained (clarity, resolution). It focuses on what you lost.
This is called Loss aversion, and it’s a common cognitive bias that leads people to do anything they possibly can to avoid losses. Because when your brain focuses on loss, the pain you feel is twice as intense as the pleasure you feel from what you gained.
That’s why when you choose between two equally strategic projects (because you don’t have the resources to launch both), each projected to generate $100M in revenue, you feel like you lost $200M instead of gaining $100M.
Say Yes to Easier Decisions
You can’t make tough decisions, like stopping projects, easy. But you can make them easier.
1. Communicate how you will decide BEFORE starting any work
“I’ll know it when I see it,” is lazy and selfish. It’s lazy because it shows that you haven’t thought through the issue or understand the implications. It’s selfish because you’re forcing your team into a guessing game in which they must do all the work, hoping that they collect the data you need.
If you know how you’ll make the decision, tell the team, saving them time and energy collecting the inputs you need.
If you think you know how you’ll decide but want to preserve the option to consider other inputs, tell your team, “I expect to make a decision based on x, y, and z, but I’m also open to other factors.”
If you don’t know how you’ll make the decision, maybe the decision doesn’t need to be made.
2. Understand if and how the decision can change
Some decisions are forever, and some can be changed. Getting a tattoo is a Forever Decision (yes, you can have it removed later, but it’s painful, expensive, and time-consuming). Getting a body piercing is a For Now Decision (pull out the stud, and you’re set).
What type of decision are you making? A Forever Decision or a For Now Decision? What would cause you to change your mind if it’s a For Now Decision?
Answering these questions helps everyone understand the stakes and avoid surprise and confusion if something changes. And it takes a bit of pressure off your shoulders, too.
3. Reflect and respect the deadline
If you rush into a decision, you’re more likely to make a superficial or short-sighted decision. If you take too long, you may miss an opportunity.
If you don’t have a deadline to make a decision, give yourself one and stick to it. Yes, the deadline may move back, giving you more time. But it may also move up, giving you less. Hope for the best (more time), plan for the worst (less time), and act with what you’ve got.
Then schedule at least a few days between receiving the needed information and making a decision. Doing so gives you time to reflect, ask questions, and follow up with people. It also gives your brain time to work its magic and produce A-Ha! moments.
One more decision
Some decisions are easy.
Some are incredibly tough.
226.7 decisions involve food.
Decide to make the tough ones easier.
What are some of the things you know you should do, but you don’t?
- Eat five servings of vegetables each day
- Take a multivitamin
- Do 10 minutes of cardio daily
- Vegetables don’t taste as good as pizza.
- Multivitamins don’t affect how you feel today (or tomorrow or next month)
- You don’t have time for the 45 minutes that 10 minutes of cardio actually takes (changing into workout clothes, doing cardio, showering after)
It’s ok. I get it. Heck, I say all the same things.
What about the other things you know you should do but don’t?
- Invest in innovation
- Invest regularly, not just when business is good
- Invest repeatedly because it’s a key driver of revenue growth and competitive advantage
Guess what, the reasons you’re not doing it are similar to why you’re not eating vegetables, taking a multivitamin, or sprinting through your neighborhood:
- Innovation is so much more uncertain and complex than running your day-to-day business
- Innovation doesn’t affect your bottom line this quarter (or this year or next)
- You don’t have time because you’re focused on putting out fires and operating today’s business
It’s ok. We all get it. Heck, I’m absolutely sure we all have the same reasons.
How to Turn Shoulds Into Dids
What can we do about all this? After all, the first step is acknowledging you have a problem (or, at least, aren’t doing something you know you should).
1. Start Small.
It’s not practical (or yummy) to go from zero servings of vegetables to five, so don’t. Try going from zero to one and find a one you like (not just tolerate).
Same thing with innovation. Don’t go from no investment to standing up an entirely new team in new fancy offices with massive budgets. Find a nagging problem that annoys everyone and, if it can be solved, will produce tangible and meaningful results. Tap a few people to work on it full-time, give them a small budget, and a short timeframe within which to make progress (not solve the entire problem), and check in weekly.
2. Piggyback on another habit
A multivitamin won’t change how you feel today, but it could change how you feel years from today. But trying to remember to take a multivitamin every day is mentally exhausting. So try to work your multivitamin into an already existing daily habit. Do you have prescriptions you take every day? Put the vitamin bottle next to those. Stare at the coffee maker waiting for it to finish? Put the vitamins next to it, so you take them while staring.
Same thing with innovation. You have teams in your organization consistently working to make your products and processes better, faster, and cheaper. Have them teach others how to do what they do. You have business leaders projecting ever-increasing revenue. Ask them to explain what needs to happen to make that growth possible and how it will occur. Then invest in the people, skills, and resources required.
3. Say what you mean (even if it’s super uncomfortable)
If it’s important, you make time. After all, research proves that “I don’t have time” means “it’s not a priority. If having great cardio was really important to me (it is), I would make time to run (I don’t). In other words, great cardio is important, but it’s not a priority (or not a higher priority than binging Stranger Things).
When an innovation team asks for time on your calendar, don’t tell them you don’t have time. Be honest and tell the team they’re not a priority or a lower priority than the other things you’re spending time on. Harsh? Yes. Helpful. Absolutely! This level of honesty gives the innovation team a clear sense of what they’re competing against for scarce resources, the bar they have to clear to rise up your priority list, and a starting point from which to work with you to get what they need in a way that works for you.
You can do it
Shoulds fill our lives. But they’re not all equal and won’t all become dids.
If a should is essential, we’ll find a way to make it happen. It won’t be easy, but it is possible. If a should isn’t essential or as important as other shoulds, it will stay a should.
Maybe that’s ok. Maybe it’s not. Maybe I’ll regret choosing fries over mixed veggies as a side.
We’ll know someday.
As a leader, you champion innovation. You recognize its importance to your organization. Its role in creating new sources of revenue and competitive advantage, attracting and retaining talent, and ensuring long-term growth.
And because you believe in the importance of innovation, you advocate for it every chance you get. You talk to people throughout your organization. Heck, you even talk to innovators inside and outside your industry so that you can learn and share best practices and stay on the cutting edge.
But do you also talk to:
- Doubters tired of seeing innovation efforts come and go with no results?
- Naysayers questioning why money is spent on innovation that may or may not work when it’s needed somewhere that will generate returns?
- Blockers determined to save the company from the latest management trend?
Most of us don’t because it’s:
- Uncomfortable because you feel like you need to defend yourself and your work.
- Frustrating because you don’t feel heard.
- Infuriating because you’re punished for mistakes your predecessors made,
It’s so much easier to avoid them.
To talk to them only when you need something.
To grumble about them, their short-sightedness, and the day they will finally be forced to admit that you were right and they were wrong.
(ok, maybe the last one is just me because I do love a good “I told you so” fantasy)
It’s easier to preach to the choir.
Innovation is difficult for many reasons – the work requires people to embrace uncertainty in an environment designed to eliminate it, timelines often exceed organizational patience, and there’s no guarantee of ROI.
It’s also difficult because it requires us to be brave. And part of being brave is talking to the people who don’t believe in innovation the way you do and don’t support your efforts. (Yet.)
It’s important to preach to brick walls.
Talking to the doubters, naysayers, and blockers feels like running into a brick wall. You run into enough brick walls every day. Why bother seeking out more?
Because brick walls exist to protect things, to keep the bad out and the good in. They support things, enabling structures to grow, house, and help more people. Brick walls keep people comfortable and last for centuries.
And that’s precisely what the doubters, naysayers, and blockers believe they are doing.
But brick walls also have doors to allow people in and windows to enable people to see out.
So too do the doubters, naysayers, and blockers. You just need to knock.
Knock by asking about them as human beings and what motivates them as professionals.
Seek to understand why they do the things they do and say the things they say.
Bring gifts of empathy and inquiry, not demands of agreement and support.
Your goal as an innovation champion isn’t to break down brick walls.
It’s to find and open the door, learn what music the residents enjoy, and invite them to listen to the choir.
And, maybe one day, join it.