Making a case for innovation in the absence of proof


How do you prove something that hasn’t happened yet?

That’s the challenge facing innovative ideas inside many companies.  Innovation, by definition, is a leap into the unknown.  But for organizations that increasingly look to past history/results and data to determine future steps, quantifying the likely success and/or risk with an innovative idea can be tricky.

Or, as Roger Martin and Jennifer Riel put it in their recent Business Week column, "Innovation is killed with the two deadlies words in business: Prove it."

They continue:

"We use existing information to understand the issue at play.  But for breakthroughs, there is no rule or pool of past data to provide certainty.  So when a CEO demands evidence that an idea will succeed, he is driving innovation away."

Martin and Reil ultimately recommend innovators use pieces of past history, results, research and logic to stitch together a case for innovation based not on direct past evidence, but clues to a likely outcome.  They call it abductive logic, the logic of what could be.  It’s still a leap, but for organizations dedicated to innovation, it’s necessary.  The full Business Week column is worth a read, but their parting shot is particularly good:

"Asking what could be true – and jumping into the unknown – is critical to innovation.  Nurturing the ideas that result, rather than killing them, can be the tricky part.  But once a company clears this hurdle, it can leverage its efforts to produce the proof that leaders depend on to make commitments – and turn the future into fact."