The Two Most Deadly Words to Innovation

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I heard them while attending the recent HSM World Innovation Forum in New York City.

Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, Roger Martin, was speaking on design thinking when he shared,

The two most dangerous two words to innovation are ‘prove it,’ because nothing new can be proven in advance. It can only be proven over the passage of time.

It was so obvious. So clearly true. Yet, how many of us still sit and wait for proof that the nutty idea in our heads WILL work, before we’re willing to invest more time, money, energy and risk of loss and judgment?

Within the context of larger organizations, even if you’re willing to step out onto the ledge, how often are you met with the need to be blessed by others who control the purse-strings, resources and ability to give you the space needed to push an idea forward…but not until you can “prove” to them your idea will work? Because it’s not just your ass on the the line, it’s theirs.

And, while the biggest top-down innovation killer within a team or company is “prove it,” it also seems the two most deadly words for any innovator, on an individual level, may just be…”may I?”

Curious, what do YOU think?


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25 responses

25 responses to “The Two Most Deadly Words to Innovation”

  1. Craig says:

    I like your post. We want to “prove it” before doing it because not only are there harsh consequences for failing, but very little incentive for simply trying. We are only encouraged to try in these settings, if it is close to a sure thing. It raises a good point about how many ideas, if nourished, could actually grow into something if the bar for believing it could work was lowered.
    There is something about our nature that either loves a long shot or a sure thing. But everything else in the middle is somewhat ignored. It’s a shame since there is a lot of good in that middle area.

  2. I agree that “prove it” is a enthusiasm killer! On the other hand, often there are lots of good ideas. How do you decide which ones to put resources behind, and which one to let go? Some ideas are pretty low-risk and you can just go ahead and try them out. Some ideas take lots of effort to make them happen – isn’t it worth some effort to make sure that your hunch is grounded in reality? That’s why companies good at innovation get lots of ideas into the pipeline, so that they can kill some. So “prove it” doesn’t have to mean “make this risk-free,” just “demonstrate this is worth pursuing more than these other 30 other great ideas.”

    • Jonathan Fields says:

      Challenge with that is – the more innovative/revolutionary it is, the less capable you’ll be of proving it. So the greatest innovations end up getting pushed aside in the name of things more capable to proof, but also likely far less impactful and innovative.

  3. dave r. says:

    i prefer the nike “do it”…nothing gets done until you “do it”…the “prove it” thought is dominated by the “sales prevention team”…if you have a well thought out idea and plan, “go for it.”

  4. Joe Dixon says:

    I’ve been kicking an idea (well, a few ideas) around for a long time, and finally, yesterday was spurred into action. I launched my new blog.

    I’ve been writing songs for a long time, and I have never let them ‘prove themselves’. I’ve always just been happy with them, and played them to myself.

    But I guess a confluence of factors conspired over the past few weeks to have me be more focused on trying. So I’m trying this out.

    Thanks for this great reminder that we never know until we try!

  5. Deb says:

    More challenging when you are forced to prove to someone else versus yourself.
    YOU have faith in “yourself” but others might not?
    If your “gut” gives you the go ahead and that feeling that you can succeed, then go for it.
    What is the worst thing that could happen?
    You didn’t “Prove It”? 🙂

  6. Keri says:


    Love your retort question, “May I?”

    Shows moxy!! 😀


  7. Bunn says:

    I have always been a just do it person. My saying was ..”what’s the worst that can happen, I end up living at the river in a tipi? Well the worst did happen and I’m still ok and still able to create. I just do it in my mom’s basement now. But with so many ideas and projects I do ask myself, which one will product the most return for my efforts today. That’s the one I start with.

  8. Carla Arena says:

    My four-word answer to that would be “let me try it” before I can prove it. By doing that, many things in my institution have changed, but the ones on the top trusted me and backed me up to try out things they thought would work.

  9. Joshua says:

    Another phrase that kills innovation is “it’s already been done before.” I find myself sometimes using at as an excuse to discredit my own idea so I don’t have to take the risk.

  10. eliza says:

    I think it’s human nature to want to experience the least possible risk. As I read this post, I immediately thought how applicable it is to life in general. We don’t like to take risks. We want proof (or enough clues) to know we won’t get hurt or lose or whatever the case may be.

    As time goes on though, one gains enough experience in certain areas to know what are good risks and what aren’t (hopefully).

    Another topic related to “prove it” is trusting your gut – or intuition.
    There are many types of entrepreneurs out there but I’m guessing the most successful ones combine knowledge with a gut feeling (hunch/intuition) to inform the decision whether take the risk or not.

    Bottom line: “Purse string holders” who say “prove it” may be successful but they will never be innovative. Same hold true for the “may I”‘s of the world.

  11. Tom Catalini says:

    I was at that forum and thought Roger Martin (who I’d not heard of before) was one of the best speakers. Really enjoyed what he had to say, including the statement about ‘prove it.’

    Roger gave a great presentation centered around what would seem to be a simple and obvious thesis (but isn’t): to innovate – to do something new – requires that you don’t keep doing what you’ve done before.

    His comments inspired a blog post that I wrote that week:

    …and it’s been helpful in making the case to others about innovation, and what sort of approach is required to do new things.

  12. It’s a tricky Catch 22 for sure.

    Sometimes when decision makers and investors say “Prove it” they really mean “Show us real results that demonstrate the true value of your concept or product”. There is a subtle difference between the two.

    Proof is good when it is attainable, but when it isn’t and the idea is still great, what an innovator needs is other minds who have an almost unabashedly stubborn faith and vision, and, oh yeah, some money to put behind it.’o^)

  13. Proving an idea takes time, patience and a lot of belief. There is no innovation, invention or revolutionary idea that was without risk, learning curves and failures. If we wait until an idea has been proved to be a success, we are already behind in getting on board.

    Innovators are brave people willing to walk tightropes without a net, launch products with their last savings and sometimes even sleep in their cars. To innovate you must not hesitate, but jump. You’ll prove something; it’s just not clear what until you do it.

    From listening to the stories of many successful people, I’ve decided that it takes about 10 years to become an overnight success.

  14. Judy Martin says:

    I feel like innovation – by design – needs to be organic. You really can only hypothesize about outcome in a flow of creativity. It’s ever changing and evolving – that’s why it’s innovative. Always willing to take the risk, even if hesitant. Better to fail or be misunderstood than to bail on chance or uncertainty.

  15. One very unfortunate flaw in design thinking is the almost universally uncontested belief that customers have latent unarticulated needs. This is simply not true when we understand what a need really is and stop confusing needs with solutions. As Theodore Levitt said nearly 50 years ago, “People don’t want to buy a 1/4 inch drill. They want a 1/4 inch hole!” People buy products and services to get jobs done (make a 1/4 inch hole). When people find they need to get a job done, they look around for a product or service to “hire” to help them. Customers CAN tell us what they want to get done. Customers can tell us their needs as long as we stay focused on the job to be done rather than product requirements. And we CAN survey a statistically valid sample of the customer population to “prove” that a job is both important and unsatisfied by current solutions. And we can also validate an idea we come up with to address our customers’ unmet needs with a statistically valid sample as well. In other words, we CAN “prove it” before a dime is spent on the ideas’ development.

  16. Christopher says:

    I was small as a child and in high school.

    In the 3rd grade, my mom told me I was too small to play football.

    I always remembered that. It pissed me off.

    I became good enough to win a conference championship in division 3 football as a team captain and team MVP.


  17. Dr.K.Prabhakar says:

    While there are many words that kill innovation. What you pointed out is really powerful killer. However, without sufficient proof if you jump to conclusions we may be putting the innovator justify likely failures. How do you trade off between healthy skepticism and total acceptance of any idea?

  18. illana says:

    I think ‘Prove It’ is right up there with ‘What’s the ROI?’. I once spent tree months trying to prove the value of having a presence on social media sites (for a company that had a worldwide philanthropic mission). They just couldn’t see the value of something they couldn’t prove.

  19. K. Chang says:

    My counter to your submission would be…

    “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
    — Carl Sagan

    It’s called “rational skepticism”.

  20. Gilliom says:

    Why not turn it around?
    Maybe every organization should have a small team of “provers”, who’s job it is to debunk an innovative idea. “Prove it is definitely not going to work! Otherwise, let’s get on with it.”
    Chances are they can’t “prove it” either…

  21. Kahryn says:

    Another aspect of having to “proove-it” is that it may preclude you from going down a path of discovery – that, while may not realize the initial vision or target goal – might bring about something wholly different but just as wonderful or desirable.

    While there is something to be said for challenging one’s thinking and ideas, there is also something to be said for following one’s intuition – which can often not be proven. If you have a strong inner knowing and sense that something is possible, and you have a proven track record of bringing to fruition previous ideas or visions that arose from intuition, then I think as an individual you owe it to yourself to follow your muse to see where it leads you.

  22. Brandy says:

    Interesting post. Makes you think. For me, as stubborn as I am, the phrase, “Prove it.” acts as a catalyst. Not to say my ideas always work, but the notion that others are skeptical spurs me on. I hear it, smile and mouth, “Watch me.”