Books Special: Roger Martin on The Opposable Mind

You've heard of opposable thumbs. In fact, we're hoping most of you have them. But an opposable mind?

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

‘The Opposable Mind’ is a new book by Roger Martin, professor of strategic management at the Rotman School of Management in Toronto. Based on a series of in-depth interviews with (largely North American) business leaders, Martin argues that the best leaders are able to hold two apparently conflicting ideas in their mind – and rather than settle for one or the other (as we mere mortals would do), draw on aspects of both to come up with a completely different alternative.

He cites various examples, including A.G. Laffley of P&G, Bob Young of software company Red Hat and Michael Lee-Chin of Canadian fund manager AIC. But his favourite is Isadore Sharp, founder of the Four Seasons hotel group. Faced with a choice between the two operating models of the time – the small, intimate but few-frills motel, or the large, well-appointed but impersonal hotel – he decided to create something completely different: a medium-sized hotel with such good service that it could feel like a small hotel but charge like a big hotel.

Martin calls this ‘integrative thinking’, and believes that it’s made possible by an ‘opposable mind’, which can hold two ideas in tension against each other – a bit like the opposable thumb allows us to create tension against the fingers. And just as the thumb gives humans an evolutionary advantage, so the opposable mind makes these leaders kings and queens of the corporate jungle.
Martin came up with the concept while he was trying to work out how successful leaders made decisions. The problem, he decided, was that the autobiographies written by the Jack Welches of this world tend to focus on what these leaders do – and since they obviously do all sorts of things, depending on the situation, it’s a bit hard to learn anything from it. ‘I wanted to step back and ask: is there a way that they think, which enables them to figure out what to do in a particular context?’

Apparently so. ‘The key is that integrative thinkers operate differently at each stage. They consider more features of a problem to be salient; they see a greater number of causal relationships between different factors; they can keep the whole in mind while working on the part, rather than trying to go through it sequentially; and they drive for a creative resolution rather than accepting trade-offs.’

But if you’re starting to feel a bit intimidated, fear not. F. Scott Fitzgerald might have believed that this was only possible for geniuses, but Martin thinks he was talking rot. ‘I believe it’s more developmental than that. The early evidence from Rotman is that it is teachable, you can move people along the spectrum.’ But it might mean teaching people in a different way, he reckons – rather than learning a particular model and asking them to regurgitate it parrot-fashion, students should be taught to examine all kinds of different models. ‘We’re trying to tell them that model clash is a really good thing,’ he says.

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