Martin, R, (2007). The opposable mind: How successful leaders win through integrative thinking. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.
The author, Roger Martin, is dean of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. In his introduction to the book, Martin’s acknowledged the huge influence of three scholars: Hilary Austen Johnson - how a person develops artistic knowledge; James March - organizational learning and Elliot Eisner - qualitative research, on bringing this book on integrative thinking skills into existence.
The First Half
Introduction to the book:
Martin opens the book with a real-life case history of Michael Lee-Chin and his rescue of his money management firm from bankruptcy by using a thinking practice that Martin terms ‘integrative’. He defined this as:
The ability to face constructively the tension of opposing ideas and instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generate a creative resolution of the tension in the form of a new idea that contains elements of the opposing idea but is superior to each (p.15).
Martin’s research of this ‘higher level’ thinking skill consists of interviews with “more than fifty great managerial leaders” (p. 9), over the course of 6 years with some of these interviews lasting more than 8 hours. Fitting leaders for these interviews were described as those “who have striking and exemplary success records” (p. 5). Martin in selecting these leaders to interview was intent on discovering if there was a shared theme in their successes. His conclusion was that integrative thinking was this shared theme.
Martin noted that often the focus is upon what successful leaders are doing - their actions as opposed to ‘how’ they decided to do what they did. However, sometimes actions that look good at the time are often proven to be disastrous decisions. Martin noted that the leaders with proven records did not operate in the same style all the time. However, their thinking style was consistent . He wanted to learn first of all what this style was and find ways of developing this cognitive skill in other aspiring leaders.
Characteristics of integrative thinkers: (p. 41 - 43)
1. They take a broader view of what is salient.
2. They don’t flinch from considering multidirectional and nonlinear casual relationships.
3. They don’t break a problem into independent pieces and work on each piece separately. They keep the entire problem in mind while working on its individual pieces.
4. They always search for creative resolutions of tensions, rather than accepting unpleasant trade-offs.
Martin describes conventional thinking or linear regression as the business world’s preferred tool because “it is easier to think about simple, unidirectional causal relationships” (p. 45). People who make a problem more complicated than it ought to be are irritating to managers because they want to move on. He notes that “the most common failing of conventional thinking is the tendency to lose sight of the whole decision” (p. 46). Failure to think in a ‘holistic’ way results in fixing one piece of the pie while ruining other pieces of the same pie.
Martin noted that everyone converts data into their version of what is ‘reality’. The same data can and will be converted into different realities based on the different individuals. Integrative thinkers, according to Marin, do not feel the need to defend a particular position or version of ‘the facts’. Instead they concentrate on merging as many of those realities together as possible to enhance the quality of the outcome. They also refuse to settle for “mediocrity and half measures” (p. 71). If trade-offs were unpleasant it simply meant that the current solution wasn’t good enough. One interesting fact noted by Martin is the refusal of these leaders to take action ‘now”. Rather, they chose to ‘think harder’ until the solution met their predetermined standards and the unpleasant trade-offs disappeared.
Martin blamed the ‘factory settings’ of contemporary business organizations for its bias “toward simplification and specialization”. Humans in general, asserted Martin “gravitate toward simplification and specialization” (p. 75). People are desperate to keep the complexity and chaos at a manageable level. Although simplification is comforting, it impairs integrative thinking causing us to edit rather than consider more salient features. This editing results in less than satisfactory answers to many challenges. Truly creative resolutions, according to Martin, spring from complexity.
Specialization in the business arena results in each different department acquiring a large degree of expertise in an area of specific knowledge - finance, marketing, operations, etc.
“That expertise actually works against the development of expertise in business itself” (p. 79). Martin quotes management expert, Peter Drucker as saying, “there are no finance decisions, tax decisions, or marketing decisions; only business decisions” (p. 79).
In embracing complexity as the only pathway to truly creative solutions, Martin offered encouragement for those fearful of allowing yet more complexity into their lives. He quoted from F.C. Kohli, the founder of Indian software company, Tata Consultancy:
“Any situation has a certain number of alternative, but if you are doing system thinking, even for a complex problem, and you realize what is the system, what are the subsystems, what are the sub-subsystems, and you define their relationships as well as you can, you will start seeing some daylight, how to get out of it” (p.81)
The key then, according to Martin, is to look for patterns, connections and causal relationships and to give ourselves credit for being able to handle more complexity than we think we can.
In summary, in seemingly irreconcilable alternatives, creative resolutions are brought about by: separating existing models from reality; setting unyielding standards; taking responsibility instead of claiming to be a victim of circumstance; taking a broad view of salient features; exploring more sophisticated causal relationships among the salient elements; keeping the whole firmly in mind while working on the parts and driving relentlessly for a creative resolution. (p. 89).
The Second Half
Developing your opposable mind and building your integrative thinking capacity
In the second half of the book Martin focused on developing integrative thinking skills.
He used the interviews conducted with Bob Young the co-founder and former CEO of Red Hat to outline the various components of a personal knowledge system model consisting of:
Martin defined stance as “how you see the world around you, but it’s also how you see yourself in that world” (p. 93). Stance is different for each one of us.
Some of the critical components within ‘Young’s stance’ were :
Motivation - according to Martin this is vital. “When combined with learning, it’s a more powerful problem-solving tool than sheer intellect” (p. 95).
Learning trumps intellect
Build data over time
Act when you have mastered what you need to know
Accept criticism as valid
Improve a little bit every day
2. Tools we use to organize our thinking and understanding of the world. These range from formal theories to established processes to rules of thumb. Your stance guides what tools you choose to accumulate.
Experiences form your most practical and tangible knowledge.
These three components make up our personal knowledge system. “Stance guides the acquisition of tool, and stance and tools shape experiences which in turn inform tools, which in turn inform stance” (p. 103). A narrow and defensive stance will lead to acquisition of extremely limited tools and extremely limiting experiences. Your stance, tools and experiences are however, under your control and you have wide latitude in how you develop your personal knowledge system.
The integrative thinker’s stance: (p. 111 - 113)
1. They believe that whatever models exist at the present moment do not represent reality; they are simply the best or only constructions yet made
2. They believe that conflicting models, styles, and approaches to problems are to be leveraged not feared.
3. They believe that better models exist that are not yet seen.
4. They believe that not only does a better model exist, but that they are capable of bringing that better model from abstract hypothesis to concrete reality.
5. They are comfortable wading into complexity to ferret out a new and better model.
6. They give themselves time to create a better model.
The three most powerful tools of the integrative thinker
2. Causal Modeling – considering nonlinear and multidirectional causal links between salient variables while keeping the whole in mind.
3. Assertive inquiry – a sincere search for another’s views; a seeking for common views. It seeks to explore the underpinnings of your own model and that of another person. The objective is to “fashion a creative resolution between that person’s model and your own” (p. 157).
Marks of the integrative thinker:
Deepening on both ends of the mastery-originality spectrum
Nurturing the marks of originality (spontaneity, experimentation, flexibility and openness) while deepening mastery of organization, planning, focus, repetition, etc…seemingly opposite countermarks.
Key though is a trust in their own judgment with research being an aid to that judgment.
Reflections on The Opposable Mind:
What Martin is describing essentially is a view of the kind of thinking involved in the ‘creative process’ which has a clear mandate of a novel and useful outcome. I found the book really interesting in its clear outline and in-depth description of the “how to” components for developing these deeper level thinking skills. What really surprised me though was how little these types of skills are actually studied and taught to aspiring leaders. It is interesting to realize that sitting down at a table within the context of a business situation often calls for tweaks to the model/s in existence currently. Learning to really question established models and bring into existence something new is disruptive and often entered into only when the trade-offs are impossible to handle.There are however, so many parallels between Martin’s research on integrative thinking and creativity research that it seemed to me an almost unnecessary piece of literature. After all, much of what Martin has described in his book echo the work of creativity scholars – most of which was done many years before this book was published.
In Creativity is Forever, our first year text by Davis, the overview on creativity theorists such as Amabile’s three part model – domain-relevant skills, creativity-relevant skills and task motivation and Csikszentmihalyi’s (and Gardner’s) –person, domain and field model encapsulate Martin’s thoughts very nicely. Martin throws in many traits of the creative personality such as the need for openness, the suspension of judgment, divergent thinking and generative reasoning which are all noted by Martin as key attributes for successful integrative thinking. The whole outcome of this kind of thinking conforms to the typically accepted notion of creative product which is novel + useful ideas, bringing into existence something which did not exist before.
On the whole though, it is an interesting and necessary discussion on thinking skills which does a great job of describing creative thought processes and acknowledges that these are indeed necessary, complex and can be developed by anyone committed to learning them – just as creativity is.