Friday, April 03, 2009

Review: "The Opposable Mind" by Roger Martin

Some of my best experiences in reading books have occurred when someone I trust and respect has said to me: "You need to read this book!" That is how I discovered the marvelous insights that Roger Martin shares in his book, "The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking." One day over lunch, my friend, Rick Cerf, showed me the book and told me that I needed to add it to my reading list. Thanks, Rick!

Martin, who is Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, offers as his major premise the idea that the best leaders avoid simplistic binary choices, and put in the extra effort to find solutions to complex problems - solutions that go beyond false dichotomies. The best leaders think in terms of "Both/And" rather than "Either/Or."

"As I listened to some of the sharpest minds in business talk about how they thought through the most pressing and perplexing dilemmas of their careers, I searched for a metaphor that could give me deeper insight into the dynamic of their thinking. The skill with which these thinkers held two opposing ideas in fruitful tension reminded me of the way other highly skilled people use their hands. Human beings, it's well known, are distinguished from nearly every other creature by a physical feature known as the opposable thumb. Thanks to the tension we create by opposing the thumb and fingers, we can do marvelous things that no other creature can do - write, thread a needle, carve a diamond, paint a picture, guide a catheter up through an artery to unblock it. All those actions would be impossible without the crucial tension between the thumb and the fingers. . . Similarly, we were born with an opposable mind we can use to hold two conflicting ideas in constructive tension." (Pages 6-7)

The language that Martin chooses here is very instructive, and is reminiscent of language I remember being used by one of my favorite graduate school professors - Dr. Gordon Fee. Dr. Fee, one of the translators of the New International Version of the Bible, is a brilliant biblical scholar and communicator. He would often describe difficult portions of Scripture that, on the surface, may appear to contradict each other, and he would declaim: "We hold these truths in tension!"

As an example of "opposable mind thinking," Martin offers the legendary choreographer, Martha Graham:

"Like Graham, the creative thinkers I interviewed knew they would need plenty of help to reach creative resolutions. They chose their collaboration expressly for what they would contribute to an integrated whole. Bruce Mau, a renowned designer and frequent collaborator with architect Frank Gehry, told me, 'You can't make a renaissance person any more, because the range of what you would need to do is just impossible. But you could actually assemble a renaissance team.' The integrative thinkers rely on their 'renaissance teams' to broaden salience, maintain sophisticated causality, and create a holistic architecture in their drive for creative resolution." (Page 82)

Throughout the book, Martin lays out principle for integrative thinking and fleshes out those principles using real world examples:

"Nandan Nilekani, the builder and CEO of what is perhaps India's most successful global IT powerhouse, Infosys Technologies Limited, says that when he's confronted with two fundamentally opposed sets of requirements, his first inclination is to ask, 'Are there solutions that satisfy both?' And when asked whether he thought strategy or execution was more important, Jack Welch, the former chairman and CEO of General Electric, responded, 'I don't think it's an either-or.'" (Page 114)

Since Rick turned me on to this book and its treasure chest of ideas, I have had occasion to share those ideas with quite a few individuals. In several cases, they called me back a day or two later to thank me for the insights, and to tell me that they had ordered their own copy of the book. In the interest of "paying forward" the gift that Rick Cerf gave me of a marvelous suggestion that I read this book, I recommend that you procure a copy of "The Opposable Mind."



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