Book review: The Opposable Mind

By Roger Martin

Harvard Business School Press


Believe it or not, I can be annoying. Really, really annoying although in an earnest sort of way.

I’ve acquired this irrepressible urge to problem-solve and troubleshoot. Life’s turned into one big suggestion box and I’m forever serving up solutions even if no one’s asking or remotely cares.

Instead of saying, "That was great service," I’m thinking and saying, "You know what could make that even greater?"

I’m the guy who actually looks forward to telemarketers who call with opinion surveys.

I can’t help but tell you about a book, magazine or website that’s worth a read. Or a person you should talk with. Or a place you should check out. Ask me what’s new and I’ll launch into a 30-minute monologue about a big idea that I’m kicking around although the details are still a little sketchy.

I assume everyone shares a keen interest in social innovation, hero-worships community builders and is dying to know how a smart idea that made a difference in a remote African village could be easily replicated on the streets of Hamilton.

And should you ever ask me to weigh in on two options, I’ll merrily wander off far into left field and bring back a third option. Or, if you’re lucky, a baker’s dozen worth of Plan Bs. As good as the ideas may be on the table, I always believe there’s a better idea somewhere out there and I’m the first to round up a search party.

For a time, I thought that maybe a rare form of Tourette’s syndrome explained the compulsion to continually wonder and ask aloud "what if?"

But now I have author and Rotman School of Business dean Roger Martin to thank for a possible new defence.

Integrative thinking.

Martin is a big believer in the power of integrative thinking. It’s the ability to hold two opposing ideas in your mind at the same time and use that creative tension to create a synthesis that holds elements of both yet improves on each.

"Integrative thinking produces possibilities, solutions and new ideas," says Martin. "It creates a sense of limitless possibility. Conventional thinking hides potential solutions in places they can’t be found and fosters the illusion that no creative solution is possible. With integrative thinking, aspirations rise over time. Conventional thinking is a self-reinforcing lesson that life is about accepting unattractive and unpleasant trade-offs."

It’s the difference between accepting the world as it is and welcoming the challenge of changing the world and our community for the better. And it’s what separates brilliant leaders from the managerial crowd.

When Isadore Sharp got into the hotel business, there were two ways of doing business. Run small, no-frills motels that offered intimate and friendly service. Or operate big, impersonal downtown hotels catering to business travellers, packed with enough rooms to cover the costs of conference and banquet facilities and multiple restaurants.

Instead of settling for one or the other, Sharp combined the best of small motels and large hotels and the Four Seasons hotel chain was the result, with premium pricing for exceptional customer service.

Procter and Gamble was floundering when A.G. Lafley took over as CEO.

Seven of its top 10 brands were losing market share and the stock price had fallen nearly 50 per cent. The company was spending more on research and development yet rolling out fewer innovative products.

What to do? One camp of senior execs saw P&G as a marketing and brand-building enterprise and wanted to scale back R&D spending. The other camp believed P&G was in the research and development business and innovation would drive growth.

A consummate integrative thinker, Lafley opted instead for a Connect & Develop initiative. He set a target for P&G to obtain half of its innovations from outside the company and then exploit the company’s marketing and distribution advantages to develop and commercialize those innovations.

So what aren’t more of us integrative thinkers like Sharp and Lafley?

"Blame the ‘factory setting’ of the contemporary business organization, which is biased toward simplification and specialization," says Martin.

Simplification makes us favour linear, unidirectional causal relationships, explains Martin, and encourages us to construct a limited model of the problem.

"The simplifying mind has no choice but to settle for trade-offs, also known as the best bad choice available."

While simplification makes reality more shallow and superficial than it really is, Martin says specialization masks out all but a few square inches of a vast canvas.

"Like simplification, specialization allows us to cope with what might be overwhelming complexity."

Yet such a narrow focus makes it hard to focus on the big picture. Integrative thinkers embrace the mess.

"They welcome complexity because they know the best answers arise from complexity. And they feel confident that they will not get lost along the way but emerge on the other side of the problem with a clear resolution."

While there’s no shortage of books that tell you what a leader does, Martin reveals how great leaders think and shows how we too can come up with innovative solutions that steer us clear of the best available bad choice.

Jay Robb is a freelance writer and occasional integrative thinker who blogs at

Published by

Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

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