The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win through Integrative Thinking

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By Roger L. Martin
Harvard Business School Press, 2007, 222 pages

Ever since the publication of In Search of Excellence in 1982, the competition between theory and practice for the attention of management readers has been lopsided, with practice clearly far ahead. In The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win through Integrative Thinking, Roger L. Martin, former management consultant and dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, adds his considerable weight to the other side of the struggle. In his view, management action is too dependent on context to be helpful as a guide to others, and transferable learning comes from understanding how effective leaders think, rather than from understanding what they do. He uses the gleanings from more than 50 interviews with successful leaders to argue that they share a capacity for a “cognitive discipline” he calls integrative thinking. The opposable mind, he suggests, can be used to grasp complex situations and is an antidote to the either–or decision making characteristic of conventional thinking.

Experts in any field where the skills are tacit rather than explicit are notoriously inept at accounting for their success. It is up to researchers to identify the patterns and tease out the components. The holy grail is to make the expert’s methods explicit and teachable, and this is Martin’s goal. But it requires him to make two questionable assumptions that, in fact, are common enough to provoke much of the criticism of business schools.

The first is that effective action is, or should be, preceded by a conscious, context-independent process called “thinking”; the second is that training in this process can improve performance. Together, these two assumptions lead to an un­comfortable disconnect between theory and practice as the writer alternates between abstract conceptual frameworks and war stories from the field. For example, the elements of the thinking process are described as four stages, Salience, Causality, Architecture, and Resolution. According to Martin, it is a sequence that conventional thinkers negotiate in a narrow, linear fashion, whereas integrative thinkers make continual recursions, keeping their options open while searching for broader solutions. This may be so, but it is hard to see how the author derives this from the data. In addition, Martin’s research method will not pass scientific scrutiny. He studies only successes, and there is no consideration of counterexamples, either of integrative thinkers who failed or of conventional thinkers who succeeded. It seems unlikely, for example, that either Jeff Skilling, former chief executive of Enron, or fallen press baron Conrad Black failed because of their inability to think integratively.

John Dewey once wrote, “No thought, no idea, can possibly be conveyed as an idea from one person to another.” That may sound like a bleak point of view and one that business schools are unlikely to embrace, but it underlines the fact that the price of “context indepen­dence” is abstraction. In an effort to escape the use of abstractions when teaching business, there is a significant move toward the use of simulations — mini-experiences through which students learn without being formally taught. Concepts, if they are used at all, come up as interpretive frameworks rather than as guides to action. When we cannot reduce the tacit knowledge of experts to explicit, teachable concepts, the best we can do is understand how their practice and experience contributed to their success. We may then be in a position to replicate those experiences for others to learn from. The book’s stories of leaders such as A.G. Lafley, CEO of Procter & Gamble, are interesting ones, but they would have been made more compelling if Martin had distilled the essence of their experiences rather than laid on what feels at times like a Procrustean conceptual framework. Practice may have once again trumped theory.

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