Roger Martin: Interview #2 by Bob Morris

Roger Martin

Roger Martin is dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. He was appointed to a seven-year term beginning in September 1998 and re-appointed to a further five-year term effective July 2005. He is also a professor of strategic management at the Rotman School. A Canadian from Wallenstein, Ontario, he was formerly a director of Monitor Company, a global strategy consulting firm based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. During his 13 years with Monitor, he founded and chaired Monitor University, the firm’s educational arm, served as co-head of the firm for two years, and founded the Canadian office. His research interests lie in the areas of global competitiveness, integrative thinking, business design and corporate citizenship.  His published works include The Responsibility Virus: How Control Freaks, Shrinking Violets And the Rest of Us Can Harness the Power of True Partnership (Basic Books, 2002), The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking (Harvard Business School Press, 2007), The Future of the MBA: Designing the Thinker of the Future, with Mihnea Moldoveanu (Oxford University Press, 2008), and most recently, The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking is the Next Competitive Advantage (Harvard Business Press, 2009).

Morris: A great deal has (and hasn’t) happened in the global business world since our last conversation. In your opinion, what has been the single most significant change and why do you think so?

Martin: To me what is most interesting is that we had a giant stock market meltdown in 2001 and an economic recession following and then made a number of regulatory changes that were designed to make sure such a thing never happened again.  Well, it didn’t exactly work out that way!  Within seven years we had an even worse stock market blow-out and an even worse recession. Last time it took 70 years between crashes.  This time it was only 7 years. It is time to take a more critical look at the theories behind our regulatory fixes that failed so horribly in 2008-9.

Morris: To what extent (if any) have the values, goals, concerns, and issues of your MBA candidates changed in recent years?

Martin: Environmental sustainability has moved from the fringes of the MBA student mind to its very center.  Today’s students really care about sustainability and are going to bring that concern into their jobs.  I am really encouraged by what I see on that front.  These students really want to make a difference on the sustainability front. The other thing that is evident is that more of them are interested in immediate post-MBA careers in the not-for-profit sector.  It used to be that many students imagined that they might move to that sector sometime later in his career.  But now more are interested in that right away.

Morris: In your opinion, what is the single area in which even the most prestigious business schools are in greatest need of improvement? What specifically do you suggest?

Martin: It is in helping students solve real business problems of the sort they will face in the world into which they will graduate.  Business schools still teach them to solve stylized problems that fit nicely into course boxes.  I understand why.  It is easier to teach this way and there is more robust theory for narrowly-defined problems. But these aren’t the kind of problems that graduates will face when they enter the business world.  It would be nice if they would be, but they simply aren’t.  Business schools need to teach students to think integratively or they will be seen increasingly as teaching technocrats not managers.

Morris: What leadership lessons can be learned from the BP oil spill disaster that can be of greatest value to line managers as well as to CEOs?

Martin: There are many lessons.  The first is the limits of outsourcing.  It feels great to be able to dump tricky parts of the organization into someone else’s lap. But when you do that, you have to accept what you get and pay the price for that.  The second is that excuse-mongering rather than taking accountability might feel good at the time, but it really is a bad idea.  Telling the world that this wasn’t your rig and in any event it was really a tiny amount of oil relative to the body of water and that you wish this would go away so that you (the CEO) can get your life back – not good.  It is your fault.  Stand up.  Read the J&J/Tylenol case. CEO James Burke wrote the proverbial book on what to do thirty years ago.  The lessons stand today: take responsibility even if it isn’t clearly your fault; apologize unreservedly; and fix the problem decisively even if you spend more than might have been necessary.

Morris: Here’s a question I’ve wanted to ask you for years. If you were teaching a course in leadership, which film would you select that most effectively portrays the leadership principles you consider to be most important?

Martin: A Bad Day at Black Rock starring the incomparable Spencer Tracy.  The plot features a soldier (Tracy) back from WWII, minus one arm due to a battle injury, coming to a tiny western town to deliver a bravery medal awarded posthumously to the father of his Japanese-American platoon-mate. He quickly realizes that he isn’t going to be able to make the delivery.  The thugs in the town have murdered the father in an anti-Japanese rage.  The thugs, aided and abetted by the sheriff, do everything possible to thwart and eventually murder Tracy’s character, but he prevails by staying calm, not allowing himself to be provoked, sticking to his principles even though completely alone, and bringing the thugs to justice despite his physical disadvantages.  That is leadership.

Morris: Before discussing The Design of Business, a few general questions about design thinking. First, why have there been so many books and articles written about it in recent years, notably Tim Brown’s Change by Design, Hartmut Esslinger’s A Fine Line, Jay Greene’s Design Is How It Works, Roberto Verganti’s Design Driven Innovation, and Thomas Lockwood’s Design Thinking?

Martin: I think there is a general design awakening underway in the world.  In many markets, customers are getting way more sophisticated and demanding better design.  And at the same time, many companies are facing severely diminishing returns to business-as-usual.  And also at the same time, they are facing pressures to make headway on difficult issues such as sustainability.  So managers are more open to approaches that help them escape the bland mire of the status quo.  The good news is these books are really terrific, I think. I met Roberto at a DMI conference in San Francisco that I co-chaired.  What a clever and engaging fellow he is!

Although few people within an organization have the talent, training, and preparation to be design, I think that everyone – including but not limited to C-level executives – can become design thinkers. Do you agree? What are your thoughts about this?

Martin: I agree entirely. This puts me at odds with some of my designer friends who argue that to be a design thinker you must be trained as a designer.  I think that the distinction may be partly semantic.  When they hear design thinker, they see that as someone who could design a great graphical user interface, or a great car or logo or chair.  I don’t mean any of that.  Each of those things requires deep and specific expertise in the particular media/materials etc. and knowledge of the design languages pertinent to those objects.  That does require getting a design education in the design field in question – or making up for lack thereof with years and years of experience. When I use the term design thinker, I mean a person who utilizes the thinking skills of a designer to solve the challenges they face in whatever they are doing.  To me, the central piece of that is abductive logic – the logic of what might be, not of what is or can be proven.  And anybody can learn to express their natural abductive logical capacity.  The problem is just that most people don’t.

Morris: What is the relationship between design thinking and innovation?

Martin: They are linked by abductive reasoning.  Innovation requires imagining something that does not now exist but might be possible.  Design thinking adds abductive reasoning to the logical toolbox that traditionally contains only inductive and deductive reasoning.  So design thinking and innovation are closely tied: the latter contains an element that the former requires.

Morris: My own opinion is that integrative thinking such as you describe in The Opposable Mind is essential to the business design process. For those who have not as yet read that book or The Design of Business, please explain what integrative thinking is.

Martin: I agree.  Integrative thinking is the ability to face constructively the tension between opposing models and instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, to generate a creative resolution of the tension in the form of a model that contains elements of the individual models, but is superior to each. The design process is all about the creative resolution of tensions.  You never think about great designers telling you what you can’t have.  That is what you think of lousy designers.  Great designers figure out how to do things that appear to be undoable.

Morris: In your opinion, what specifically can be done to establish and then sustain a workplace environment in which design thinking is the principal driver of innovation?

Martin: The most important thing is to ban the use of the term: “Prove it.”  No new idea has ever been able to have been proven in advance. If superiors ask subordinates to prove (inductively or deductively) any initiative will work in advance of trying it, there will be no innovation.  It sounds like a simple thing, but if you can’t ask for proof, you have to have much different conversations.

Morris: I greatly admire John Maeda’s The Law of Simplicity. Almost two years ago, he was inaugurated as president of Rhode Island School of Design. Previously, he founded the SIMPLICITY Consortium and was a professor of media arts and sciences at MIT. Here’s my question: Are the major business schools such as Rotman also devoting more attention to design thinking than they have in years past?

Martin: We are continuing to ramp up the intensity of design at Rotman.  We started the design initiative in 2005 and have done more every year.  I love the work that my colleague Heather Fraser has done in leading DesignWorks at Rotman.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to The Design of Business. Why do you believe, as its subtitle suggests, that “design thinking is the next competitive advantage”?

Martin: I think that competitive cycles are shortening so that the creation and renewal of advantage is getting ever more important. That means that innovation is becoming more important than it ever was.  And since I think that design thinking is the key to innovation, it is the next important source of competitive advantage for companies.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read the book, what is a “knowledge funnel” and why is it important to the design thinking process?

Martin: ‘Knowledge funnel’ is the term I use to describe how knowledge advances in the world from a mystery – i.e. something we don’t even know how to think about – to a heuristic – .i.e. a rule of thumb for thinking about what was previously a mystery – to an algorithm – i.e. formula for routinizing what was previously a heuristic. Why things in the world fall down was once a mystery.  In due course, as knowledge advanced, it became a heuristic: a universal force called gravity. And as knowledge advanced further, we can to understand that objects drawn downward by gravity accelerate at 32 feet/second-squared – an algorithm.  It is important to understand how knowledge advances to appreciate the central role of abductive logic.

Morris: What can the C-level executives in an organization do to “think like a designer”?

Martin: They can avoid the request to “prove it.”  But in addition, they need to embrace the notion of visualizing things that do not now exist, prototyping them and refining them.  They need to think in terms of projects not permanent organizational structures.

Morris: Here’s a related question. What can they do to help others to “think like a designer”?

Martin: They can encourage and support their employees in creating the future, even though it won’t always work out the way they might have hoped.

Morris: For me, one of the best examples of the power of integrative thinking occurs when members of a cross-functional team communicate, cooperate, and collaborate effectively. What are your thoughts about this?

Martin: Yes, but only when they do so effectively as you say.  People tend to be fearful of cross-functional teams because they often don’t know what to do.  They often need help in figuring out how to be additive not at cross-purposes.

Morris: What lessons can be learned from exemplary companies such as Apple, Cirque du Soleil, Herman Miller, Procter & Gamble, Research in Motion, and Target?

Martin: I really think that the most basic and consistent lesson is that these companies balance reliability and validity.  They embrace validity enough to have products/services that absolutely delight the user.  But they also have enough disciplined reliability to scale their businesses to achieve the size and staying power they need to stay on top.

Morris: The “balancing act” that you examine in Chapter 5 involves reliability and validity. Why do so many people have difficulty doing so?

Martin: They are hard to balance because people tend towards being either a reliability or validity-oriented.  Few people seem to naturally balance. So strong-willed executives tend to unbalance their organizations.  The only way to balance is to appreciate the other side.  While the line from the movie Jerry McGuire is hopelessly corny – “You complete me” – it is very apt.  Reliability oriented people need validity oriented people to help them change and keep up with what markets and customers want.  Validity oriented people need reliability oriented people to help them achieve a level of consistency and stability to survive long term.

Morris: What are the dominant characteristics of a “world-class explorer”?

Martin: First, they recognize that while every day there is more progress to be made that day through exploitation rather than exploration, they remain committed to exploration because they know that exploitation without exploration is a dead-end. Second, they have no fear of going where none have gone before and enjoy the surprises that they find along the way.  Third, they don’t mind hitting dead-ends and starting over because they know they are learning something at every step.

Morris: Can anyone become a “world-class explorer”? If so, how?

Martin: Absolutely.  All they have to do is adopt the above mindset and practice.  Exploration is not rocket science.  It is experiential.

Morris: What is a design thinker’s “personal knowledge system” and why is it so important?

Martin: The knowledge system is the combination of three attribute: stance, tools and experiences.  Stance is the way you see the world and your role in it.  Tools are the conceptual frameworks you use to organize the world. Experiences are the things you do that build your skills and sensitivities.  If your stance is as an exploiter of the here and now, you will develop tools that help you exploit and you will practice exploiting and never become a design thinker.  If instead you see yourself as an explorer you will develop exploration tools and gain the experience to make you a great explorer.

Morris: In the final chapter, you offer five specific suggestions to help your reader work more effectively with different colleagues. Briefly, please explain what will each accomplish. Here’s #1: “Reframe extreme views as a creative challenge.”

Martin: If you see extreme views as a problem or danger, you will try to crush them and learn nothing from them.  If you see them as a creative challenge, you will explore them and learn lots.  Business people tend to see designers as worrisome and dangerous.  Designers tend to see business people as sticks-in-the-mud. Neither is conducive to exploration.

Morris: Here’s #2: “Empathize with your colleagues on the extremes.”

Martin: The only way you will learn from somebody different then you is to empathize with them.  The challenge is that the more different they are, the harder it is to empathize with them. The irony is that the more different they are, the more you can learn from them.

Morris: And now #3: “Learn to speak the languages of both reliability and validity.”

Martin: This is critical for you to be understood by a person of the opposite inclination.  When validity oriented people speak in validity oriented language, they make it harder for reliability oriented people to understand them at all.

And #4: “Put unfamiliar concepts in familiar terms.”

Martin: The key is stories.  If you want someone to understand something new and different, compare it to something that the do know and then ask them to stretch from that familiar thing to the new thing. Early automobile manufacturers were clever in describing their invention as horseless carriages.  Everybody knew exactly what a horse carriage was.  So it wasn’t a huge stretch to imagine one with a machine that replaced the horse.  Segway has failed completely and utterly. One reason is that it was introduced as a completely new transportation device – and nobody resonated with it.  And it gave no visual clues that helped the rider analogize.

Morris: And finally, #5: “When it comes to proof, use size to your advantage.”

Martin: The key to proof is the following.  The bad news about the next six months is that it is in the future and the future doesn’t count for a thing to reliability-oriented people.  The good news is that in six months the next six months will be in the past and it counts for everything.  So the key for validity-oriented people is to bite off as small a piece as possible to get the reliability-oriented person to let you experiment and prove in six months (for example) that it is a good idea.  Conversely the reliability-oriented person should bit off as big a piece as he/she can tolerate to help give the idea/initiative the biggest chance possible to succeed.

Morris: Which of these five initiatives seems to me most difficult for most people? Why?

Martin: Sadly, few people are trained to do any of the above.  I do think that empathy for extreme opposite views is probably the hardest.  And I find that the very best and most successful designers that I meet have great empathy for their clients.

Morris: Before concluding, please crank up your crystal ball (mine imploded almost 30 years ago) and suggest what you expect to be the single greatest challenge that CEOs will face in (let’s say) the next 3-5 years.

Martin: I think it was be the restructuring of their organizational structures and management processes to make innovation likely to happen rather than only likely to happen with special efforts or work-arounds.  The latter is where most companies are today and that is not sustainable.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

You got ‘em all, Robert

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You may also wish to check out the resources available at these Web sites:

Here’s an especially informative video:

Here are two articles that caught my eye:

When Opposing Thoughts Attract

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