The Opposable Mind: A book review by Bob Morris

The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking
Roger L. Martin
Harvard Business School Press (2007)

As I began to read this brilliant book, I was reminded of what Doris Kearns reveals about Abraham Lincoln in Team of Rivals. Specifically, that following his election as President in 1860, Lincoln assembled a cabinet whose members included several of his strongest political opponents: Edwin M. Stanton as Secretary of War (who had called Lincoln a “long armed Ape”), William H. Seward as Secretary of State (who was preparing his acceptance speech when Lincoln was nominated), Salmon P. Chase as Secretary of the Treasury (who considered Lincoln in all respects his inferior), and Edward Bates as Attorney General who viewed Lincoln as a well-meaning but incompetent administrator but later described him as “very near being a perfect man.”

The great leaders whom Martin discusses (e.g. Martha Graham, George F. Kennan, Isadore Sharp, A.G. Lafley, Lee-Chin, and Bob Young) developed a capacity to consider what Thomas C. Chamberlain characterizes as “multiple working hypotheses” when required to make especially complicated decisions. Like Lincoln, they did not merely tolerate contradictory points of view, they encouraged them. Only in this way could they and their associates “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 [whatever its causes may be] in the form of a new idea that contains elements of the opposing ideas but is superior to each.”

This process of consideration is based on a quite different model than the more commonly employed scientific method based on, as Martin explains, the working hypothesis that is used “to test the validity of a single explanatory concept through trial and error and experimentation.” He rigorously examines the process of integrative thinking in terms of four constituent parts: salience, causality, architecture, and resolution. He devotes a separate chapter to each, citing dozens of real-world examples, and then (in Chapter 5), he introduces a framework within which his reader can also develop integrative thinking capacity.

When I recently re-read The Opposable Mind, I was even more impressed by the nature and extent of the potential applications and implications of integrative thinking. This mindset is the very foundation of the “open” business models and “open” innovation that Henry Chesbrough so brilliantly explains in  his books and articles. It is also essential to effective persuasion and collaboration as well as to problem solving and, especially, to the success of the discovery process when identifying and then solving problems throughout process improvement initiatives. For these and other reasons, Martin’s book is now widely viewed — and acclaimed — as a business “classic.”

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