November 26, 2007

News & Opinion: The Opposable Mind

By: 800-CEO-READ @ 9:56 PM – Filed under: Personal Development & Human Behavior

I've been reading the Opposable Mind by Roger Martin. We humans have long been distinguished from other animals by our opposable thumbs. Yes, we're born with the ability to hold something with the tension of our forefinger and thumb. We can sew, write, catch, lift, and move because of our thumbs.
Likewise, our opposable mind enables us to consider two separate ideas simultaneously. We can use the tension between and elements of these two ideas to create new possibilities. A process which Roger labels integrative thinking.
Integrative thinking shows us a way past the binary limits of either/or. It shows us that there's a way to integrate the advantages of one solution without canceling out the advantages of an alternative solution. Integrative thinking affords us, in the words of the poet Wallace Stevens, "the choice not between, but of."

Integrative thinking certainly makes the decision-making process more complex. More variables are added. No longer are the options A, B or C but some combination of a piece of A plus a piece of B and perhaps, a smaller piece of C. Yet, by using integrative thinking we can be more creative and possibly successful with our solutions.
This may seem pedestrian and obvious but look at the structure of today's companies. Marketing sits on one side of the room trying to be creative. While accounting crunches numbers elsewhere and sales reaches out to new customers in another corner. And so the silos of knowledge are built, maintained and even encouraged.
We become specialists in certain types of knowledge (marketeer, financial analyst, accountant, customer service provider). "But specialists aren't optimally suited to solve the biggest problems business face, because as Drucker also pointed out, 'there are no finance decisions, tax decisions, or marketing decisions; only business decisions.'" We're not just marketing, finance, and accounting people, we are business people.
Roger points out that we need to take each of these variables into consideration when making a decision. That means building a team of smart people to come to the table and discuss what's possible. And learning to understand the solutions currently available and use them to build new and better solutions. That's what he teaches in The Opposable Mind.
He backs up his ideas with research from pscyhologists, various theories on thinking and profiles several companies that have been successful in utilizing integrative thinking--including Red Hat (the leading Linux provider), Procter & Gamble (who pursued innovation in a world of commodities), Four Season Hotels (which found a blue ocean between smaller ma and pa places and the big box hoteliers) and a few other examples you may be familiar with. It's worth a look. I'll try and write more on it later.
*FYI: If you're looking for the book, it's due out next week; December 4th, to be exact.