Book review: The Opposable Mind – how successful leaders win through integrative thinking (Roger Martin)

As the author explains and as most of us may recall from biology classes, human beings have a distinguished feature known as “the opposable thumb”. It is the tension created by opposing the thumb and the fingers that enables us human beings to do extraordinary things that no other creature can do. The same happens with our minds. As pointed out in the book, we were born with an opposable mind – where we can hold two conflicting ideas in a constructive tension. Problem is that most of us do not use it.

The author argues in this book that successful leaders do use their opposable minds; these leaders have the ability to hold two opposing ideas and, without just deciding for one alternative or the other, are able to produce a synthesis that is superior to either opposing idea. They do not see the world as a binary system of trade-offs or either-or. They are capable of managing conflicting ideas, and without desperation, they build a whole new creative solution that most people do not even see that exists.

How do they do it? How do they view beyond the regular trade-offs?

They have a different way of problem solving. They use what the author calls “integrative thinking”, and take a broader view of what is important. They see complex relationships, multidirectional and non-linear. They keep the entire problem firmly in mind while working on its individual parts. This is in fact a feature of the right-side of the brain: “(…) it is a form of thinking and an attitude to life that is characteristic of the right hemisphere of the brain – simultaneous, metaphorical, aesthetic, contextual and synthetic (…).” (Daniel Pink, in A Whole New Mind)

In general, we are taught to do just the opposite: simplify and specialize so that we can cope with what might be overwhelming complexity! And then we can blame the trade-offs when things do not work as planned.

Successful leaders also use “generative reasoning”: a form of reasoning that inquires into what might be rather than what it is. Again, we were taught the opposite: Western education emphasizes the truth or falsity of a given proposition, through deductive or inductive logic. But it is difficult to create and innovate when we are firmly tied to existing frameworks and models.

The book mentions several interesting cases of CEOs that work with their opposable minds. I would like to leave you with a quote from one of them, A.G. Lafley from P&G:

“We weren´t going to win if it was an “or”. Everybody can do “or”. That´s the way the world works. You trade things off but you are not going to be the best in your industry. You are not going to win if you are in a trade-off game”

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