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The Opposable Mind April 10, 2011

Posted by isheikh in Opposable Mind.

The Opposable Mind points out that the way that most of us think about solving problems is suboptimal and that some great business leaders have achieved success though integrative thinking.  The numerous examples that are mentioned through the book show how business leaders use integrative thinking to develop creative solutions.  Example after example is given where leaders are given two choices, each of which has negative and positive aspects and there isn’t a clear winner between the two.  Rather than settling for a less-than-perfect choice, they come up with a third option that isn’t a compromise.  Rather than settling for “or” they choose “and.”

Martin breaks down the process of decision making into four steps: Salience, Causality, Architecture, and Resolution.  Salience refers to the features related to the decision that you find important.  Causality refers to the connections between the salient features.  Architecture focuses on the order by which you will come to a decision.  And resolution is the end result.

Integrative thinkers recognize more (or maybe just different) features as salient and see greater causal connections between these features.  Perhaps most importantly, integrative thinkers keep all the ideas in their head simultaneously rather than breaking it apart in the architecture of the decision.  They might work on individual parts, but the system view is always in mind.  This, in my opinion, is what really sets the best integrative thinkers apart from the rest.  More salient features, with greater connections, that are all kept in mind at the same time results in a highly complex puzzle to solve.  In the resolution, they don’t settle for tradeoffs.

The mental models that we create simplify reality, and in doing so might leave out important aspects of the issue.  So, it is important to recognize that what we think is true, often is incomplete.  Similarly, specialization dives deep into a small area of the problem, but doesn’t have a view of the whole picture.  The reason that our mind simplifies is to create order in how we see the world.

Given our limited view of reality, it is Important to reflect on the actions that we take, the outcomes that result, and the thought processes that led to deciding to take those actions.  Martin points out that reflection often stops at action, but it is important to analyze the thought process too.

The idea of integrative thinking is compelling, and clearly those that are good at it have achieved success.  However, I think it could be summarized far more succinctly than Martin did here.  Repeating the same ideas over, and over, and over again is my main critique of the book.  I think he could have communicated the core material in less than ten pages.

While Martin attempted to teach the average reader how to think more integratively, I don’t think he did it successfully.  But I also think that teaching that skill is virtually impossible through a book.  Integrative thinking is hard, and very few people can do it well.  I personally think it’s more driven by creative talent than anything else.  Often, the line between creative solutions and integrative solutions was unclear in the examples he cited.  And my final critique is that he did not even mention how execution fits into the “solution.”  Having good ideas might be important, but executing even mediocre ideas could lead to greater success.  I would have liked him to deal with how integrative solutions are executed, and how that process differs from conventional methods.

I have not read any other books focused solely on integrative thinking, but I have read other books like Natural Capitalism that touch on integrative design.  I do not recommend reading more than the first couple chapters of The Opposable Mind because the same ideas are simply repeated.  I would have liked to see Martin find examples of integrative thinking applied to design of physical products or processes, rather than simply business models (which Hawken et al. do in Natural Capitalism).

I agree with Martin that interdisciplinarity is required to solve many of the complex challenges that face the world today.  While having deep knowledge of a specialty is useful, it is even more important to be able to think across disciplinary boundaries.



1. Jon Pittman - April 11, 2011

Imran – I liked your critical analysis of the book. Roger has written several small books and each does have some repetition in it. Your comment that integrative thinking is driven by creative talent does raise the questions of how one teaches integrative thinking or whether it is even possible. If we cannot teach it, how do we identify and nurture integrative thinking?

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