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The Opposable Mind April 10, 2011

Posted by isheikh in Opposable Mind.
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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.


The Opposable Mind, Winning through Integrative Thinking April 16, 2010

Posted by matildawong in Design Thinking, Leading Strategy Change, Opposable Mind.

In the first half of the book, Martin takes the reader through a journey of turning points in various leaders’ lives and illustrates how each was able to come to a superior outcome through the use of “integrative thinking.” Martin formally defines integrative thinking as: The ability to 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 in the form of a new idea that contains elements of the opposing ideas but is superior to each. The author then dedicates the second half of the book, with commendable effort, to explaining what he describes as the process or “knowledge system,” that can help one develop integrative thinking.

The concept of integrative thinking is not entirely new if one rereads the above definition a couple more times…the resolution of the either-or dilemma  is likely to come to mind.  Nevertheless Martin is progressive in advocating this concept and illustrates this with examples from left-brain dominated industries and should be applauded as such.  While Martin’s examples lack convincing direct linkage to the hypotheses he draws, they do suggest that this form of thinking is practiced and worthwhile.  Perhaps the most useful part of the book comes in the second half when Martin explains (albeit in somewhat painful academic jargon) the process by which to develop integrative thinking.  The knowledge system that Martin proposes is clear, well thought out, and structured but it is not without questions and concerns as one will find more apparent upon a second reading.

The knowledge system is made up of stance, tools, and experiences.  It is not meant to be a one directional process but rather a revolving cycle where stance drives tool acquisition which shapes experiences and the cycle recycles itself as experiences influence existing stance.  Martin advocates six guiding principles surrounding stance:

Three to do with how one views the world:

1)                  Existing models do not represent reality they are our constructions.

2)                  Opposing models are to be leveraged, not feared

3)                  Existing models are not perfect; better models exist that are not yet seen.

Three to do with how one views oneself:

4)                  I am capable of finding a better model

5)                  I can wade into and get through the necessary complexity.

6)                  I give myself the time to create a better model.

Martin believes that the stance in turn influences the types of tools acquired and presents three tools that are prevalent amongst integrative thinkers:

1)                  Generative Reasoning – the use of abductive logic, which seeks the best explanation in response to novel or interesting data that doesn’t fit an extant model via leaps with one’s mind; the process inquires after what might be and is modal in intent

2)                  Causal Modeling – the ability to think and apply systems based on two forms of causation: i) material causation – under certain set of conditions, x causes y to happen and 2) teleological causation – what is the purpose of y

3)                  Assertive Inquiry – the process by which integrative thinkers searches for another’s view and tries to fill in the gaps of understanding; it seeks common ground between conflicting models

Finally, Martin concludes that experience deepens mastery and nurtures originality, which is plausible.  This “tripod,” knowledge system does a good job in translating undefined and abstract concepts into understandable lessons.  In addition, this method has been long missed in a business world dominated by left-brain thinking and traditional forms of logic (deductive and inductive); executives and leaders can all stand to complement their existing toolkit.

So how exactly can we train these traditionally left-brained executives to follow in the ways of the avant-garde integrative thinkers?  How do we go from deductive reasoning to making “leaps of the mind”?  How can we get them to think that reality isn’t’ really reality, especially on the back of 30 or so years of experience?  These are gaps which I had hoped Martin could have filled.  The upside is that integrative thinking is actually starting to be taught in various business schools so the generation now will hopefully have it in their disciplines.

Integrative thinking is great and useful, but is it always applicable?  One can think of mergers that have occurred; two players were brought together because their value would be greater (via cost efficiencies, cross-selling opportunities, etc) combined rather than as separate entities.  But not every merger resulted in greater value – think AOL-Time Warner, MCI-WorldCom, and maybe even Bank of America and Merrill to name just a few.  The same can be said about opposing decisions faced by leaders – is taking a bit of both ideas or creating a new idea based on the two always preferable to just picking one?  How about companies that are faced with the option of targeting two opposite groups of customers and the best solution is actually choosing one group.  This is common in fashion companies when they look to source growth from different segments but risk losing themselves when they trade up or down, ending up somewhere the middle with no strong customer association.

Finally, if we follow the cyclic method of {stance à tools à experience à stance1 à tools1 à experience1 ), at what point can we draw a stop and conclude that we have achieved as best a model as we can for a particular problem so that we can turn our attention to another concern.  Is there a form of measurement for this type of thinking or are we simply measuring it by terms we are already familiar with such as bottom-line or market share?  If that is the case, can we argue that any form of thinking will do since they can all get us to the same end results?

The Opposable Mind December 7, 2009

Posted by Nii Sai Sai in Opposable Mind, [Books] Ways of Thinking.
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Ever feel like you’ve got too much stuff going on in your life, and that you can’t think clearly any longer? In “The Opposable Mind”, Roger Martin points out the four parts of the thinking process:

Salience: what is important?
Causality: what relationships exist between the things that matter most?
Architecture: how can we approach the complex problem in an effective manner?
Resolution: how do we know when we’re done, and have a solution?

We all use such a framework for thinking and making decisions. Integrative thinkers just do it differently, and get better results. They define what is important and salient in a broader manner. The think bigger and better, and do not confine themselves to established boundaries. Integrative thinkers look for complex relationships between the salient points. They explore many more potential causal linkages, and can therefore come up with more scenarios for analysis. Integrative thinkers never lose sight of the big picture. In the midst of all the complexity, they keep their eyes on the ultimate objective. Finally, integrative thinkers don’t settle for conventional resolutions and trade-offs. They are comfortable saying no to a proposed solution, regardless of how much work has gone into it. They push the envelope, and come up with new, better ideas emerging from the synthesis of existing ideas.

We all THINK! Nobody can argue with that statement. It’s part of what we do everyday as humans. However, it doesn’t take much to prove that we don’t all think effectively. Next time you face a wicked problem, think about how you are thinking about the problem. Are you just trying to settle for trade-offs and non-inventive solutions, or are you pushing the envelope? Remember that unfamiliar alternatives are just that, novel. Also, you don’t always have to choose between options. Think about creating another option out of what exists.