Harvard Business Review: The Opposable Mind

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Instead of focusing on the actions of successful leaders, an article in the June issue of the Harvard Business Review by Roger Martin looks at how successful leaders think. Martin has spent the past 15 years studying winning leaders and concludes that they all share the predisposition and ability to simultaneously hold two opposing ideas in their heads.

Martin calls this mental multi-tasking integrative thinking, and describes it as an “opposable mind.” He argues that integrative thinking is far more fruitful than conventional thinking, which tends to result in the choice of the lesser of two evils. The central example in the article is Bob Young, CEO of Red Hat, which was selling low-cost versions of the open-source software Linux in the mid-90s. Young was able to see beyond the two paths in the software business at the time—continue to sell CDs of the open source software or follow the path of Microsoft and sell higher cost versions of proprietary software—to come to a winning solution that made him a billionaire: give away the open-source software and sell service.

The article outlines the four stages of decision-making and compares the conventional approach to integrative approach:

Determining salience. Martin notes that the first step is to figure out which factors to take into account, and the conventional approach eliminates as many as possible in an effort to keep things simple. The integrative thinker, on the other hand, seeks out as many factors as possible, including more obscure but potentially relevant factors. Young, for instance, recognized the corporate CEO’s real dilemma in needing to invest in a product with a future, helping him to arrive at his service model.

Analyzing causality. The next step is to establish relationships between the salient factors, and conventional thinkers tend to look for straight-line causal relationships. “It’s no accident that linear regression is the business world’s preferred tool for establishing relationships between variables,” Martin wrote. Integrative thinkers question apparently obvious links and look for multidirectional or nonlinear links, he explains.

Envisioning the decision architecture. Martin explains that when getting down to the decision itself, the impulse is to establish a strict sequence in which issues will be considered, and also to hand off pieces of a decision to different corporate functions—pricing, marketing, distribution—resulting in a mediocre outcome. Martin maintains that integrative thinkers do not break down a problem to work on in pieces or in a strict sequence. According to Martin, Young held many issues in his head for a long time, including the feelings and challenges of the CIO, what was happening in the individual and corporate markets for operating software, the business factors affecting the free-software business, and what drove the proprietary software makers, before he created his new business model.

Achieving resolution. Martin maintains that decision makers too frequently accept an unsatisfactory trade-off, whereas integrative thinkers are in a much better position to come to a creative resolution. Creating delays, sending teams back to reexamine the options, and generating 11th-hour options are all tools that can come into play because of an integrative thinker’s refusal to accept a less-than-ideal solution.

The good news is this: if you aren’t an integrative thinker, you can train yourself to be one through conscious attention to your decision-making processes. And if Martin has his way, integrative thinking will be taught in business schools.

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