The Opposable Mind

Think of a Rubik’s cube. Those who can complete one (i.e. put all the coloured tiles where they belong) will tell you that one of the keys to accomplishment is keeping all the other tiles in mind while focusing on completing a certain placement. It’s not simply a matter of completing one side to the exclusion of the others, but rather the process of building one side while maintaining or building the others as well. Author/professor Roger Martin explains this process to be “integrative thinking”; 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.

Silly example? Maybe. And yet people fall back onto “either-or” choices all the time. Consider the story of Issy Sharp, a hotelier interested in creating a new type of guest experience. He was told there were only two ways to run hotels: 1) small and intimate, but lacking enough guest rooms to support amenities like gyms, pools or business centres or, 2) large, fully equipped hotels that, due to their size, were run with cold and impersonal service. Sharp refused to accept the two existent models, choosing instead to take the best of each and create something entirely new: a hotel chain built around the exact desires (both spoken and unspoken) of his ideal clientele; huge capacity, yet with a complete and personalized catering to the guests’ individual needs. The hugely successful Four Seasons was the result.

The Opposable Mind teaches that leaders – true innovators – have the remarkable ability to hold two contradictory thoughts in their minds at one time and then work through the unique strengths and challenges of each to create an even better third option. In The Opposable Mind, Martin examines the topic brilliantly and, perhaps most important to our conversation, teaches how you can develop a more opposable mind yourself.

The Golden Egg

Golden Egg: The biggest takeaway from the book

Your Rubik's Lens

"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 cancelling 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.’"
- The Opposable Mind, page 9

The human mind is a wonderful thing. From early in our childhood development, our minds begin to categorize and filter information vital to our survival. Through education and experience, we start to qualify objects, people and events as “safe” or “dangerous”, “beneficial” or “detrimental”.  We do this for our own safety and survival, and we do it unconsciously as we grow. While the function of this process is strictly to keep us safe from physical harm, it actually begins to shape the way we see the world – a lens through which we experience reality, if you will. Virtually as soon as we are conscious of our actions, none of us are capable of seeing the world completely objectively, as we all see reality through the tint of our own upbringing.

Integrative thinking is about testing and expanding our own “lens” (or “reality-model”, as Martin calls it) by comparing and contrasting it with the lenses of the people around us, constantly seeking new, better alternatives to all. It’s about having a certain level of expectation as to what a solution could look like and refusing to lower that expectation simply because the ideal solution doesn’t yet exist.

According to Martin, there are six beliefs or “stances” that are possessed by leaders who practice integrative thinking:

Belief #1: The current solutions or models for a situation are simply the best solutions or models created to date, and not the absolute best solution available.
Belief #2: Conflicting solutions or models are not to be feared or resisted, but rather to be learned from, adding to the available data for study and creation of a new, superior model.
Belief #3: Better solutions are available, they are just yet to be discovered.
Belief #4: They are personally capable of creating or leading the creation of that better model from abstraction to reality.
Belief #5: “Messiness” or complexity of options and components is actually a good thing, as it assures no details (or fewer, at any rate) are being missed in the creation of an ideal solution.
Belief #6: Patience is needed to create the better model.

It is Martin’s belief that we can expand our own capacity for integrative thinking through constant experience and reflection.

Gem #1

An actionable way to implement the BIG takeaway (Golden Egg) into your life

Learn from Picasso

"“The great ones utilize their experiences to build and deepen their mastery while maintaining and expressing their originality. Average leaders do one or the other.”"
- The Opposable Mind, page 185

Even those who don’t have an intimate knowledge of the art world probably recognize the name Pablo Picasso. Renowned as one of the fathers of modern art and the uncontested creator of the Cubism painting style, Picasso is remembered for his originality. And yet, as Martin reminds us, Picasso has often times attributed his pioneering skill to his deep roots in traditional forms of painting. It was his mastery of the dominant styles of his time that allowed him the opportunity and insight to see where things could be effectively adapted and changed.

True innovators overcame the weaknesses of existing models because they have become intimately familiar with them first, before they were able to create lasting change. The old admonishment for want-to-be-authors – “write what you know” – comes from the same lesson: you need to know something to the level of mastery before you can start to inject effective originality. Issy Sharpe, as case in point, created and ran two successful hotels (one of each existent model) before he had the insight and skill to create the successful third.

If you want to see change in the world, immerse yourself in the existing models first, so you can clearly identify the points that need changing.

Gem #2

An actionable way to implement the BIG takeaway (Golden Egg) into your life

Get Messy

"Integrative thinkers don’t mind the mess. In fact, they welcome it, because the mess assures them that they haven’t edited out features that are necessary to the contemplation of the problem as a whole. They welcome complexity because they know the best answers arise from complexity."
- The Opposable Mind, page 41

Simple options breed simple results. Typical results. Pre-planned results. If you want to create a new, better model – one that considers more aspects of true reality (and not just your own lens), you need to be willing to consider more details than those who came before you. You need to go looking for more “salient factors”, as Martin calls them – more potential pieces of the better picture.

Do you know all the details of what it is you want to change? Issy Sharp interviewed hundreds of his guests, at both hotels, to better learn what they really wanted. Not only that, he studied all aspects of the hotel experience – from amenities to the check in/check out process, staff feedback and needs, and beyond. He didn’t build the new Four Seasons model to represent his version of a better hotel, he instead collected more data on what a better hotel would look like. He went beyond his own reality-model.

While having both mastery and originality play key roles in successfully creating a new model, collecting a wide amount of data, and being willing to sift through that data – patiently and with purpose – are also key factors to success.

The Opposable Mind is a groundbreaking book on a topic that, in this age of information overload, will play an ever increasingly crucial role in the lives of leaders. To avoid overload, it can be so tempting to specialize, to simplify, focusing on a small part of the whole as we attempt to improve or “fix”. While simplification certainly makes decisions easier, it hardly ever makes them better. Martin’s message, in a nutshell, is this: next time you find yourself with an either-or decision to make, take a step back, take a breath, and see if you can’t find an “and” that surpasses both. Life’s a puzzle. Focus on the big picture.

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Chris Taylor

ABOUT Chris Taylor

Founder of Actionable Books, Chris Taylor is a writer, entrepreneur and speaker. He spends his daylight hours helping consultants and employees alike find meaning in their work and discover rich team relationships through his company, Actionablebooks...
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