business strategy | December 16, 2012

Roger Martin: We Don't Always See The Bigger Picture—But We Can Learn To

"I discovered there's a long list of what highly effective leaders do," Roger Martin told the audience in his keynote at the People for Education conference, "and some of them are actually entirely, mutually contradictory." In the talk, he explained how he spent a great deal of time researching the actions of successful business executives only to realize that researching what they do is nowhere near as beneficial as researching how they think. Since people are bound to react in different ways to different situations, he says that simply copying their actions and expecting to become successful yourself is rarely an advantageous route. But if you "swim upstream," he says, and concentrate on emulating the thought process that the world's best businesspeople used to get to their decisions, you have a better chance at mimicking their success.

He says that the underlying commonality of the people he researched was that they possessed "opposable minds" and all practiced integrative thinking. Martin believes that this method of thinking is completely teachable—and is an essential skill to possess in the 21st century business world. Highly effective people are able to hold two opposing viewpoints in their head simultaneously and not only make a choice between them, but find a solution that incorporates the best aspects of contradictory arguments. We are not naturally wired to do this, he says, because the world is so complex that constantly attempting to think about all of the components of an object or situation would be overwhelming. What he can do, however, is teach ourselves to be aware of our propensity to only see things from one particular vantage point. When we realize that we are fixated on only one solution—what he calls "modeling"—we can then open ourselves up to the bigger picture.

Martin is a proponent of this type of thinking and he teaches it at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, where he is currently the Dean. He also wrote a book on the subject, The Opposable Mind, which was named one of the Top Ten Business Books of the Year by The Globe and Mail. He will soon be leaving his post at the Rotman School to persue other research ventures, but his breadth of experience makes him an excellent candidate for speaking on education, business and innovation.

Up Next

health | December 13, 2012