The title of this book draws upon the metaphor of the opposable thumb: reflecting on how all the skills and technological advances have flowed from this basic feature of the human anatomy - the thumb 'opposing' the fingers. Roger Martin uses this to illustrate the crux of what he has observed in leaders of break-through approaches: integrative thinking. This is the ability to avoid the common either-or choices that two apparently different options offer, but rather to go on to integrate these into something new and superior. He illustrates this with a number of different cases from a range of endeavours, including interviews with Bob Young of Red Hat Software.
His central proposition is that this mental faculty can be found in great leadership, and can be taught and developed.
The model he presents of the leader's 'personal knowledge system' includes
- the thinker's stance to the reality and the models of reality he/she comes across
- the tools the thinker uses to analyse and construct a better architecture of what they want the future organisation to be, and
- their experiences, and how they are assimilated and assessed to in turn align tools and stance.
Throughout my reading I couldn't help but make comparisons with the model of business transformation presented in MSP. I found several important similarities, not least the observations Martin made about the integrative 'architecture' of the new business model, and MSP's focus on the Blueprint as an integrative model of a different way of doing business.
Also, I applaud his conclusion that such integrative thinkers were not satisfied with usual responses to the complex world our organisations operate within - responses that either simplify and ignore data, or to go into silos of specialization, the latter being characteristic of western medicine, for example. Instead he recognises that an integrative thinker is prepared to wade into the complex, to respect it, and to recognise and model rather more salient features than would others. He gives an fascinating example in the story of A.G. Lafley of Proctor and Gamble. This in turn drives the integrative thinker to select tools that model non-linear causation (i.e. life is more complex than 'if A happens, then B, then C').
I've commented before that without such tools we tend to over-simplify the reality we try to model and influence, resulting so often in disappointing results.
However, I thought Roger Martin's treatment of such tools, though, was a little too narrative for my taste as a more visual thinker. I still think Peter Senge's section in Fifth Discipline on systems thinking is more helpful here. Also, MSP's Outcome Relationship Model is a graphical step in the direction that Martin advocates.
Also, I felt the author was a touch too dismissive of Jim Collins' work towards the beginning where the critique of Good to Great's Level 5 Leadership ignores Collins' earlier work with Jerry Porras in Built to Last. In this earlier book, the launch pad, if you will, for the research in 'Good to Great', Collins and Porras identify that the 'Genius of the AND' was a common trait among all visionary organisations. This is absolutely congruent with the case Roger Martin makes for integrative thinking.
In summary, I'm very grateful for Roger Martin's efforts in producing this book. 'The Opposable Mind' is important, stimulating and potent. If you want to become a brilliant leader, you would not waste time in reading this.