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As I began to read this brilliant book, I was reminded of what Doris Kearns reveals about Abraham Lincoln in Team of Rivals. Specifically, that following his election as President in 1860, Lincoln assembled a cabinet whose members included several of his strongest political opponents: Edwin M. Stanton as Secretary of War (who had called Lincoln a "long armed Ape"), William H. Seward as Secretary of State (who was preparing his acceptance speech when Lincoln was nominated), Salmon P. Chase as Secretary of the Treasury (who considered Lincoln in all respects his inferior), and Edward Bates as Attorney General who viewed Lincoln as a well-meaning but incompetent administrator but later described him as "very near being a perfect man."

Presumably Roger Martin agrees with me that Lincoln possessed what Martin views as "the predisposition and the capacity to hold two [or more] diametrically opposed ideas" in his head and then "without panicking or simply settling for one alternative or the other," was able to "produce a synthesis that is superior to either opposing idea." Throughout his presidency, Lincoln frequently demonstrated integrative thinking, a "discipline of consideration and synthesis [that] is the hallmark of exceptional businesses [as well as of democratic governments] and those who lead them."

The great leaders whom Martin discusses (e.g. Martha Graham, George F. Kennan, Isadore Sharp, A.G. Lafley, Lee-Chin, and Bob Young) developed a capacity to consider what Thomas C. Chamberlain characterizes as "multiple working hypotheses" when required to make especially complicated decisions. Like Lincoln, they did not merely tolerate contradictory points of view, they encouraged them. Only in this way could they and their associates "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 [whatever its causes may be] in the form of a new idea that contains elements of the opposing ideas but is superior to each."

This process of consideration is based on a quite different model than the more commonly employed scientific method based on, as Martin explains, the working hypothesis that is used "to test the validity of a single explanatory concept through trial and error and experimentation." He rigorously examines the process of integrative thinking in terms of four constituent parts: salience, causality, architecture, and resolution. He devotes a separate chapter to each, citing dozens of real-world examples, and then (in Chapter 5), he introduces a framework within which his reader can also develop integrative thinking capacity.

For me, some of the most interesting and most valuable material is provided in Chapter 7 as Martin explains how integrative thinkers "connect the dots." He cites Taddy Blecher (co-founder of CIDA City Campus, an innovative South African university) as one example. I think the details are best revealed within their context. Suffice to say now that for Blecher, "existing models are to his mind just models, each with something useful to offer." However, his objective was to find a better model of post-secondary education and Martin examines Blecher's use of "two of the three most powerful tools at the disposal of integrative thinkers," generative reasoning and causal modeling, to achieve that objective. He also discusses a third tool, assertive inquiry, and offers aspiring integrative thinkers a few lessons along the way.

In the next and final chapter, Martin suggests that "mastery without originality becomes rote" whereas "originality without mastery is flaky if not entirely random." Successful leaders integrate both while strengthening their skills and nurturing their imagination. They realize that existing models can be informative but are imperfect. They leverage opposing models, convinced that better models exist and can be found. And they "wade into complexity," allowing themselves time to be creative as they expand and nourish their personal knowledge systems. Throughout their own process of discovery, readers will be guided and informed by what Roger Martin so generously and eloquently shares in this brilliant book.

Those who share my high regard for it are urged to check out David Whyte's The Heart Aroused and Judgment co-authored by Noel Tichy and Warren Bennis as well as Howard Gardner's Five Minds for the Future, Justin Menkes's Executive Intelligence, Richard Ogle's Smart World, Albert Borgmann's Holding On to Reality, and Gary Hamel's The Future of Management.
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on May 26, 2008
This books starts off by presenting the concept of the "integrative thinker", which is a person who has "the predisposition and capacity to hold two diametrically opposing ideas in their heads. And then without panicking or simply settling for one alternative or the other, they're able to produce a synthesis that is superior to either opposing idea"

If you look closely at this and read the examples in the book of the "opposable mind" in action, you'll begin to notice an assumption that we have no reason to believe is true.

The Main Assumption:
Focusing on the two (or more) alternatives leads to the third alternative chosen.

There is no reason to believe that the managers in the situations in this book developed further possibilities and alternatives from the apparent existing possibilities and alternatives. In most of the situations given as examples in the book, the managers appeared to be developing new possibilities out of a more fundamental knowledge of the situation at hand, rather than "integrating" and focusing on a few possible reactions to a situation.

I think that this book mainly serves as a red herring to those looking to develop creative thinking. Creative thinking is not linear as this book suggests. You typically don't develop the third alternative by focusing on the first two any more than you develop the second alternative by focusing on the first.
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on January 23, 2008
Some core points the author makes:

1. Much of the inner structure of the superior business mind is implicit, tacit, and mostly functions non-verbally on the unconscious level.

2. It is exceedingly hard to decompile and read the "machine language" of the superior business mind, probably because it is too complex and nuanced to be reduced to language.

3. Most business processes (as well as all institutional structure) are reduced to simplified, often grossly oversimplified diagrams, verbiage, mission statements, and employee manuals which cannot capture the true dynamism of the environment.

4. It is also exceedingly difficult to fully appreciate, and for many, to appreciate at all what box one is in, what box one's organization is in, what box one's culture is in... and without that appreciation it is impossible to step outside of the box in order to work with it creatively.

5. It was said of Jack Welch that he was a master of out of the box thinking, but he was also a master of inside the box thinking. Is any reader of Opposable Mind prepared to make a detailed life inventory of what constitutes "inside the box" and "outside the box" as it applies to his or her self image, his or her organization, his or her community, his or her culture ? If not, why not ?

6. The Opposable Mind is an overgeneralization. It could signify internalizing the forms of Systems Thinking as semi-linear strategic applications of the concept, or it could refer to full on Dual Hemispheric cognition in terms of brain organization, or it could refer to collective processes of inquiry that place value on opposition, challenge, unfamiliarity, and synthesis.

7. Most business books are inadequate because they are unable to grapple with the emotional and cognitive dimensions of high quality thinking. Pity the MBA candidates whose fresh minds are stuffed with this confetti.

8. To some extent, Opposable Thought is teachable. There may, however, be strong (and destructively constricted) cultural or sub-cultural biases against anything that smacks of ambivalence, nuance, or sensitivity. Overcoming the biases may require a strenuous process of losing one's sense of self importance, grandiosity, and that most endearing of all organizational traits, stubborness for stubborness sake. Many a leader has run his organization straight into the ground before he (or she) will risk looking less than regal before his subordinates.

9. The capacity for enduring isolation is a profoundly important ability without which one can never attain the state of leadership. Opposable Thought will, and must, first occur in a context of intellectual isolation. The Trappist Monks have so well understood the need for the strength to handle social isolation that they require each candidate to spend a FULL YEAR in total isolation deep in the back woods of Kentucky.
Social Isolation is a subtle form of pusishment honed to razor sharpness in the corporate environment. Executives are a easily spooked lot. It takes a very strong man or woman to handle punitive (and often neurotically sadistic) isolation dynamics for the often long periods of creative gestation. Many talk about guts. Very few understand the real meaning of the term. Tough thinking DEMANDS the capacity to endure multiple forms of isolation, stiff necked psychodramae, and the birth pangs of an identity in transformation.

10. Opposable Thinking is not a blue pill or a red pill that you swallow when you "need to get psyched". Opposable Thinking is a form of life that requires focus, committment, curiosity, courage and vision. It forces the thinker to mentally exist in the box and out of the box simultaneously. Those who master this skill, and treat it as a long term investment in skill development will have a significant, substantial advantage across many platforms and playing fields.

11. Just Do It.
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on April 12, 2010
`The Opposable Mind' discusses integrative thinking as added value for business leaders. In that regard it does a pretty good job.

Basically 3 parts are to be found back: The first part is a comparison between conventional thinking and integrative thinking. The second part gives a deeper introduction into a framework covering integrative thinking and the last part provides a knowledge system so you can become a better integrative thinker.

To cover the positive, negative and interesting points of this book:

- Positive points: The book does give a framework and template to become a better integrative thinker and it leaves you with the taste to explore this thinking even deeper (especially if you think already integrative). It provides a mental attitude setting (stance) and tools so you can start exploring this thinking further.

- Negative points: This book has at the start an irritating aspect of "us-versus-them" comparison claiming that integrative thinking is so much more important (I guess it is this part that resulted in lower scores here by other reviewers). Conventional thinking (as well as integrative thinking) has both their benefits and by bashing it you don't make a cause for your own model (though the book later recovers very nicely to illustrate the power of integrative thinking). Integrative thinking is actually just `big picture thinking' (or holistic thinking, ..) so I am not convinced of having it re-labeled. Furthermore some of the content stays a bit too much on the academic level. I guess it is perfect as an introduction manual for the integrative thinking course at Rotman School of Management.

- Interesting point: This book is a support for all the managers and leaders who love `big picture thinking' but were often told to stop thinking like that.

I am looking forward to read once an extended version on this topic. Interesting!
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on October 23, 2010
I strongly recommend this book as a tool for sharpening one's ability to create value. Martin's model (with examples) for: 1) never accepting existing solutions as permanent, 2) notice a wider rage of desirable benefits as being mandatory to include in the ideal solution, 3) have the temerity to face any complexity in creating a new alternative superior to existent alternatives (to include more of the salient benefits, to resolve more of the previous constraints). A sample:
"... integrative thinkers don't take the easy way out and pick the least-worst alternative; they view the creation of a truly attractive option as both their goal and their personal responsibility. They learn from each option without being bound by its limitations, and they use the insights gained to break through to an entirely new model that creatively resolves the tensions between existing models."
I also loved his discussion of how one's intellectual "stance" is under one's control and that one can objectively analyze one's own thinking structure/capacity and optimize it. Martin points out that most people rarely analyze their own approach to thinking. Since thought is the antecedent to action, thinking about how to sharpen your thinking (which this book helps you do) will lead to more effective action.
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While there are many good books out there that present various notions of "what" to think, this one does an excellent job of describing (showing, really) "how" to think.

First as a management consultant, then as dean of a business school, Roger Martin spent 15 years studying leaders who have exemplary records of success. He looked for shared themes. All of them had intelligence, talent, and a bent toward innovation. No surprise, there. But the common trait that rang the loudest bell was what Martin calls "the predisposition and the capacity to hold two diametrically opposing ideas" at once, "and then, without panicking or simply settling for one alternative or the other, they're able to produce a synthesis that is superior to either opposing idea."

Martin refers to this as "integrative" thinking. Creating a metaphor from a physical feature that distinguishes human beings from nearly every other creature - the opposable thumb - he says everyone is born with an "opposable mind." And the exciting part, he suggests, is that just as we can become more adept at using our thumbs, with patience and practice we can enhance the ability to use our opposable minds to solve complex problems.

Martin provides multiple examples of the mental gymnastics required to strengthen one's problem solving capacity. This book is not easy reading, and it's certainly not the kind of fare that most people would take to the beach. But it's well worth the exercise.
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on November 12, 2013
Martin has an interesting thesis here. His whole focus can really be summed up as that the most successful people don't think in terms of tradeoffs. Rather, they can hold two diametrically opposing ideas in their heads, then produce a synthesis which is superior to either opposing idea.

In thinking about this, I've seen a lot of this in life. I think the book gives a great example:
- In a quote from A.G. Lafley - successful P&G CEO: "Haven't found a creative resolution that meets my standards. That's not the world's fault. I just haven't thought hard enough yet." - exactly makes this point; he doesn't think in tradeoffs - he looks for a synthesis of what he's seen for a new approach.

A lot of what is called "disruptive innovation" today came as this sort of thinking. Hey, you're reading this on Amazon! Do you think Bezos things in terms of tradeoffs - or does he take opposing ideas and blend them into an innovative approach? Food for thought....
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on April 19, 2008
This book highlights that successful people often share the ability to hold two opposing ideas in their mind, and debate them, and then draw conclusions that are often novel. Not a new observation for sure, but interesting to explore. I bought this book after reading a review in the Financial Times (?). Unfortunately having read the book in full I concluded that there was little that was added to the review that stimulated me to buy the book in the first place. There are interesting examples of businesses described for sure, but many only marginally support the main thesis.
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on December 21, 2007
Based on extensive interviews, the author focuses on the thinking skills rather than the doing skills of leaders. Integrative thinking is the topic. This types of thinking enables an exploration of opposing ideas in order to reach innovative solutions. Integrative thinking involves four steps: salience (allowing more features to be considered, introducing complexity), causality (multidimensional and nonlinear), architecture (seeing the whole while working on the parts), and resolution (creative resolution of tensions). Each of these is explored in separate chapters, along with the obstacles of simplification and specialization, forces working against integrative thinking. A framework for building integrative thinking capacity is presented involving stance, tools and experiences, and the author discusses how each can and is being taught. This is an excellent journey into effective thinking, whether by a leader or anyone engaged in enterprise. Very highly recommended.
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on February 9, 2015
As we muddle through complexity, the search is for simplicity. Instead, complexity should be embraced for helping us think for innovative models. Deeply appreciate the sensible testimonies laid out in reasonable models that help reaching profound outcomes. From managing interwoven systems to seeking normalcy in juggling a household, this book is a useful reference guide for taking one new approaches.
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