Roger Martin on integrative thinking


Roger Martin is dean of the Joseph L. Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, and author of a new book about leadership, "The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking" (Harvard Business School Press).

In it, Martin, who has been studying successful leaders for many years, argues that the traditional preoccupation with what a leader does is misplaced. Instead, he says, we should look at the way leaders think and at the decisions they make.

Talking to Des Dearlove in London recently, Martin explained how great leaders have an unusual characteristic - "a predisposition to and capacity to hold in their heads two opposing ideas at once."

The title of your new book refers to "integrative thinking." How do you define that?

If you are faced with opposed models, integrative thinking is where you have the capacity to create a better model, superior to both and incorporating aspects of each model, rather than choosing one model at the expense of the other.

Can you give me an example?

Sure. When Issy Sharp, founder of the Four Seasons hotel chain, was starting the company, building his first property, everyone in the industry told him that there were only two business models in the industry that worked.

You could either go down the motel business route, small hotels with under 200 rooms, with low amenities but a lot of comfort and warmth. Or, alternatively, you could go down the large city centre convention hotel business route. Bigger hotels with 750 rooms upwards, all the amenities, but tending to be more cold and impersonal than a smaller hotel.

So which did Sharp choose?

Well this is where Sharp stood out. Hew refused to accept the premise presented to him that it was "either, or" - one or other model –that you could not do both small and large at the same time, or have the best qualities of both models.

Sharp decided to create a new model - the Four Seasons model. A medium-size hotel between 200 and 350 rooms, with incredible service, that enables them to charge a price premium to fund the amenities, even at a scale that people might think too small to have all the central amenities you need in a hotel.

That is integrative thinking?

That is the classic integrative thinking response. It's a response when two available models oppose one another, and are each unsatisfactory. More conventional thinkers are inclined to accept the situation, and see their job as making the tough decision of choosing between the two.

Integrative thinkers reject the suggestion that, just because they're the only two models that exist now, those are the only two models possible. There is a sense that there is an opportunity to create something different.

You found this way of thinking a common denominator among very successful business leaders.

Yes, the overwhelming majority. I would say in the order of 80%. But not all. I do not claim, and never claimed, that what I describe in the book is the only way to think that produces success. What I would say, however, is in the vast majority of cases this was a common element. And I admit, I was very surprised by these findings.

How did you go about discovering this?

I decided to seek out people who had exemplary success; the names that always cropped up when you asked who was successful in a particular industry or business. I did that across lots of industries. And then I took these leaders through an intense interview process where I asked the about the tough decisions they had made, the decisions that they considered challenging, difficult and thought provoking. Normally these interviews would take place in front of an audience of MBA students.

So even though these folks came from a wide variety of contexts, was there a common thinking process, and if so, was it common enough and identifiable enough that you could name it, describe it, and then develop peoples' capacity to be like these leaders? So how were the leaders thinking? What were they thinking about?

Could you give some examples of the people you spoke to?

Many of the people I interviewed I think of as the business rock stars of the day, Jack Welch, Michael Dell, A.G Lafley and Meg Whitman to name a few. And then some who are less well-known but are also extremely successful, such as Issy Sharp.

I interviewed some of the great Indian CEOs such as Nandan Nilekani from Infosys, Subramanian Ramadorai at Tata Consultancy Services and Vamal Kamath of ICICI Bank. Also some people from non-profit organisations like Victoria Hale from the Institute of OneWorld Health and Piers Handling of the Toronto International Film Festival.

What does this mean for leaders and leadership? For people who aspire to be the next generation of leaders, what is the book's message for them?

Don't think that you're going to be a great and successful leader on the basis of analysing, evaluating, or choosing between models. And, unfortunately, a lot of business education is oriented to doing just that.

Instead, the message of the book is that greatness will come from creating new models, and seeing yourself as a person who does that. Your job is not to choose from among the existing or presenting models, but rather to create something that's better. Unless, of course, one of the models is fine and suits all of your purposes.

But there will be many times when you're going to be faced with unpleasant choices between models, and then being a creator is the key.

Can people learn to do this?

By the time a person is a young adult they would already be placed somewhere on the spectrum of 100% conventional, to 100% integrative. So they don't start out at the same point.

That said, I am comfortable from having taught this to generations of MBA students, that you can be moved along the spectrum from conventional towards integrative. Anybody can if they want to; if they show the desire. How far they can move is another question.

So as a practical illustration of this, we are facing a very severe downturn, possibly recession, in North America. Presumably your way of approaching that would be to look for new opportunities?

Absolutely. Although I would not say ignore existing choices completely. But to either hope that the downturn goes away, or accept the fact we're going into a deep recession and start battening down the hatches tomorrow – both those choices are unsatisfactory. One is unrealistic, head in the sand behaviour. The other is Chicken Little.

There are better ways of thinking about that situation. What about, for example, the fact that there may be a recession which would cause us to make choices somewhat differently than we would otherwise, but would leave open the possibility that if it is not a recession, not that deep, we could take advantage of the eventual upturn?

I think that is better. There are always better ways.


About The Author

Des Dearlove & Stuart Crainer
Des Dearlove & Stuart Crainer

Des Dearlove is a long-term contributor and columnist for The Times and a contributing editor to Strategy+Business. Stuart Crainer is a contributing editor to Strategy+Business and executive editor of Business Strategy Review.