In theory: The Opposable Mind

Emma De Vita's weekly look at management-speak.

Managers are always having their minds messed with - it comes with the job. The way managers think and intuit is fodder for organisational psychologists, business gurus and motivational speakers, who can't wait to persuade you to think, behave or act in a more impressive way - and get credit for your success.

One of the latest ideas from the other side of the Atlantic is the theory of the opposable mind. Developed by Roger Martin, professor of strategic management at the Rotman School of Management in Toronto, and explained in his new book of the same name, it is the theory that truly successful leaders are able to hold two apparently conflicting ideas in their minds and resolve the tensions between them to find creative and innovative solutions to seemingly intractable problems.

Most normal managers will make decisions by examining the pros and cons of each alternative and then eliminating one or the other. A person with an opposable mind (also termed an 'integrative thinker' by Martin), will never make these either-or decisions. They are able to take the best from both ideas to create a workable solution that improves on both.

But don't fret if you don't think in this way. Martin doesn't believe integrative thinking is just for geniuses. He says that it's a "habit of thought" that all of us can consciously develop.

For third sector managers, this could be very handy indeed. Imagine being able to reconcile having no money with producing big-budget publicity for your current fundraising campaign. Or what about recruiting talented, experienced staff when you can't afford to pay more than £12,000 a year?

Integrative thinkers welcome messy, complex situations, because, Martin says, "the mess assures them that they haven't edited out features necessary to the contemplation of the problem as a whole". We mere mortals might get as far as embracing the mess, but most of us will be left staring at it and then sweeping it under the carpet.

- Emma De Vita is editor of the books pages on Management Today.

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