Integrating the Opposite and Impossible


I’ve been reading “The Opposable Mind” by Roger Martin. The book is about how the best ideas and solutions to problems come from taking seemingly opposing views, and rather than making trade-offs, to integrate the opposing ideas to create something new. Another term that has been used for this is “synthesis”. In this context, synthesis is NOT about taking vast information and simplifying it into a few key points. It is about taking wildly differing perspectives and by holding these thoughts in your mind, finding a new solution that is not an either or decision.

Martin shares examples of some of the great integrative thinkers. Issy Sharp, the genius behind the Four Seasons Hotels, who wanted a hotel that offered a small, intimate home-like environment, but also offer the services expected by business travellers, which could only be offered in the larger hotels. A.G. Lafley, who brought innovation back to Proctor and Gamble, and created entirely new leading brands. Martha Graham, who invented modern dance and integrated sculpture, music, and dance into an entirely new experience for show-goers. There are many others, including Meg Whitman of eBay, Nandan Nilekani of Infosys Technologoes, filmmaker Atom Egoyan, and business management guru Peter Drucker, to name a few.

There’s an interesting section in Chapter 4 – Dancing with Complexity.

In every domain, human beings gravitate toward simplification and specialization. We do so, says Stanford management theorist Jim March, because we live in a dauntingly complex and ambiguous world, full of causal inconsistencies. We cut prices by 5 percent one month, and sales rise by 7 percent. So at the end of next quarter, we again cut prices 5 percent, but this time sales barely budge. A competitor has introduced a rival offering that has eaten into the anticipated sales gain. Our reaction to this baffling turn of events is to simplify and specialize. “Organizations” he says in an article with colleague Daniel Levinthal, “seek to transform confusing, interactive environments into less confusing, less interactive ones by decomposing domains and treating the resulting sub-domains as autonomous.”

We tend to look for simple cause-effect relationships.

When a colleague or superior admonishes us to “quit complicating the issue”, it’s not just an impatient reminder to get on with the damn job–it’s also a plea to keep the complexity at a tolerable level.

As comforting as simplification can be, however, it impairs every step of the integrative thinking process…Simplification makes us favour linear, unidirectional causal relationships, even if reality is more complex and multidirectional.

Specialization is a variant of simplification. If the simplifying mind attempts to understand the whole picture by making it more shallow and superficial than it really is, the specialist attempts to preserve depth and thoroughness by masking out all but a few square inches of a vast canvas.

Business’s dominant mode of specialization is the functional area–finance, marketing, production, sales, human resources, and the rest of the organizational chart.

If integration of seemingly opposing ideas is the compass that guides the way, how would you deal with the next so called trade-off? If specialization is a path to over-simplification and sub-optimal performance, how can you specialize and still maintain a broad perspective and holistic view?  If we can agree that diversity of people, perspectives and skills generates the best innovation and solutions to complex problems, then why would it not hold that this idea could scale to a large organization?

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One thought on “Integrating the Opposite and Impossible

  1. Pingback: Mike Cohn’s on Team Structure « rajile

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