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Roger Martin is dean of the Rotman School of Management.
Roger Martin is dean of the Rotman School of Management.

Leadership advice

Martin: A new way of thinking for a new way of business Add to ...

Roger Martin is dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. BusinessWeek named him one of seven “Innovation Gurus” in 2005 and two years later one of the 10 most influential business professors in the world. In this interview, he explains how to make the creative leaps that will help you to be more successful in your strategy and decision making, and how we can respond to the agitation for changes to the capitalist system.

At the core of what you have been teaching and writing about is thinking – integrative thinking. What is integrative thinking and why is it important?

It is important because it’s a form of thinking that highly successful leaders employ. I conducted about five years of research and found when highly-successful leaders face what appears to be two opposing models or directions they could choose, instead of picking one at the expense of the other – even though it seems the options are so opposed the leaders can’t adopt both – they figure out a creative resolution of the tensions and indeed design a brand new model that contains elements of each but is superior to both.

Here’s a quick example: Issy Sharp, founder of Four Seasons, first built a roadside motel, 125 rooms, low budget – very simple. Then he built the 1,600-room Four Seasons-Sheraton in downtown Toronto. Those were the two models for hotels: Either build big-city convention hotels or small budget motels. Instead of going for one or the other, he decided to create a new model, the medium-sized hotel with the intimacy of the small motel but the amenities of a large hotel, supported by a fantastic form of service that travellers would pay a premium for. So we wouldn’t hear of Issy Sharp and Four Seasons would be nothing special if instead of choosing he had not come up with a better answer. That’s integrative thinking.

We’re told in strategy that we are supposed to make a choice. If you don’t make a choice, it’s not a strategy.

That’s true. People often ask me about that, since my background is in strategy, and they wonder if I believe you don’t have to make choices. I say, “No, it’s the kind of choice that you’re making.” Issy Sharp still made a choice. His choice ended up with a hotel chain of 100 hotels, not 1,200 hotels like a Westin, for example.

It was very, very choiceful. But it wasn’t the choice he was presented.

Often people who listen to the strategy-is-about-choice advice assume that they should pick amongst the options that are presented to them – that arise out of the current environment. No, they should choose what solves the problem and creates the solution they are looking for.

So how do we get an opposable mind?

First, you need that approach as a goal. You need what I call “a stance” – this is my job, not to pick between two options presented to me but to come up with the best solution.

It also helps to recognize that things people tend to call reality are not reality – they are just models. Often individuals will say, “the reality is,” or “the truth of the matter is.” That’s because they think the truth is what they are suggesting customers want – the truth is that there are only two ways to build a hotel chain, for example. You need to reject that, realizing the alleged truth is just somebody’s interpretation, and it’s your job to create something new.

There are a set of tools to grow your integrative thinking capability. I noticed integrative thinkers were willing to absorb a little more complexity, paying attention to more things that were salient to their decision making. What was salient to Issy Sharp’s decision making that wasn’t to others was that people staying in luxury hotel chains weren’t terribly happy to be there. Everyone assumed because they were in the lap of luxury, they were delighted to be there. But they were busy people who travelled too much and would rather be at home or in the office. So rather than giving them more luxury or more obsequious service, he figured maybe he could make the hotel room more like home with shampoo in the showers, a bathrobe in the closet, a hair dryer in the bathroom, and 24-hour room service. He could make it more like the office with two-line telephones, working desks and secretarial service. Those changes only came about because Issy Sharp saw things to be salient that others didn’t notice.

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