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Thinking Like a Leader: The Opposable Mind

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I read a great article a few months back in the Harvard Business Review by Roger Martin (dean of the Rotman School of Management and author of The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking) where he looks at a concept he calls the “Opposable Mind.”

The Opposable Mind refers to a leaders’ ability to think about two different solutions at the same time and then come to a conclusion that synthesizes them and adds something extra to make a completely unique solution. This conclusion is usually much better than either one of the original solutions. In other words people with “opposable minds” are integrative thinkers.

As Martin puts it:

[Integrative thinkers] see the entire architecture of the problem - how the various parts of it fit together, how one decision will affect another. Just as important, they hold all of those pieces suspended in their minds at once.

The example Martin focuses on in the article is that of Bob Young - founder of Red Hat. Bob came up against a big decision early in Red Hat’s existence that lead him to think in an integrative manner. Ultimately it was the integration of two ideas that made Red Hat the success that it is.

At the time Red Hat was using the “free software” model where they were packaging Linux (software and source code) with the latest updates and selling it for a modest $15 or so to “computer geeks” who were using it mostly on their own machines.

As Red Hat looked to grow they could have either stayed on the same path and while moving into the corporate market or they could have chosen to employ the proprietary software model where you would simply sell the software without the source code at a higher price.

None of these two solutions seemed to work in Bob Young’s mind. Of course the proprietary model wasn’t going to be an option and the free software model was going to cause Red Hat problems with CIOs who were afraid of the reliability of an open source software platform.

Young, while thinking of both solutions simultaneously, came up with the idea to give away Red Hat for free and center his business around services and support. He knew that only one player in the industry would eventually gain the trust of the corporate sector and that services and support would be the way to do it. So, instead of choosing one solution or the other Young came up with a new solution that revolutionized the industry and made Red Hat a big time player.

This idea can be summed up with a quote from Procter & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley that Martin uses in his article. In response to a question about a brilliant turnaround plan that Lafley had worked out involving both cost cutting and investment in innovation Lafley said:

We weren’t going to win if it were an ‘or.’ Everybody can do ‘or.’

The good news is that Martin, after studying this way of thinking for years, is a firm believer that this is not something you have to be born with. You can, in fact, hone your opposable mind.

Next time you are presented with a problem and a couple of solutions ask yourself what else you could do to solve the problem. Is there a way you could take a little from both solutions and create a much better completely new one? There probably is.

Written by Eric Olson

October 8th, 2007 at 3:13 pm

Posted in Business

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  1. [...] Check it out! While looking through the blogosphere we stumbled on an interesting post today.Here’s a quick excerpt … with the latest updates and selling it for a modest $15 or so to “computer geeks”… [...]

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