I was in Toronto yesterday doing ethnographic interviews on the topic of Canada and Canadianness. One of my respondents was Roger Martin, the dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.
Part way through the interview, Martin identified a paradox. He noted that Canadians who are creative and free thinking as individuals can become dramatically less creative in groups. Let’s call this the Martin paradox.
You might say that this is paradox describes all cultures. Doesn’t group-think crush creativity everywhere? Don’t ideas suffer "death by committee" in all countries and economies. Well, no. I have seen Americans be sensationally creative in groups. I have seen The Coca-Cola Company and IBM roll out ideas effortlessly. That Canadians are not creative in groups, this may be a special national characteristic.
Or, we might be wrong on the first proposition, that Canadians are especially creative as individuals. But the anecdotal evidence here is strong. I give you James Cameron, Martin Short, Malcolm Gladwell, Isadore Sharp, Jim Carrey, Lorne Michaels, Don Tapscott, Tim Bray, James Gosling (inventor of Java), Eugene Levy, Douglas Coupland, Matthew Perry, John Kenneth Galbraith, Hayden Christensen, Nelly Furtado, William Gibson, Rachel McAdams, David McTaggart (co-founder of Greenpeace) Michael Ondaatje, and of course Jason Priestley. It’s as if Canada generates a net surplus of creativity, enough indeed to help fund big chunks of American culture. (Or maybe of course Canadians go south to escape the group effect.)
We may take Martin as a good example of a creative Canadian. He attended Harvard College and the Harvard Business School. He remained in Cambridge to help build Monitor from a small company to a large one. While running the Rotman school of Management, he finds time to produce a stream of articles and books. He was coming north to Rotman just as I was going down to HBS, and I worried that this creative individual might be set upon by Canadians in groups. But it turns out this guy is bullet proof and now threatens to reinvent b-schools, capitalism and Canada all at once.
Martin gave me a copy of his new book, The Opposable Mind, which I read on the flight home from Toronto. It’s good. Friends of this blog will have noticed that I am usually unkind to books in the business literature category. I have drubbed Blue Ocean Strategy by Kim and Mauborgne, Lovemark by Roberts, The Long Tail by Chris Anderson, and the ideas of Zaltman, Rapaille and Sir John Hegarty. I have even dared challenge Freakonomics. I am, by this reckoning, a tough audience, but The Opposable Mind impressed me.
A skeptic might say I am going easy on Martin because I have met him, because he is a Canadian (and there is Canadian mafia), and/or because he gave me a copy of his book. May I reassure you that there is no Canadian mafia. Furthermore, I have met, worked with, and deeply admire Zaltman, so personal acquaintance has no sway. And if you think my good opinion can be purchased with a free book, well, I wonder if we should step into the corridor and discuss this further. (This is the Canadian version of Honi Soit qui Mal Y Pense. Or, as we might call it in honor of the national sport, Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense on ice.)
The argument is, as I understand, it is that exemplary business leaders
have the predisposition and the capacity to hold two diametrically opposing ideas in their heads, [and that they are] able to produce a synthesis that is superior to either opposing idea. (6)
Martin calls this process, "integrative thinking." He argues that great managers are
born with an opposable mind we can use to hold two conflicting ideas in constructive tension, [which tension can be used] to think our way through to a new and superior idea. (7, italics in the original)
There are two things I particularly like about the book. The first is that it gives us a license to embrace complexity. We all know that the business world is rippling with new and powerful intellectual challenges. I am just finishing a project for a large corporation and I have listened to middle and senior managers talk about a world almost liquid with change. The C-Suite seems to have a revolving door, competitors are inscrutable, new technologies unpredictable, cultural trends relentless, consumer taste and preference dynamic. Blind side hits just keep on coming. As one respondent put it, things change so fast, the contract "is dead on day 2." Another said her world was all "turbulence and blur."
What we need in such a world are ideas that are both more powerful and less monolithic. We need a new order of subtlety and nimbleness. The nice thing about the Opposable Mind concept is that it allows us to come to terms with complexity, to endure tension, to harvest contradiction. The usual business book is trying to make complexity go away. This book says there is no one idea that will return to the world to order. But there is a process with which we can learn to live with what Martin calls the "staggeringly complexity" of the new business environment. Martin says beware the easy answer, the single model, the cheap dichotomy, the false opposition. Expect the world the resist comprehension, and learn to work with its complexity.
The second thing I like about this book is that I think it sets an important precedent for the world of the business book. We know what b-books look like. Characteristically, they are one-idea exercises, which idea is trumpeted from the title, adequately captured by the cover flap, and ground out with no real depth or subtlety in 200 pages of example and repetition. Which is another way of saying that the business book suffers the same problem as business. It is wedded to a model of intellectual production that seeks out big, bold monolithic ideas and sticks with them. B-books are so undeveloped intellectually that one suspects that what the author is really doing is building a consulting platform, and he or she is afraid that real detail will preempt all those lucrative contracts.
There is something insulting about this withholding. It is true that business books are read by business men and women who are driven by a 60-70 hour week and a horrific set of conflicting demands on their time. But I am not sure this means we need to patronize them with a kind of "big print" approach to theory and discussion. After all, these men and women live in a very testing intellectual environment and some of them are rising to the occasion by developing new intellectual capacities. (Those who came to business and marketing because it’s "not exactly rocket science," well, I think they know their day is up.) An evolutionary imperative is making managers smarter and it might be time for the publishing world to catch up.
Certainly, we know from the work of Henry Jenkins and Steven Johnson that popular culture is ceased dumbing down and has started smarting up. Network and cable TV now assume a viewer who is capable of richer, more nuanced stories. The couch potato is now assumed to have a head and a heart. Let us take for granted the business reader has a brain.
That The Opposable Mind is produced by the Harvard Business School Press, and specifically Jeff Kehoe, is a good thing. After all, HBSP has the bully pulpit and to be honest it has in its time produced one or two books in the Keep It Simple model. If HBSP is rising to the intellectual occasion, we may be looking at a rising tide that will elevate the entire industry.
Ok, back to the Martin paradox. Wouldn’t it be elegant if the Martin paradox can be illuminated by the Martin model? Can we use the Opposable Mind to understand the Canadian inclination to be creative as individuals and uncreative in groups.
It is a workable argument, I think. One concept of Canadians is that they are products of contraction and complexity. They come from a world of two founding cultures (the famous "two solitudes") for which integration is always sought. Two cultures and languages have given way to many cultures and languages as the multicultural experiment continues. Canada has licenses new comers with the right to keep and cultivate their differences. This means that for every cultural characteristic that might serve as a national identifier, there is another that contradicts it. Take as one case in point, Toronto as a city animated by the "tension" between Methodist Scots who made it Canada’s second city (after Montreal), and the Italians who arrived after World War II to save them from culinary, fashion, social and emotional inadequacies.
Canadians must also endure the fact that they are practice a communitarian capitalism, that they insist on a tall poppy individualism, that they are both aggressively egalitarian and aggressively hierarchical. There are really lots of contradictions swimming about here, and I think the people who rise in a world like this are people who are good at surviving and managing complexity. The fact that Canadians generally are uncomfortable with the "imperial self" that is sometimes popular south of their border gives them a certain perspectival flexibility, let’s call it. The ones who flourish are precisely the ones who use these complexities as a staircase with which to climb to acts of integration and creativity. (The relationship between integration and creativity needs more careful examining than I can give it here.)
So it works. The Martin model helps illuminate the Martin paradox. What about the other way round? Does the Martin model help us understand why Canadians cease to be creative when in groups? I’m not sure. I haven’t finished the book. My guess is that what is happening here is that Canadians suffer here from the devotion to consensus. Much more than Americans, Canadians think they have to agree. Much more than Americans, Canadians think they have to approve. One of the things I love about Americans is their pragmatism. You will be hammering away at a problem in a boardroom and it becomes clear that we are not looking for a consensus, we are looking for something that is "good enough for television. Let’s get on it."
As I recall from my museum days in Toronto, it was customary to watch people withdraw their compliance and it was customary for people to sniff their disapproval. Again, in the American case, people pursue the thing much less personally, and are inclined to go with things that are responsive to the opportunity…even if they are not especially consistent with one’s own preferences. Finally, Canadians believe their is a null space to which a committee, an institution (and their nation?) can retreat, a place of no decision and no momentum. For most Americans, this is intolerable. In American committee meetings there is a unspoken but deeply shared understanding. We are going to decide on something, and we are going to act on it, it’s just a matter of what.
In Canadian groups, contradictions live and they have the power to derail things. Which is to say the Martin model cannot take effect. These Canadians cannot escape their contradictions. They cannot integrate. They can ascend to higher plane of generality, a richer synthetic moment of creativity. Canadians in groups become the victim of their differences while as individuals they are the beneficiaries of these differences. Or, to put this another way, the integration that Canadians do so well as individuals is denied them in collectivities.
Anyhow, check out The Opposable Mind. It’s really interesting.
Martin, Roger. 2007. The Opposable Mind. Boston: Harvard Business School Press. here at Amazon.com.