Canada, the Martin Paradox, and The Opposable Mind

Martin_paradox_as_a_4_part_table_ve 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. 

Opposable_mind 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

12 thoughts on “Canada, the Martin Paradox, and The Opposable Mind

  1. Obs

    So in America internal contradictions are frowned upon but ar generally expected amoung a group, but in Canada you can hold internal contradictions but expect the rest of the group to hold the same ones?

  2. aj

    Marc Andreesen isn’t Canadian. He’s from Iowa.

    Also, I don’t see that listing a bunch of B-list celebrities in amongst a group of authors really boosts the idea of Canadian creativity. I would even argue that (authors aside) many in that group are talented, but not creative at all, much in the same way a classical musician can be a wonderful interpreter, but will never write their own music in their lifetime.

    I think there are better examples to be found, even in the Canadian music scene. The Dears blazed the trail that the current Montreal scene(sters) are enjoying as a kind-of hipster mainstream success (Wolf Parade, Arcade Fire etc — and note the fact that most of these bands are made of expats from elsewhere).

    There’s more creativity in the Canadian culinary scene (Martin Picard, Claude Pelletier, Jean-Francois Vachon, several Toronto hotshots), and in Montreal there’s definitely a nexus of web 2.0 development, games development, indietronica, the neo-crafts movement, and zines, the likes of which I haven’t seen…since ever.

    Time to update your reference points I think. 🙂

  3. Allen Edwards

    William Gibson was born in South Carolina, and only went to Canada in the Sixties to escape the draft. I love his books, but I more of an American (came to the U.S. from Canada when I was 8) than he is a Canadian.

  4. lauren

    hi grant, thankfully, i don’t care if a few of your canadian individual reference points are slightly skewiff. i really appreciate this model and paradox. the idea that a group, organisation and nation is, and has permission to be, complex is deliciously refreshing. and perhaps i relate because i’m australian and there is a resonance of that similar complexity here too.

  5. peter

    I think cultural attitudes to open discussions will have a large impact on the creativity of groups. If most people in a room feel uncomfortable with the open discussion of important issues, then group discussions are unlikely to be very creative.

    I have little experience of working with Canadians, Grant, so I am not able to comment on your central idea. One important feature of Americans, in my experience, is a very strong dislike of decisions being taken secretly or outside-the-group. American business people, perhaps very appropriately for a country founded on an anti-monarchical idea, prefer discussion to be open, inclusive, and with all the stakeholders directly involved. Is this also true of Canadians?

    This attitude is very different from, say, English business culture or the cultures of East Asia (China, Japan, Korea). (Note that I say “English” becaused I cannot speak for Scottish or Irish culture in this respect.) All these cultures prefer groups NOT to discuss important matters openly, but rather to decide the key issues beforehand, outside the meeting (in the corridors rather than in the meeting room), and usually by a small cabal. Younger managers from all these countries are less like this than are older managers. As an Australian (and hence a crypto-American), I think the increasing openness of young English and East Asian managers is A Very Good Thing.

    I have sat through numerous business meetings in Asia where nobody contributes anything regarding a pressing problem, but where an agreed (and often very creative) solution is suddenly produced minutes after the meeting is adjourned. The solution had clearly been prepared, discussed widely and ageed before the meeting, but nobody was willing to talk about it in an open meeting. My inner American would despair at this.

  6. Justin Damer

    “Canadians are not creative in groups, this may be a special national characteristic.”


    National stereotyping is racism in the global village.

    Don’t judge me by the colour of my flag.

    P.S. I grant you pardon, at least partially, due to the fact that you gleaned this idea from a business scholar in Toronto. That Torontonians speak for Canada isn’t a product of expertise or experience, it’s just one of many unfortunate side-effects of media consolidation! (See what I just did? That’s called a gross generalization!)

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  8. John Dodds

    Being neither Canadian or American I shall not focus on nationalistic distractions but I very much like the basic thesis of the need to synthesise opposable ideas. Is this the equivalent of the much frowned upon use of devil’s advocacy?

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  10. Laurie

    Being creative in a group is determined by how the group functions: does it seek to brainstorm and devise new solutions or does it seek concensus?

    This week, I was back at a volunteer committee with my local Community Living Association (advocacy agency for people with intellectual disabilities.) Not only are our meetings a lot of fun, but they can be quite inspiring; our meetings are a setting where we truly can be more creative together, than if we were alone giving input. We eat lunch, enjoy each others’ company and turn our attention to the best interests of the agency and the people it serves.

    This has also been my experience at the provincial level, and I am truly excited about returning to a provincial communications conference in February. I will report back, if you’re interested, Grant.

  11. Phil Darby

    I like this blog, Its a bit deep, but at least its challenging. However, some of the assumptions made in this post are questionable.

    Firstly, who said Americans were creative individually or in groups? (or Canadians for that matter?). I have little experience of Canadians, but I have found Americans to be among the least creative business group of any that I have worked with. Although, the lack of hard evidence from a broader sample has disuaded me from generalising. If I were to though, I’d characterise Americans as a race who take other people’s ideas and commercialise (or polish) them.

    I assume also that you are suggesting that “creativity” is a genetic thing, which for all I know it might be, but your comparison with Italians suggests that you believe Italians to be less creative with fashion, or food than Americans, when I think all the evidence and most people (certainly I) would recognise that the reverse is true. (I’m not Italian either by the way.) Isn’t a lot of “American” food a derivitive of Italian? Another case of polishing, perhaps? As are all the faux Italian clothing lines I see in American stores.

    One thing that I really like about the post though is the concept of “Opposable Mind”, so I’m off to buy Martin’s book.

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