« Solving Brain Ticklers with PowerShell | Main | Our Hermetic Future »

January 12, 2009

Glass Houses

Somebody recommended the book The Opposable Mind, by Roger Martin, so I've been looking through it. His thesis is that people tend to trap themselves in "either-or" decisions (for example, building a small hotel with few amenities or a large hotel with lots of amenities), but people with "opposable" minds (like opposable thumbs, you see?) can hold both ideas in their mind at the same time and come up with a solution that avoids the tradeoff (a small hotel with lots of amenities). If this strikes you as overly simplistic than I agree with you, since I'm sure every variety of hotel size, amenity, and the other factors that he conveniently ignores in his example (like, say, the price you charge) has been tried at one point. The book could be summarized as "think outside the box", which is nothing new but wouldn't fill 200 pages (barely, with the index included), so Martin heaps on a bunch of examples to pad it out. To be fair, 1) however fuzzy his arguments, at the core he has a good point, and 2) he does offer some advice on how to train yourself to think this way.

Most business books are guilty of cherry-picking their examples, and Martin is no different; he highlights Isadore Sharp of the Four Seasons hotel chain (small hotels with lots of amenities) as having an opposable mind, without mentioning what happened to other hoteliers who tried the same business model. If you read Malcolm Gladwell's new book Outliers, what emerges from his latest collection of counter-intuitive tales is the fact that the most important factor behind many successful people is...well, it's not really clear what it is, since Gladwell--continuing the trend that began with the crisply single-minded The Tipping Point and continued with the less actionable Blink--veers between attributing it to your ancestry, when you were born, how hard you work, and who knows what else; luckily (unlike Roger Martin) he's a good enough writer that the whole thing is still quite enjoyable, and you come away with a realization that a lot of success is related to luck of some sort. History is written by the winners, and business books are written by interviewing the winners.

Martin takes some time at the beginning of his book to bag on a couple of other business books, specifically on the book Execution for choosing, among the paragons it interviews, a couple of executives (Dick Brown of EDS and Henry Schacht of Lucent) who would later be fired for poor performance. Naturally, Martin then presents his own chosen coterie of integrative thinkers (the kind of thinkers that an opposable mind produces). One of them is a guy named Ramalinga Raju, who founded a company called Satyam Computer Services. Raju explains how he has learned to be patient and wait for his opposable mind to sort through the various opposables, and reveal the answer. Quoth Mr. Raju: "If you are swimming on the surface, then you are very unlikely to find pearls, because they are deep underneath and you have to dive down; you have to go into a fair amount of depth on any particular issue that you take up."

Which is why I was amused to see the following in the Wall Street Journal the other day: "Satyam's founder and chairman, B. Ramalinga Raju, resigned after admitting he had fudged the books for several years, including creating a fictitious cash balance of more than $1 billion." I have to bow down before his awesome integrativeness; when running a business I never would have been able to reconcile the choice between coming up with a successful business model or else not making a lot of money, but this guy obviously dove down deep enough to see the integrated third way that had eluded me.

Posted by AdamBa at January 12, 2009 10:08 PM