The Opposable Mind

I was recently reading Roger Martin’s article entitled “How Successful Leaders Think” and I was struck by this term “opposable mind”. It immediately made me think of this picture:

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Most of us operate on the right side of the picture (“converge”), where we try to make trade-offs and converge to the one “right answer.” But, as Roger Martin points out, truly great leaders intuitively can hold divergent ideas in their mind and develop a new and better solution (vision, direction, etc). Integrated thinkers (as he calls them) actually welcome divergent ideas because it is necessary to their thought process. Let me say it another way…they need divergent ideas as a part of the learning process.

Although reading this article was the first time I had heard the term used in this way, Martin reminds us that this is not new.

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A great example of integrated thinking happened last week in Omaha at Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meeting. If you’re not familiar with the spectacle that has become Buffettfest, over 30,000 people fill an arena in Omaha to hear Buffett and Charlie Munger’s take on a wide variety of subjects. 99.99% of these 30k people LOVE Berkshire and Buffett. (See below for a visual)

Despite having so many fans around, Buffett invited one of his toughest critics to the show – Doug Kass, president Seabreeze Partners Management and Berkshire bear. I don’t buy that Buffett invited Kass because Buffett is so confident he could answer Kass’s questions – rather, I believe Kass was invited to help stretch Buffett. Buffett has said before that he could be wrong and welcomes intelligent debate.

Buffett’s actions point back to the heart of Roger Martin’s article:

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Buffett is working the tension of introducing other ideas. He realizes that he doesn’t have the one answer and that a key ingredient in his development is divergent thinking. And speaking of Darwin, here is a quote from Buffett during the annual meeting in Omaha:

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So how often do you work your opposable mind? Are you in an echo chamber where everyone looks like you, thinks like you and acts like you? Do you like to listen to news shows were your beliefs are supported? Work out your opposable mind by having thoughtful conversations with people who are different from you. Seek to understand and welcome the divergence – I believe it will help your thought be more sophisticated and the path you end up taking will be more informed and potentially surprising. I love Roger Martin’s description of the difference between “either, or” and “both”. It makes me think of my previous post on “yes, AND

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Everybody can do ‘or’ – strive to do both through integrated thinking.

Edited to add this amazing endorsement.

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