The first great business book of 2008

When I was growing up in the northeast US, it became fashionable for weather forecasters to declare, “This is one of the ten best days of the year!” And I always wondered what happened if they used up their ten-best days too early–for example, not being able to duly recognize a spectacular October 17th.

Such is the risk in proclaiming a book on January 14 to be one of the best books of the upcoming year. But if I read five better books than “The Opposable Mind” this year, it will have been a good year indeed.

The book, by Rotman School of Management dean Roger Martin, seeks to demonstrate that great business innovators use a different mode of thinking from that of the run-of-the-mill manager. Such thinking (using the “opposable mind,” in the book’s parlance) allows them to hold several conflicting ideas in their heads and craft breakthrough solutions that resolve the conflicts. While relying on vivid anecdotes and case studies, the book also has a strong academic underpinning, referencing the work of, among others, Stanford’s James March.

Martin introduces us to a new cast of great thinkers. Likely because the author’s home base lies in an important metropolis outside the US–Toronto–he has discovered innovators rarely profiled in business books. While trotting out a few of the usual suspects (Welch, Lafley), Martin also reviews the decisionmaking of Four Seasons Hotels’ Isadore Sharp; citytv’s Moses Znaimer; and Piers Handling of the Toronto Film Festival.

In many ways, the book is a celebration of the entrepreneur. Collaborative decisionmaking is nonexistent in the book. One of Martin’s theses is that only an individual seeing the entire picture can create the creative leap to the new. Even in large corporate settings, like P&G, the hero is the individual who can resolve the paradoxes and see the breakthrough solution that his/her thousands of colleagues have missed.

For Sharp, it was uniting the best of small, high-service hotels and large, impersonal hotels with vast amenities. For Znaimer, it was creating a brand for a television station apart from simply a compendium of others’ programming. And for Lafley, it was seeing that the requirements for low-cost products and increased innovation did not have to be mere tradeoffs, but could point the way to a new way of creating products–Connect & Develop.

“The Opposable Mind” is an utterly optimistic book. Martin believes strongly that anyone can learn these thinking skills. He teaches them to Rotman students and describes their struggles and forward steps in mastering what to folks like Moses Znaimer is natural, but to the rest of us is brand-new thinking indeed.

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