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Creating Great Ands – Your Opposable Mind At Work

Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Chocolate and Peanut Butter

Moe, Larry and Curly

And so on, and so on…

Each of these are fine on their own. However, when one is added to another, a great alchemical melding occurs. It’s the integration of unique things into something quite different.

Too many times we limit ourselves and our choices by placing an ‘or’ between our options. Why not choose an ‘and’ instead? Because it’s just not that easy to do, particularly in the world of management and business. We like our options to be neat, our decisions to be orderly, our outcomes to be quick and well-defined. Yet this more logical and rational preference costs us more than we realize. It cheats us of our potential. Do you think Moe would be half as hilarious if Curly wasn’t there? And while chocolate is very good, the addition of peanut butter takes it to a whole other level (okay, that may just be for me).

I used to be an ‘or’ kind of guy. If someone gave me a choice between chocolate or vanilla ice cream, I’d make a rational choice between the two options. Then my dear wife entered my life and introduced the power of ‘and.’ When presented the same choices, she’d always reply, “Both.” The first few times she did it, I would say, “Wait, you have to make a decision.” Her response? “Why should I? I like both and they taste better together.” Guess what? She’s right. And by choosing an integrative solution she’s modeling a process that is essential in today’s business world.

One of the most influential articles I’ve read in Harvard Business Review was titled How Successful Leaders Think by Roger Martin. The article is a prelude to his book, Opposable Mind: Winning Through Integrative Thinking. His primary argument is built around the idea of an opposable mind. Like the genetic advantages we gain through our opposable thumbs (like holding a pencil, lifting large stone blocks, and catching a ride with strangers), we have an immense capacity to create new options through an opposable mind. Yet, we often veer toward the shallow compromises of an ‘or’ decision because of the mirage of comfort it yields. Martin writes:

We often don’t know what to do with fundamentally opposing and seemingly incommensurable models. Our first impulse is usually to determine which of the two models is “right” and, by the process of elimination, which is “wrong.” We may even take sides and try to prove that our chosen model is better than the other one. But in rejecting one model out of hand, we miss out on all the value that we could have realized by considering the opposing two at the same time and finding in the tension clues to a superior model. By forcing a choice between the two, we disengage the opposable mind before it can seek a creative resolution.

The next time you’re presented with two or more options, don’t be too quick in choosing one over all the others. Take a bit more time to play with the healthy tension between the ideas and follow the steps that Martin offers:

  1. Start by acknowledging that everything is relevant at the beginning. Rather than quickly dismissing what seems trivial or unnecessary, welcome the complexity of the situation. It’s from this place that the best answers will emerge.
  2. Consider how things are connected. Instead of choosing a path and immediately racing in one direction, take a step back and look at the whole situation. Find relationships, question assumptions, get curious about other possibilities.
  3. Take a systemic approach to making a decision. Martin suggests that we see “the entire architecture of the problem – how the various parts of it fit together, how one decision will affect another…The order in which you make these decisions will affect the outcome.”
  4. Achieve resolution by refusing the simple and segmented “either/or” model which only leads to compromised trade-offs and conventional options. Appreciate the natural tensions between conflicting ideas and seek a solution that creatively assembles the best of each option.

Yes, this might appear to be more difficult and more time-consuming. But if you truly want to differentiate yourself, your team, or your organization, then do something that few others are willing to do. When a problem arises today, get curious and wonder, “Wow! what would it be like if we put these different things together?” Don’t be surprised if it leads to some interesting solutions.

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