Thursday, May 12, 2022

Book Review: A new way to think by Roger Martin

 I'm lucky to have the opportunity to read and review a number of books in the innovation and strategy space, and I find many of the books have interesting insights or promote new ideas but often aren't overly actionable.  However, I've always found the insights of Roger Martin useful.

His book - Opposable Mind - is a great book about capturing and merging two disparate ideas or opinions to form new viewpoints, products or services.  New managers need the skills introduced in the Opposable Mind to learn to think more broadly and to combine what may seem disparate or opposing ideas.  It should be a book that all managers read.

A New Way to Think

But I'm here to review his latest book - A New Way to Think.  The book is positioned as a more holistic way to think about and build strategy.  Martin argues in many of the chapters that a number of our closely held beliefs about management are flawed.  He targets a number of key components and attributes in a business and helps illustrate how we should rethink our approach to concepts like culture, knowledge work, talent and more.  The question he asks is:  do your models and frameworks work, or are they limiting your thinking?  His assertion is that if an existing model or framework doesn't work, executives assume it wasn't fully or appropriately applied, and then they attempt to apply the same framework again, only with greater emphasis.  He notes that often, it's not the effort behind the model, but the model itself that is not effective.

Strategy - what's important is what will be true

For example, when writing about strategy, he remarks that "In strategy, what counts is what would have to be true - not what is true".  In other words, we often analyze strategy based on what the current market conditions are, who the current competitors are and so forth.  As a person who works a lot on trend spotting and scenario planning, I can't agree more.  When developing strategy, we forecast the company in the future and need to understand the operating conditions then - in other words deciding what must be true for success in the future, not what is currently true today.  Yet, most executives are very comfortable and well-read on existing conditions and competition and are much less comfortable with future conditions and competition, so the debate over strategy is about current conditions, which are less likely to impact the development and eventual roll out of a new strategy.

Knowledge Work - focus on projects, not jobs

Martin has another chapter on knowledge work, in which he points out that the vast majority of work today is knowledge work.  This of course is not new news, but the way he thinks about it is.  He points out that knowledge work is primarily project based - we create new knowledge and package or use new knowledge, almost always as a definitive project.  Therefore, we should organize around projects rather than functions or permanent jobs.  It's an interesting and valuable idea, if perhaps difficult to implement.

A compilation with great chapters

This book, as it is, is really a compilation of a number of HBR articles Martin has written over the years, and as such has some really great points and chapters, and some that in my mind miss the mark a bit.  The chapters on stakeholders, strategy and knowledge work are outstanding and have great insights and recommendations, while the chapter on innovation I found a bit unfocused and less valuable.

What the book does well is call into question a number of the management philosophies and theories that define how companies are structured, how they go to market and how and where they create value.  The ideas are very useful and coming out of the COVID pandemic and faced with new competition, unfamiliar market conditions (inflation) and other issues, it is probably time for a rethink of corporate strategy and structure.  I'd highly recommend the book and its insights and look forward to using it as a guide with my own clients.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 4:26 AM


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