Friday, January 15, 2010

making sense out of nonsense

I was recently introduced to the writings of Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. Roger looks at the world of business (and business education) through a completely different lense - one which helps others make "sense" out of "nonsense." Let me try to explain...

I am 2/3 of the way through Roger's first book entitled The Opposable Mind: Winning Through Integrative Thinking. He begins the book with a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald which says that "the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise." I tend to understand this thinking as to what Jim Collins, in his book Built to Last, refers to as BOTH/AND thinking rather than EITHER/OR thinking.

In my first class of the spring semester, I handed out a box of crayons and a coloring sheet to my students and asked them to color (no directions included). After about 10 minutes, we stopped and looked at what they had done. ALL the students had been very neat and clean, coloring inside the lines with the perfect color they had chosen. When I asked why no one had colored outside the lines, they responded that they were doing what they had always been told to do - and besides, coloring outside the lines was messy, and "messy" is bad, which would result in a lower grade (you get the idea of where I was going with this). The discussion finally led to the idea that life is messy - that problem solving is messy - and that we had better learn to be comfortable with messy, or life would drive us insane. Sounds a lot like being able to hold two opposing ideas in our minds at the same time and still retain the ability to function!

Martin has many models and ways of thinking in his book to help the reader/student learn how to become an "integrative" thinker - one of my favorites is developing the understanding that "existing models do not represent reality; they are our constructions." STOP and consider the impact of that statement. Everything we see and understand is based on some type of model we have formed in our brains in order to "make sense" of what we see. However, there is always more to be discovered - or my model may be different than another's model and we see the same thing differently - or creating a new model helps us to see things another way - or understanding another's model helps us to enter into their world in a new and creative way...and the list goes on. Becoming comfortable with the fact that our models do not represent reality is a HUGE step in one's leadership development. Think of the possibilities that can occur when we look at a situation, and allow our understanding of it to go beyond what we first see and believe. WOW!

Today, as you encounter different people and different situations, keep this thought in mind. Ask yourself if there might be another way of understanding what you are seeing and hearing - and allow yourself to explore different understandings. Ask others what they see and understand...think how someone 1000 years ago would have seen and understood this situation...think of how someone younger/older than you would see and understand the situation...think of how someone who isn't in your field of study/expertise would see and understand the situation...think of how someone in a life or death moment would see and understand the situation. Consider the possibilities - and begin to make sense out of nonsense.


kurt bennett said...

Mind if I borrow that coloring outside the lines object lesson? Great idea.

Jeff Tobe said...

Don, i liked your thoughts. I like to say "It's OK to color outside the you don't fall off the page!". I too enjoyed Martin's concept. It is all about perspective and if we see the world through our "customer's" eyes, we will see the way our customer buys. I am not just referring to a sales situation but the child in the classroom, a colleague or an administrator.
Jeff Tobe
"Coloring Outside the Lines"

Don Christian said...

Jeff - I will need to check out your book and website - sounds interesting. In class, we talk about the pros and cons of coloring outside the lines...and when it is approriate to do so or not. Thanks for reading!