Let's think about ideas

A lightbulb Image copyright esenkartal
Image caption Does coming up with a good idea with others require some healthy disagreement along the way?

For a few years I used to open my monthly copy of the metrosexual (well-groomed and fashion-conscious heterosexual man) magazine Monocle with a mixture of quiet expectation and distinct embarrassment.

There on a big black page would usually be a big white quote from me praising somebody else's magazine.

The BBC is not keen on its people uttering endorsements. But perhaps there are not many metrosexuals here - no boss of mine ever seemed to notice this possible infringement of the staff rules.

The advertisement no longer appears, but the publication I was enthusing about was the quarterly magazine of the Rotman School of Business in Toronto. I must have endorsed it with enthusiasm either on the air, or in a previous BBC website column.

The quote from me that Rotman used replaced a previous statement from no less a person than the late management guru Professor Peter Drucker, also enthusing about the magazine. To succeed Prof Drucker was very flattering.

Anyway, what the ad quoted me as saying was this: "Rotman magazine tackles real ideas with a verve and style I have not encountered anywhere else." In big type.

Now that they have dropped me, I must say that I still rather agree with myself.

Nuance and subtlety

The latest edition of what is now called Rotman Management bears out my feelings.

Albert Einstein is on the cover, drawing attention to the main theme of the magazine: Thinking about thinking.

Image copyright Rotman
Image caption Peter Day's enthusiastic endorsement

Thinking is a speciality of the Rotman School of Management, an important differentiator when so many business schools are jostling for the attention of potential alumni, employers and donors. (In case you were wondering, Joseph Rotman is a noted Canadian philanthropist, also from Toronto.)

But thinking is a speciality that might confuse and frighten potential high fee paying students. I think it is bold to set out to teach thinking at a business school.

Especially when Rotman sets out to give its students insight into something called "integrative thinking", which is an attempt to turn a lot of conventional ideas about business planning on their heads.

Integrative thinking is a concept dreamed up by the former dean of the Rotman, Roger Martin. He now runs an organisation there called the Martin Prosperity Institute.

At the heart of it is something rather like that old riddling definition of an intellectual as someone who can hold two conflicting ideas in his or her mind at the same time.

Conventional thinking going back to Descartes, or Socrates, or Plato, produces dialogues where ideas are dealt by participants rather like cards in a poker game.

At a board meeting, for example, a series of suggestions will be put forward as potential answers to a problem, and very often one of them will be chosen as the "right" one, the "winning" answer.

Complex circumstances and discussions are reduced to a final binary choice, and that's the way we get an answer. No wonder that companies, organisations and governments so routinely make such a hash of things.

Groups of politicians, business people and bureaucrats cling to the mantra: "Keep it Simple, Stupid".

Yet they live and work in a world which is anything but simple, where nuance and subtlety are often much more rewarding approaches than plunging into the problem with a slogan or one-answer "solution".

'Adequate disagreement'

Integrative thinking (as I understand it) wrestles with the tensions produced by different ideas propounded by different people. It attempts to retain some of the energy of disagreement into the final proposition. It is not altogether afraid of ostensible illogicalities.

Like life itself, integrative thinking reflects (in the memorable words of the superb Northern Irish poet and BBC man Louis MacNeice) "the drunkenness of things being variable".

Image copyright Science Photo Library
Image caption Should company chief executives encourage their fellow directors to disagree with them?

Applying this to business life with its love of schematic projections and certainties is hard work.

In an article on all this in the current Rotman Management magazine, Roger Martin and Jenifer Riel quote from Prof Peter Drucker's rather modestly titled book, "The Effective Executive", in order to explain their ideas about the uses of dissension and disagreement in the management process.

It's an anecdote about the architect of General Motors, Alfred P Sloan, who built the company into the largest corporation in the world.

Mr Sloan, Prof Drucker wrote, is reported to have said at a meeting of one of his top committees: "Gentlemen, I take it we are all in complete agreement on the decision here?" Everyone nodded their assent.

"Then," said Mr Sloan, quoted by Prof Drucker: "I suggest we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement, and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about."

The right decision - says Prof Drucker - demands adequate disagreement.

That's why brainstorming is not necessarily the right way to go about solving problems, though it may help by getting creative tensions out in the open.

It's why the management guru Mary Parker Follett was such a creative force in her own time 100 years ago, and why she ought still to be if anyone still read her.

In a business world undergoing profound and disruptive change, ideas and the intellectual property attached to them are becoming the only asset that an organisation is defined by.

Thinking matters, it really does. And so does thinking about how to do it. As I said, verve and style help, too.

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