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How to Try a New Way of Thinking with Roger Martin

If you’ve found that the way your organisation does things isn’t working for you any more, rather than flogging a dead horse, why not try a new way of thinking?

In this episode of The Melting Pot, Roger L Martin, author, advisor, speaker, and one of the world’s top business thinkers, shares how he turned Canadian Tennis around, as well how he took the Rotman School of Management and transformed it into Canada’s #1 business school, on a limited budget. 

Now when company leaders come to him for help, his response is to first break the spell of their current way of thinking. But how can you transform your way of thinking? 

Download and listen to this insightful episode to find out more. 

On today’s podcast:

  • Business writing in the academic world
  • Elevating the Canadian Tennis Federation
  • A New Way to Think
  • Why strategy and execution are the same thing
  • Why he doesn’t believe in OKRs 

Links:

A new way of thinking with Roger Martin

Roger L. Martin is Professor Emeritus at the Rotman School of Management at University of Toronto, where he served as Dean from 1998 to 2013. He’s been named the world’s number one management thinker by Thinkers50. He’s also the author of 13 books, penned numerous articles for the Harvard Business Review and is currently a trusted strategy adviser to the CEOs of many global companies.

He was a successful business consultant but then decided early in his career that he should give back to his native Canada. He felt Canada needed a world class business school so he elevated the Rotman School of Management from being ‘a bit rubbish’ to outstanding. 

He also adopted the same approach to Canadian tennis. At the time, Canada’s tennis scene was a bit of a joke, now Canada is a global tennis powerhouse. 

How? 

Because he resolutely believes that strategy and execution are the same thing, and that OKRs are delusional. 

A businessman in the academic world

Who knew that being a business writer and being an academic were at odds with one another?

Roger says he quickly realised when he went from being a business guy into the academic world, that fealty is incredibly important to academics. If you’re an academic, so the thinking goes, you should only write for the other academics. If you’re a business writer, you should write solely for business readers. And never the twain shall meet. 

“It’s like you’re a married man who has decided to sleep with women other than your wife.”

Turns out, if you write an HBR article, rather than adding to your academic CV, in the eyes of the faculty it subtracts from your academic CV. And, adds Roger, in most schools, in a 10 year review process they would not consider an HBR article an academic piece of work. 

Elevating the Canadian Tennis Federation

In 2005 Roger was on the board of Tennis Canada – the Canadian Tennis Federation, and they were in tatters. They hadn’t had a consequential player in over a decade, so Roger went to the board, and with three board members and their CEO, they turned Canada into a leading tennis nation. 

With no resources and a budget of $13 million, including a $2 million deficit – that’s 100th the amount of money the US, UK or France spends on tennis, Canada now has a Grand Slam Singles champion.

“Most people, in fact all Canadians, laughed at us and said you’re goofballs. But we are now the envy of most countries. We have the best cadre of young players [as well as] have a Grand Slam singles champion, which we never had before.”

How did he do this? By putting into practice what he preaches. 

“I practice what I write about and when it’s on the line for me, that is what I do. I [also] use the principles of [my] book to do all of my investing.”

A New Way to Think

As an angel investor, when a potential investment opportunity arises, Roger adopts the principles he writes about in his new book – A New Way to Think

He starts with strategy – he gets the founder or CEO to talk through their strategy to give him a clear sense of where the company is headed (or not). He then finds out what their plan is to better the competition. 

“I do not look at any financial projections. Typically, I don’t look at the financials at all, actually. Because all future revenues, as I point out in the book, all future revenues are made up completely. They’re not your choice.”

Your costs on the other hand are not made up. You’re the customer of your costs, you decide how many people you hire, how big your office space is, how much raw materials you need. Whereas when it comes to revenue, other people are the customer. So when you’re revenue forecasting, you’re making up numbers, says Roger, and if you’re basing an investment on made-up numbers, you’re smoking dope. 

“I quiz them about their theory of advantage. And then I ask myself the question, okay, for that to be of use, what would have to be true for his or her theory to come true? And I make an assessment of whether it is or not.”

Why strategy and execution are the same thing

According to Roger, strategy and execution are the same thing. It’s just that strategy is deciding and executing is doing. In strategy, you choose to do something over something else. 

But, says Roger, how can you say strategy and execution are different when doing something requires you to choose to take action too? Otherwise, the people who are executing the strategy make no choices in how they do it. 

And the thing is, a company is made up of everyone’s decisions. Your company is the sum of all the decisions. 

Why he doesn’t believe in OKRs 

Too often, says Roger, people think that by simply stating what they want to achieve it’s going to magically come true. That all you need to reach your goals is objectives. 

“People, unfortunately, use OKRs as a substitute for strategy. They set out a bold objective and then measurements of how you would know you’re achieving that, with no strategy that would say you’re ever going to meet that objective.”

And without a strategy for how you’re going to meet your objectives, how are you going to execute on them?

“You have to have a logical structure where you ask what would have to be true to end up in this position in this market? And then you test that out, and say, well, these things aren’t true now. But here’s how I think I could make them true.”

And if things are getting stale, says Roger, managers have to understand the models that they’re using, and be critical of them. 

If they’re not getting execution, and they’re having to complain all the time about execution, they need to ask the question – what is this thing that I’m not getting? And could it be that I’m not getting it because of the way I’m trying to get it?

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