Book Review: A New Way to Think, by Roger L. Martin

I first came across Roger Martin last year (2022) when his video, A Plan Is Not a Strategy, came up in a web search. The video was spot on, but I was left with a much more important question. Why had I not come across the work of this influential thinker before?

So I went and bought two of his books – Playing To Win and A New Way To Think. The latter is a book on models, and is the subject of this review.

A model is a pattern or template you can follow to get work done. One of my first experiences with models was in late 2004 when I ran a tendering process for services to create a new website for Radio New Zealand.

The model that one respondent proposed – and they were an extremely successful award-winning web agency based in Auckland – was to use proprietary software from Microsoft, customised for our needs. They also proposed a heavy agency-led design process, and to outsource the audio streaming aspect of the project to Telecom, one of only two large telco providers in New Zealand at the time. That respondent told us that it would not be possible to create and run the proposed site within the budget suggested; it should be tripled, otherwise, it would be impossible.

Underlying their model were some key assumptions. The major one was that only proprietary software from a large vendor was suitable for large sites. The second was that only the agency had the experience to create a good design (because the web was relatively young), and the last was that the pay-per-byte billing offered by both NZ telcos at that time was the only option for streaming audio.

Other respondents proposed different models, including the use of open source software, collaborative and iterative design processes, and innovative audio streaming approaches that would save money and be more resilient.

At the time, many companies were relying on web agencies to assist them with getting on line because they themselves lacked the internal expertise to run such a project. Many agencies had their own process and tools that were applied repeatedly with some success, at least from the agency’s point of view. The hidden cost was vendor lock-in, and limited future flexibility.

But in 2004 it was clear that things were changing. Open Source software was putting control back in the hands of companies, while user-led design processes (as opposed to designer/agengy-led) were starting to be used, and large telcos were losing their monopolistic grip on the flow of internet traffic.

Not only did we build and launch the site within the proposed budget, we ran it for three years on the same money while doubling traffic every few months. This was entirely due to challenging the prevailing dominant model, and selecting different approaches that supported our strategy, rather than making the strategy fit the model.

This is an example of how the model you use can have a dramatic effect on the outcome.

Some models are so pervasive that in many cases they are used without question, and are handed down through generations of executives as ‘best practice’, even if they don’t work.

And if they don’t work, then perhaps it is time to rethink their use, and try alternatives, and that is the subject of this book, A New Way to Think, by Roger L. Martin.

Martin has previously written widely on topics as diverse as strategy (Playing to Win), social entrepreneurship (Getting Beyond Better), integrative thinking (Creating Great Choices) and economics (When More is not Better).

This new book, his 13th, draws on some work previously published in the Harvard Business Review and adds new material. He and his editor have crafted that all into a valuable resource that serves as a wakeup call for executives.

In theory, you use a model because it is more efficient – it reduces the amount of time you need to think. But the lack of thought and scrutiny can be a problem; when the outcome is not what you expect, you need to change your model rather than double down on the status quo.

In each chapter Martin looks at a particular model in detail. These are all well-worn and widely used models that few would dare to question, but he posits that they are way past their use-by date. He argues that we should think more carefully about the models we use, and in this book he presents alternatives for some of these.

The chapters are grouped into four parts – Context, Choices, Structuring work and Key Activities.

Context is about the environment that businesses operate in, and covers competition, stakeholders, and customers. Choices covers strategy and data. Structuring work deals with culture, knowledge work and corporate functions. The last section on key activities tackles planning, execution, talent, innovation and capital investment.

As I read through the book, one thing stood out. Once you realise that one of the models you use is no longer applicable, it will quickly call into question the suitability of all the other models you use.

For example, if you follow Martin’s advice for creating a strategy, you’ll need to also abandon the notion that there is something distinct called ‘execution’. Likewise, on the subject of culture, you cannot dictate a new culture, it is something you must lead through behaviour.

I’ll look at those two chapters in detail.

The chapter on ‘execution’ will probably be the most challenging for many, particularly those who are used to the Dickensian command-and-control management style.

It’s a long held adage that a mediocre strategy executed well is better than an excellent strategy executed poorly. Martin’s insight is that in reality there is no execution – all levels of the organisation must make choices about what to do in uncertain circumstances, but within clear constraints set for their domain.

He suggests that the strategy-execute model is based on a brain-body paradigm; the brain issues instructions to say, the arm, and it moves. In reality, he says, the corporation is more like a white-river water with rapids, where choices have to made at each step, with each choice impacting the next downstream choice, and so on, to the sea (the customer).

Martin notes that employees of organisations that follow strategy-execute frequently find that the instructions they are given make less sense as time progresses, and they begin to feel like they work for idiots who are disconnected from reality. They may then push back, resulting in management doubling down and issuing more instructions and rules to follow. Sound familiar?

On the other hand, the choice-cascade model that Martin proposes is used in a number of very successful companies, and the book contains examples of how this is used in practice.

The author does not pull any punches in this chapter, saying that consulting firms who do strategy work use the strategy/execution split as a reason to blame their client when the strategy the consultant created fails. However, a strategy should be judged on outcomes. Bad outcomes, bad strategy, end of story.

This chapter was a revelation to me. While I had set departmental strategy based off company strategy in past roles, and empowered my own team to make choices within their job domains, I had not made the explicit connections needed to see this as a cascade. This new understanding, and the insight that the cascade needs to be designed iteratively, both at each level and collectively to work as a complete system, has changed the way I now view the entire strategy process.

In chapter six Martin takes on the subject of culture.

He sets that scene with a quote from Peter Drucker, “culture-no matter how defined-is singularly persistent”, and then goes on to warn that if the strategy changes, so must the culture. But how is culture set, and changed?

Martin suggests that the ‘organisational steering mechanism’ has three interdependent components – the Formal, the Interpersonal, and the Cultural. Changes to the organisation requires changes to these mechanisms. Culture, he says, is derivative, arising from the interaction between the environment (Formal) and individual behaviours (Interpersonal). Problems arise when the formal mechanisms change, but people continue interacting in the same way as they always have.

He goes on to give a great example of failure – Nokia’s inability to innovate in the face of coming competition from other players, despite a major restructure.

In this chapter Martin gives a personal example of how he brought about change at the Rotman School of Business. The culture he inherited was toxic, with a lack of trust between staff and administrators, making change impossible.

To break this cycle, he focussed on changing the way people behaved towards each other, leading by example. One thing he did differently was how he handled complaints among his staff. He cheerily offered to go with the person to talk it over with the other party to work things out. This was disarming; no one took him up on the offer, and within months people stopped complaining about colleagues behind their backs.

From this chapter, the reader will quickly see that restructuring, or changing a companies business processes, won’t automatically change the culture. Just because the boss tells staff what the new culture is going to be, or needs to be, is not going to make it so.

This chapter will likely resonate with employees who have been through a restructuring and/or ‘cultural change’ program. Lower-level staff seem to know instinctively that the changes “won’t work”, and are very quick to identify executive behaviours that are inconsistent with the changes. The classic example is a company the needs to cut costs, but still puts on lavish refreshments for executive meetings.

As with all the chapters in this books, you may need to set aside your own preconceptions and prejudices to get the most out of the material.

Martin does caution in the book’s opening that his alternatives are not the ONLY models you should use. He does make a strong case against existing models’ veracity based on years of practical experience, and his alternatives are clearly viable (and proven) options. But he says that if the old models still work for you, then keep using them. Some might say he’s hedged his bet with a dollar each way; not so – the evidence against always using the current models is compelling.

While it is quite high level – a whole book could be written on each subject – there is enough detail in each chapter that you can follow through, do more research if you want, and move to making some real changes quite quickly.

If you get stuck, be aware that Roger Martin is a generous writer who maintains his own blog where he publishes weekly ‘practitioner insights’. This generosity extends to giving dozens of interviews on podcasts and video. He is a very engaging speaker, and his passion for the material is clear.

But there is a problem. One you read this book (and his others, I suspect) your eyes will be opened, and you will not be able to unsee what has been revealed. You will notice things you did not see before, you will become frustrated with the status quo, and you will definitely want to change the things within you scope of control.

That is my measure of a worthy business book – one that knocks you out of you comfort zone. But to be truly valuable, it must do more. It must also clearly articulate the reason for doing things differently, and provide some guidance to help you reap the benefits of the advice.

This book does all those things. You should buy a copy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s