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Roger Martin’s Required Reading

One of the world’s most influential business thinkers talks about the books that shaped his approach to his career.

Prosperity is a theme that runs through Roger Martin’s work in a continuous and unwavering line. Ranked third on the Thinkers50 biannual ranking of the most influential global business thinkers, Martin has served as a director and cohead of Monitor Company, dean and Premier’s Research Chair in Productivity and Competitiveness at University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, and, starting in 2013, institute director of the Martin Prosperity Institute. Throughout, he has sought to illuminate the ways and means of economic success for individuals, corporations, and nations.

A prolific writer, Martin has authored numerous books and articles detailing his findings. In The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win through Integrative Thinking, (Harvard Business Review Press, 2007), he explains how the ability to hold two conflicting ideas in constructive tension can enable leaders to make better decisions and produce superior ideas.  In The Design of Business: Why Design Thinking Is the Next Competitive Advantage (Harvard Business Review Press, 2009) and Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works (with A.G. Lafley; Harvard Business Review Press, 2013), Martin explains how to enhance corporate success through innovation and strategic thinking.

Finally, in Fixing the Game: Bubbles, Crashes, and What Capitalism Can Learn from the NFL (Harvard Business Review Press, 2011) and, most recently, Getting Beyond Better: How Social Entrepreneurship Works (with Sally R. Osberg; Harvard Business Review Press, 2015), he examines the flaws that are undermining democratic capitalism and the potential of socially responsible business to heal and reinvigorate the system. 

Curious about the underpinnings of his own success, I asked Martin about the books that most influenced him in his professional journey.  He offered up the following three titles.

Art as Experience, by John Dewey (Minton, Bach & Company, 1934)

“Dewey convinced me that I had to curate my experiences in life, because they would shape my ability to think about the world and would completely overshadow my formal education. Because of this book, I realized that if I worked with crummy companies, I would become a crummy consultant, regardless of how hard I worked. Dewey also taught me to think about my work as being as much art as science. This is a difficult book, much of which I had to read and reread, but the payoff was that it changed how I pursued my career.”

Overcoming Organizational Defenses: Overcoming Organizational Defenses, by Chris Argyris (Allyn Bacon, 1990)

“When I first read Chris’s work on how individuals in organizations act in ways that produce the opposite of what they wish, yet refuse to change their behaviors, I didn’t buy the idea of organizational defensive routines at all. How could people be so impervious to learning? Then I met the man who became my most important academic mentor, and he helped me understand that we all act according to a core theory that causes us to advocate our point of view, not inquire into the views of others, and shirk responsibility for the miscommunication that ensues. Anyone who wants to get consistently better over time rather than stagnate at a fixed level of effectiveness should read this dense but powerful book.”  

The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else, by Hernando de Soto (Basic Books, 2000)

“I love this book because it helped me understand that even experts can be blind to important features of their subjects. I have done a lot of work on country competitiveness, but if anybody had asked me in 2000 to name the top 100 conditions that underpin a thriving economy, I wouldn’t have mentioned ”a well-functioning land registry system.” Then I read de Soto’s compelling case that the ability to get clear title to a piece of land is the essential precondition for successful capitalism. That not only changed my view of economics, but it also taught me to never be too confident that I’m seeing the whole picture. You can’t see what you aren’t looking for — so get help from others who see things that you don’t!”

Theodore Kinni
Ted Kinni

Theodore Kinni is a contributing editor of strategy+business. He also blogs at Reading, Writing re: Management.



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