Five things I learned about strategy from Roger Martin

I got to redeem the warranty on my MBA from the Rotman School recently, by attending the one-day Lifelong Learning event. As it turned out, it was a bit of a victory lap for the outgoing Dean, Roger Martin, who was just finishing up his 15 years at Rotman. In his time there, the school has grown by leaps and bounds by seemingly all relevant measures, and catapulted up the rankings.

I was part of the first cohort who called Roger the Dean throughout our program, and, judging from conversations I have with classmates, I’m not at all unusual in counting myself very lucky for that. It was clear that the school was on a huge upswing as a result of Roger’s appointment (as well as some fantastic new donations), but at the time the class was relatively small, tuition was not as high as it became later (bargain!), and – maybe more importantly – we had a front-row seat to Roger’s early moves.

So, what did I learn about strategy from Roger? You could read his books, but this might give you a head start:

  1. Brainpower can beat deep pockets. Roger was fond of saying that he wasn’t ever going to have the kind of endowment that Harvard enjoyed, so he wasn’t going to be able to outspend the bigger players. He was going to have to out-think them. If he found this daunting, he didn’t show it. He seemed to find it fun. Which brings me to…
  2. Enthusiasm matters. If you’ve ever heard Roger speak, I don’t have to tell you that there are issues and people he gets excited about. In a leader, excitement about your vision, the efforts of your team, and the milestones along the way matter a lot. Personally, I’d rather work with someone who goes overboard sometimes and gets a little too worked up, than someone whose motivations are opaque to me. When I was unsuccessful in a job application I’d spoken with Roger about, I let him know by email. His response? “Huge bummer.” Which, oddly enough, I found more inspiring than a more formal response would have been.
  3. You don’t start out with all the answers – and that’s absolutely fine. Speaking with Roger after the conference, we got onto a topic that he might tackle in his next incarnation, which is thinking about the future of business. And, just as he did when he was the newly minted Dean of the business school, Roger was very comfortable saying he didn’t know if he’d even tackle the issue until he got into the work. He and his team were going to first sit down and think about how they were even going to get started. In that early stage of strategy formulation, you really don’t know (yet) what the situation is, so you roll your sleeves up and get some actual data and speak to some wise people. That stage is very disturbing for many people, and the drive to Get To The Answer Right Now If Not Yesterday Where Is That Answer Why Don’t You Have It Yet? is strong (and all the more so when stakes are high), but Roger’s very matter-of-fact about not knowing things he can’t possible know yet. (Even if you suspect he just might have at least some ideas on the topic.)
  4. Don’t get stuck in either/or thinking. Very often, strategic choices are framed in terms of this or that. If you’re going to be low-cost, you can’t be high-quality. If you’re mass-market, you have to be one-size-fits-all. Integrative thinking, championed by Roger and others, rejects these kind of dichotomies, in favour of finding solutions that create a new synthesis. It’s a holistic method, which requires being able to keep a lot of data in mind simultaneously. Roger talks about integrative thinking more often in the context of wicked, complex problems, but I find it’s an interesting exercise in any strategy process to challenge how choices are framed, and see what options can be generated by assuming there’s a path that encompasses everything you are trying to achieve. What happens then?
  5. Be aware of how you got to your conclusions. I got to take the first course Roger taught, where he test-drove some of the ideas that became became his imprimatur at the school. There Roger introduced us to Chris Argyris, and the notion of the ladder of inference. If that’s not a concept you’ve spent time with before (or even if it is), watch this video (4 minutes – great whiteboard diagrams!) or this one (5.5 minutes – great animation!). If you’ve ever heard me use the phrases “let’s unpack that,” or “shared fact base,” or “we can test that hypothesis,” I’m using this thinking, as I do pretty much every day.  It’s deceptively simple, and incredibly valuable.

At the Lifelong Learning event I talked with a product manager in the industrial gases business, a project manager in banking, a corporate lawyer turned strategic sourcing expert, a data librarian, and a university program director. It’s been great to see the Rotman School turn into a hub for all sorts of ideas and activities since I graduated, and will be fascinating to see what people have to say after the next Dean has put 15 years of work into the school. And of course I look forward to seeing what Roger’s next chapter at the Martin Prosperity Institute can teach us.

If you’d like to discuss these or other strategic ideas that relate to your business or organization, please get in touch.

Contact us at or call 416-737-3935 to discuss how we might be able to help.


We offer resources to help leaders of associations and other not-for-profits think about their approach to strategy and governance, from various perspectives.