A New Way to Think
Getting to Know Me
The Backstory on My Writing
Last fall, the good folks at Medium reached out to a number of their regular authors to participate in a special project that was designed to promote their books through the Medium platform.
As part of the program, they asked us to write the following four posts that would introduce our backstories to the Medium readers:
1. Getting to know you: An introduction to yourself and your work
2. The books that inspired your work: Why these works are so interesting and valuable
3. How you write: Tell us about your writing routine and share advice for fellow authors
4. Personal essay: How you got interested in your subject matter, and what relation it has to your own life
They ended up shelving the program (at least for the time being) and encouraged us to publish the posts that we had written. I didn’t see a compelling reason at the time, but then I thought that with my new book, A New Way to Think, coming out on May 3, I would offer up the four posts as context-setting for the book.
With no further ado, on to post #1!
1. Getting to Know Me
Though I have written a lot, I can’t say I have always been a writer, at least not a writer for public consumption. Prior to my 42nd birthday in August 1998, I had written only four articles — one Harvard Business Review (HBR) article, two newspaper editorials, and an article with my lawyer brother for an obscure antitrust economics journal. Since then, I have written 13 books and about 700 articles at last count.
What changed to make the leap from one article every four years prior to 1998 to one article every two weeks plus a book every two years since? The simple answer is that I changed jobs. The more subtle answer is that I had a bit of an epiphany.
I spent most of the time between graduating business school in 1981 and 1998 building a new strategy consulting firm, Monitor Company, with classmates and professors from Harvard Business School (HBS). At Monitor, I became known as the person who was forever writing memos to my CEO clients. In a consulting world dominated by PowerPoint, I found that the most effective vehicle for communicating was prose — the old-fashioned memo. I wrote dozens of 1500 to 3000-word memos to help CEOs think about acquisitions, about commodization, about culture, about corporate strategy, about capital investment, about talent, etc. As my memos became more renowned internally, consultants around the firm started sending me notes asking the same question: “Roger, have you written anything on X?” Often, I had, and I would dutifully send off the memo in question for their repurposing.
So, I did write a lot in this period — just not for public consumption. My articles were targeted most typically for an audience of one — my client — though they often got circulated to other clients by my colleagues at Monitor.
Then in 1998, I left my beloved home at Monitor to return to Canada to become Dean of the Rotman School of Management with the intent of turning it into Canada’s first globally consequential business school. Only when I got there did I realize that my writing job had changed in a fundamental way. It probably should have been immediately obvious, but it took me a little while to figure out. I realized that like the professors around me, I spent a lot of time writing. But theirs was fundamentally different. They wrote for public consumption. Their core job was to create and disseminate knowledge through publishing their work in journals that anyone could read — obviously. But only when I got into that milieu did it occur to me that virtually all my writing was for the private consumption of my own clients and those of my colleagues.
The moment of realization came when Karen Christensen, the talented editor of our journal, Rotman Management, came to me to ask me to write an article for the Spring 1999 issue. The Fall 1998 issue, which followed my appointment as Dean, had an article in it about me. She thought that the second should have one by me. I demurred at first, but she argued that the readers would like to hear the new Dean’s thoughts — and she pointed out, that it was part of my job.
So, I wrote the article — and went on to write one in each issue (three per year) for my remaining 14+ years as Dean. And I found it enjoyable. It was different. You float it out there and who knows who will read it and maybe have a response? And I realized that it was good for the School profile too. So, I did a lot of writing for public consumption, which became a central part of my life — and a very enjoyable one.
My feedstock for ideas has always come from my work with CEOs and other senior executives, which I did intensively at Monitor, less intensively during my 15 years as Rotman Dean (1998–2013), and more intensively again since. The work with CEOs has given me all the insights I need to determine what subjects are interesting to and important for managers. When academics ask me how on earth I get all the ‘research ideas’ behind my writing, I am always somewhat flummoxed. I don’t think about searching for ideas on which to write. I always have a backlog and it is a question of which book or article next. That is what has fueled, for example, having written more HBR articles in the 21st century (29) than any other person (excluding HBR editorial staff).
In due course, I went from articles to books. My first best seller was The Opposable Mind in 2007. It introduced the concept of Integrative Thinking, the way to get past either/or choices and come to creative resolutions. I followed that up in 2009 with another best seller, The Design of Business, which turned out to be one of the seminal books in the design thinking movement. It is fascinating to me that even though it was written for a practitioner audience, it gets a huge number of citations in the academic literature. I then wrote a bit of a rant about the problems in the capital markets with Fixing the Game in 2011. I am still fond of the book but realized that ranting is not my thing. Practical advice is. That is what I turned back to in 2013 with Playing to Win, which I co-wrote with former P&G CEO AG Lafley. It became a huge best seller and one of the top books on strategy. It was also the inspiration for my Medium series: Playing to Win/Practitioner Insights (PTW/PI). As many readers would know, I have been publishing one Medium PTW/PI every week since October 2020.
My next book was on social entrepreneurship with fellow Skoll Foundation board member and former Foundation CEO, Sally Osberg, Getting Beyond Better, in 2015. Then I returned to Integrative Thinking with my 2017 book, co-authored with Jennifer Riel, Creating Great Choices. It used the work we had done on Integrative Thinking since 2007 to create a practical methodology that can be taught to anyone who wants to make more creative decisions. Then I returned to the broader territory of public policy with When More Is Not Better, my 2020 book on why the US economy isn’t working nearly as well as it used to and how to fix it.
My 13th book, out May 3, 2022, is called A New Way to Think. (I have written five other mainly academic books that I haven’t mentioned because they are of much narrower interest.) This book takes on a series of models that are used extensively in the business world that are (accidentally) designed to fail to achieve their stated goals. It explains why they are failing and provides an alternative model that is designed to succeed.
Along this writing journey, I became somewhat famous — at least in management circles. The Thinkers50 organization has seen fit to place me somewhere in its top seven management thinkers in all of its rankings over the past decade and #1 in 2017. Surprisingly, despite not being an academic or having any prior academic experience, I managed to do a worthy enough job as Dean to be named the global business school Dean of the Year in 2013.
Going forward, I plan to keep writing what I hope to be practical pieces that help managers tackle the problems that vex them. Many of the Medium pieces I have already written were spurred by reader questions/requests, so I am very open to suggestions. If it is great question/subject, but I haven’t got anything useful to say I will take a pass. But if I do have something useful to say, I will write a piece on it.