Roger Martin’s Transformational Legacy At The Rotman School

Roger Martin

Roger Martin

During his three consecutive five-year terms, including a rare third term as dean, Martin put his chips on three big initiatives: integrative thinking, business design, and expansion. “As I look back on it,” he says, “it does feel as though you make a set of investments and you never know with an investment whether it’s a dumb idea or a smart idea. I think I can look back over the 15 years and say that most of the big investments we made were smarter rather than dumber ideas.”


Martin was able to get integrative thinking into the core MBA curriculum so students are taught how to take opposing ideas or models, and instead of choosing one or the other, to create a new model that is better than both.

Unlike most deans lead and orchestrate change, Martin put himself at the center of his single biggest initiative in integrative thinking. He has written fifteen Harvard Business Review articles and published eight books. In the just released Thinkers50 list of the most influential management gurus, Martin is third behind Harvard’s Clayton Christensen and the authors of Blue Ocean Strategy.  “I invested an enormous amount of my personal time and personal credibility in it,” says Martin, who raised $40 million from Marcel Desautels, a leading Canadian businessman and philanthropist, for the initiative. Desautels has a center for integrative thinking at Rotman named after him.

The strategy set the school apart. “When he arrived,  Roger challenged the Rotman School to become one of the best, then he spent 15 years pushing boundaries and making it happen,” says Kevin Frey, managing director of Rotman’s full-time MBA program. “What Roger accomplished over his term as dean must put him in a very small group of the most extraordinary B-school leaders ever.”


Martin’s second big investment was to bring design thinking to business and organizational problem solving. The approach also came out of his consulting work. In the fall of 2005, he began applying design principles such as rapid prototyping and iterative product design based on immediate customer feedback to new product innovation at Procter & Gamble, working with David Kelly of IDEO and Patrick Whitney of the Illinois Institute of Technology. Martin would end up writing a book with P&G Chairman and CEO A.J. Lafley about it.

Rotman has developed three electives that allow MBA students to major in design thinking. The school has a highly popular design and innovation club. And its focus in the area has led several corporate recruiters, including Nike, Fidelity, and Lululemon, to put the school on their annual recruiting schedules. “We now get designers coming here and they are fantastic,” enthuses Martin, who then lapses into what he calls  a “cute story” worth telling.

“I do these speeches where we bring in students who are interested in applying, and I always hang around until the end. The 300 to 400 people sudden were down to one who didn’t want to leave. She finally came up to me when nobody was here and said, ‘I just have to ask you. I really need to hear it from you whether you really do want a person like me. You are talking like you do but I just have to hear it from you.’

“And I said, ‘It kinda depends. What is a person like you?’

“‘I am a designer,’ she said. ‘My undergraduate degree is in design and I now work for a design firm. And I get the impression that you seem to think that is okay.’

“‘And I said it is. I would like you here.’ She came. She made the dean’s list. She got a great job. But that was her view of business schools. Unless you will tell me personally, directly, to my face, shake my hand and say you are not lying, I do not believe that a business school would want somebody like me. As the selection bias works more and more for us, I hope we can move it more into the mainstream.”

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