Integrative Thinking: Turning Opposites into Opportunities

Are you a conventional thinker? Or are you more integrative? What do these terms even mean?

These were the questions a group of people tackled on a wet, fall evening a couple of months ago in September at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. I was there to attend a workshop called “Introduction to Integrative Thinking for Leadership”.

Facilitated by two Rotman associates, Nogah Schomberg and Stefanie Schram, the workshop aimed to shed light on an idea propounded by Roger Martin, their former dean.

The gist of integrative thinking is this: By rejecting notions of “either-or” propositions, and instead embracing the whole spectrum of variables inherent in any given problem, we open ourselves to opportunities that lead to a diametrically redefined, solutions-focused environment. This type of environment engenders innovation at every turn—the resultant outcomes and products are more responsive and well designed, and help organizations and communities reach the next level in their growth.

In any decision we make, we are often faced by two or more opposing options. We base our decisions by analysing these options; put them through the hoops of projections, calculations or gut feelings. In more cases than not, one choice wins at the expense of the other. We stake our reputation or careers on these decisions—at the very least, a few hours earnestly drafting a project memo or designing a PowerPoint presentation. We live and die by this conventional mode of thinking.

I am kidding, of course. But like any joke (poorly executed or otherwise), there’s a trace of truth behind it.

Integrative thinking is presented in stark contrast to the more traditional decision-making process above. Rather than being saddled with the proposition of having to pick the least resistant option, integrative thinking instead suggests that we upend this route and “consider multidirectional and nonlinear relationships among variables”.

picture_integrative_thinking2

This is different from the cliché of “thinking outside the box”, in the sense that you are still rooted to the parameters that the problems are based on, and where the solutions can originate from.

In his article on integrative thinking, “How Successful Leaders Think” (Harvard Business Review), Roger Martin demonstrates the real-world, successful application of integrative thinking by using the example of Red Hat, an open-source distribution company that gained prominence in the heyday of the late 90s dot-com boom.

Before turning his company public and becoming a billionaire overnight, Bob Young, the founder of Red Hat, was staring at a fork in his company’s road. He had to make a crucial decision about Red Hat’s business model and its future. He realized that the two strategies companies like his typically adopted were not going to take his business to where he wanted to go.

What Young did instead was use elements from both options, combine and repackage them, and offer a completely new model of service.

The integrative thinking workshop was an illuminating one for me. Over the course of three hours, we looked at other examples of successfully executed integrative thinking, how integrative thinking differed from other practices and engaged in a group exercise towards the end identifying issues from our own lives and figuring out how we can apply integrative thinking to find possible solutions.

As with any industry or academic buzzword, ideas like integrative thinking are prone to losing some of their fizzle when you adopt them and realize that maybe you were already using them without knowing it—that they’re not quite as novel as their proponents make them out to be. Or that it doesn’t always result in superior outcomes. Consider the Segway PT. Or Google Wave. The road to the mountains of innovation is littered with the detritus of ideas that never made it; of revolutions that didn’t take off.

For me though, just the thought that you don’t always have to pick one option at the expense of the other was a huge reaffirmation of the ways that you can evolve and innovate in a rapidly changing landscape.

One decision that I had to grapple with at work was promoting my organization to community agencies (and in the process, fulfill our core mandate on public education), but seemingly at the cost of our commercialization strategy. This was an “either-or” option for me.

That would have been the conventional way of approaching this issue. By framing it through a more integrative way of thinking, however, I have come to realize that it doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. I could still promote digital education to community agencies, and through the contacts I make, create opportunities for collaborations that can generate more revenue for my organization.

I’m sure all of us had to deal with similar choices at different points, whether in life or in the office. The strength of integrative thinking comes from the fact that it rejects absolutist notions of what works and what doesn’t. It forces us to be more aware of the multifarious possibilities inherent in any given situation, and inspires us to create and design solutions that look beyond just the short-term goals.

It can sound a little too abstract or cute at times, but if the examples of Gandhi, Wangari Maathai or Steve Jobs are any indication, integrative thinking is here to stay.

Best to start integrating ourselves into it.

For further reading:
Martin, Roger: “How Successful Leaders Think”, Harvard Business Review, June 2007

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