Integrative Thinking

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Roger Martin, former Dean of the Rotman School of Management (1998-2013) and current Academic Director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto, is a management thinker who has put forth several major ideas over the past decade (i.e., The Rise (and Likely Fall) of the Talent Economy). Nevertheless, I believe that one of his most important, yet underrated, contributions to our general knowledge has been the notion of integrative thinking. It is one of the key drivers of personal success and it is a concept that should be part of every leader's formal and informal education.

Although Martin has detailed this idea in his 2007 book The Opposable Mind, including numerous supporting examples, I find the essay and positioning statement that he authored for the Rotman School of Management perfectly suited for an introduction to this important topic. There, he writes:

Integrative Thinking is the ability to constructively face the tensions of opposing models, and instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generating a creative resolution of the tension in the form of a new model that contains elements of the both models, but is superior to each.
When making any decision, people proceed through four steps: 
  1. The first step is Salience: what do we choose to pay attention to, and what not? In this initial step, we decide which features are relevant to our decision.
  2. The second step is Causality: how do we make sense of what we see? What sort of relations do we believe exist between the various pieces of the puzzle?
  3. The third step is Architecture, during which an overall mental model is constructed, based upon our choices from the first two steps.
  4. The final step is Resolution: what will our decision be, based on our reasoning?
Integrative thinkers approach these four steps in a very specific way. As shown on the diagram below, in step one they consider more features of the problem as salient to its resolution; they consider multi-directional and non-linear causality between the salient features; they are able to keep the ‘big picture’ in mind while they work on the individual parts of the problem; and they find creative resolutions to the tensions inherent in the problem’s architecture. 
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On the importance of integrative thinking, Martin points out:

Many managers spend their careers taking actions that produce outcomes that are perplexing and unsatisfying. There are consistent gaps between aspirations and outcomes, which I will define as 'error' - a gap between the aspiration of the actor in question and the outcome they achieve with their chosen set of actions. 
Why are errors prevalent? Because the world is a messy place where the links between cause and effect are not clear. Many factors are in play. In this respect, the business world is no different than the world at large. People do not like error. They despise it, because error often feels like losing -- and people hate to lose. Taking action expecting to produce one thing and instead producing a different, less desired outcome feels out-of-control - and people hate to lose control. In the face of feeling out-of-control, people take preventive action. The tactic is to simplify and specialize. That is, to take the messy world they face and simplify it to the point that they feel confident in accomplishing the task at hand. 

Then, he explains why integrative thinkers tend to make decisions that lead to better outcomes:

Integrative thinkers develop and utilize messy models to understand and drive action in a messy world. They build models rather than choose between models. Their models include consideration of customers, employees, competitors, capabilities, cost structures, industry evolution, regulatory environment, etc., not just a subset of the above. Their models capture the complicated, multifaceted and multidirectional causal relationships between the many salient variables. They consider the problem as a whole rather than break it down and farm out the parts. Finally, they creatively resolve tensions to produce a more powerful model rather than default to choosing one model over another when both are sub-optimal, but one is less so than the other. 

And:

Successful business leaders must build their integrative thinking capacity to achieve their success.

However, this idea is not new. Other influential thinkers and doers have emphasized the importance of models in decision making and, thus, in achieving success.

Henry Mintzberg, the world-renowned management thinker and Professor at the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University, writes in his 2005 paper Developing Theory about the Development of Theory:

I am interested in explanation, and don’t much care what it’s called, theory or otherwise. When I think about it, however, I see explanation along a continuum, from lists (categories), to typologies (comprehensive lists), to impressions of relationships among factors (not necessarily “variables”: that sounds too reified for many of the factors I work with), to causations between and patterns among these relationships, to fully explanatory models (which interweave all the factors in question). 

And Charlie MungerWarren Buffett's "right hand" at Berkshire Hathaway, explains in his 1994 speech at University of Southern California:

What is elementary, worldly wisdom? Well, the first rule is that you can't really know anything if you just remember isolated facts and try and bang'em back. If the facts don't hang together on a latticework of theory, you don't have them in a usable form. You've got to have models in your head. And you've got to array your experience ‑ both vicarious and direct ‑ on this latticework of models. You may have noticed students who just try to remember and pound back what is remembered. Well, they fail in school and in life. You've got to hang experience on a latticework of models in your head. What are the models? Well, the first rule is that you've got to have multiple models ‑ because if you just have one or two that you're using, the nature of human psychology is such that you'll torture reality so that it fits your models, or at least you'll think it does. 

Now, going back to Roger Martin's essay, the final thought is rather interesting:

There is a fundamental question of whether integrative thinking can be taught or not. Are people born integrative thinkers or non-integrative thinkers? Some say yes, but I say no. I would argue that non-integrative thinking is utterly consistent with the natural tendency toward narrow perfectionism. In fact, narrow perfectionism reinforces non-integrative thinking. Their own proclivities drive them away from integrative thinking. In addition, their educational experiences will give them little help in being more integrative in their approaches. So to observe that non-integrative thinkers don't develop integrative thinking skills is no surprise. I would argue that only the most naturally integrative thinkers survive with their thinking approach unscathed to adulthood. 

Personally, I fully subscribe to these views. In fact, the premise behind my own initiative BizBigPic ("business big picture") and its first constituent elements -- the video game Ofmos and the character-based book/app Spointra -- is that, in order for us to better run businesses and economies, we must employ a more "integrative" perspective. Furthermore, in my 2012 article Creating a Compelling and Comprehensive Story, I explain why models are generally valuable in storytelling and, thus, in any product or marketing effort.

What do you think? What are your thoughts on integrative thinking?

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Image 1: Still image from the 2012 motion picture Prometheus, courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

According to Wikipedia, "A key scene involving a large 3D hologram star map, dubbed the Orrery, was inspired by the 1766 Joseph Wright painting A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery, in which a scientist displays a mechanical planetarium by candlelight. While discussing the necessity of a star map with Spaihts, Scott mentioned that he envisaged a physical representation being similar to the painting, although he was unaware of its title and described it as 'circles in circles with a candle lit image'."

Image 2: The original image "The Practices of Integrative Thinkers" included in Roger Martin's essay and positioning statement the source Rotman web page.

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This article was first published here.

Cristian Mitreanu