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Integrative thinking: Can you do it?

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Consider the opposable thumb. Because of that pincer motion, we can do amazing things: write, thread a catheter, fix a robotic arm in space.

It’s the same thing with our brains. Because we can hold two contradictory thoughts at the same time, we’re capable of busting through both of them toward a better option.

Sadly, most people settle for boring, black-and-white choices. It’s the usual process of inspecting the pros and cons, then picking one.

The alternative process—combining both elements of either/or—is called integrative thinking. Here’s basically how it works:

  • Figure out what’s relevant. You need to decide which factors matter. It sounds hard, but remember that the traditional approach is to throw away as many factors as possible, which is usually too many. This approach allows us to hang onto more salient features when considering a problem.

    Finding what is relevant means rising above narrow thinking. Marketing, legal and accounting people each have their own points of view, but you (and as many others as possible) need to consider the whole enchilada.
  • Determine what causes what. Conventional thinkers like straight-line causal relationships in which more of “A” generates more of “B.” In bad decisions, unforeseen variables come into play. Integrative thinkers, on the other hand, take into account multidirectional and nonlinear relationships.
  • Don’t do things piecemeal. You, and you alone, need to figure out the architecture of a decision. Never have different functional heads work independently on chunks of it. An architect would never ask subordinates to each design, separately, the perfect kitchen, living room and bath.
  • Find a resolution. You may need to reject several solutions, saying, “I don’t like any of these.” True leaders won’t accept an either/or solution.

    More than a century ago, Thomas Chamberlin, a geologist and president of the University of Wisconsin, proposed “multiple working hypotheses.” He took into account the combination of several factors, calling it “parallel or complex thought” and noted that you can form a habit of looking at things simultaneously from different standpoints.

    That process needn’t be limited to a few people. We can use it, too.

—Adapted from “How Successful Leaders Think,” Roger Martin, Harvard Business Review.

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