Articulating Opposing Models
Episode #6 of the course Integrative thinking: A practical guide for leaders by Jennifer Riel
Welcome back! Today, we are going to dive into a process for integrative thinking: a way to create better choices, more of the time. It is a mode of thinking that leverages the tension of opposing ideas as a platform to create new solutions that take elements of the original opposing choices but are better than either one.
Integrative Thinking and The LEGO Movie
What does this look like in practice? Consider Jørgen Vig Knudstorp and his team at LEGO Group. When they were exploring the idea of making a LEGO-branded movie, they struggled with the tension between maintaining strict creative control to ensure that the brand was protected and giving enough freedom to the filmmakers to make a truly great movie. For some leaders, this would be an optimization problem: How much control do I have to give up to ensure a good-enough film? For Knudstorp and his team, the goal was to make a truly outstanding film that was also amazingly great for the LEGO brand.
To actually produce such an answer, the team had to think differently about the choices on the table. In the end, LEGO group did give creative control to the filmmakers, but only if those filmmakers would first spend substantial time with the people who love LEGO’s products the most: little kids. Engaging directly with these tiny super-fans, the film’s creators fell in love with the brand through a child’s eyes, ensuring that they would take great care of the brand for those kids who love it. The result was the massively successful and Oscar-nominated The LEGO Movie.
Few of us will face this particular choice. Few of us are CEOs of huge global firms. But that doesn’t mean we can’t take a similar approach to tackling the tough choices we do face in our own work. In this second half of this course, the aim is to provide you with practical tools for doing just that.
The integrative thinking process, unsurprisingly, begins with opposing models. The first phase is to articulate the models: to frame the problem and to tease out two opposing models for solving it.
Framing the problem is a matter of selecting a pressing issue you face. Go back to the list of tough choices you created in Lesson 1. Pick one you think is interesting and hard (say that we need to sustainably grow our revenue over the next two years, but currently, our sales are flat). Next, define two opposing models for solving the problem (e.g., Model A, focus on entering new markets with our existing offerings, versus Model B, focus on innovation, designing new products and services for existing customers).
We make the opposing models extreme because we find that starting with highly opposing answers helps depersonalize the models and separate people from ideas. Often, the models are even more extreme than those supported by individuals in the room. By pushing the models away from the “realistic” options already on the table, we make it easier for the group to consider the models as ideas rather than as a threat to the status quo.
The Pro-Pro Chart
Continuing with your own challenge, take out two pieces of paper, one for each model. Briefly describe one model at the top of one piece of paper, and do the same for the other model on the second piece of paper.
Now, for each of the models in turn, explore the benefits the model produces, determining what is really great about that model. This approach—focusing only on the positives and not at all on the negatives—goes against conventional wisdom but is a core component of the integrative thinking process. It turns out that focusing on what doesn’t work about the models shuts down creativity pretty quickly, so we begin by considering what is worthwhile about each model instead. We ask you to fall in love, sequentially, with each of the opposing models in order to suss out what is valuable about each and worth bringing to your new solution.
Go through this process for your opposing models, considering not just how each model works for you, but for other key stakeholders, like your customers and employees. Hold on to this pro-pro chart and we’ll return to it next lesson.
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