Introduction to Integrative thinking

22.08.2018 |

Episode #1 of the course Integrative thinking: A practical guide for leaders by Jennifer Riel


Welcome to Integrative Thinking: A Practical Guide for Leaders.

My name is Jennifer Riel. I’m an adjunct professor at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto, specializing in creative problem solving. Over the next ten days, you will learn about the practice of integrative thinking, a tool for tackling some of your toughest problems, using the tension of opposing ideas to spur your imagination.


Your Tough Choices

To begin, think about the toughest choices you are facing at work. Think about the choices your organization faces, when it comes to your customers, your employees, and your competition. Think about the choices you face as a leader, with your team, with your peers, and with your boss.

Write a list of your tough choices, noting the problem (for example, we need to grow our market share) and the choice you face (for example, should we invest to grow our customer base, selling more of our existing offerings to new regions and customer segments, or should we develop new products and services to sell more stuff to our existing customers?). When you are done, set the list aside. We’ll come back to it in later sessions.


Standard Operating Procedure

For now, let’s explore what makes it so hard to solve these kinds of challenging, either/or dilemmas. Think about the way your organization makes its biggest choices—like developing a strategy. Organizations often follow a very linear process.

First, they charter a cross-functional team, bringing together expertise and skills from across the organization. The team is constructed with the understanding that they are to work well together, but is offered little in the way of tools and frameworks to actually help them leverage the diversity of the team.

Next, the team conducts an analysis of the problem. They decide what data to collect, which becomes the basis of everything that follows. They focus on some things and ignore others, setting the stage for a narrow set of possible solutions, most of which look an awful lot like the status quo.

At around this point, a challenge often emerges. As the team starts to identify possible solutions, individuals on the team diverge in terms of what they believe is the right answer. This is a problem, since there can only be one right answer. Opposing views slow everything down, create interpersonal conflict, and divert teams from the lovely linear path. So, there is meaningful pressure to converge on a single answer.

This is where arguing and voting comes in. The team lays all the options out on the table. And they discuss all the pros and cons of the options until they are tired of talking about it and feel less enthusiastic about every single option. Sometimes, at this point, they choose one option and move on. Often, though, they start to recognize that none of the options is quite good enough, that no single option really solves the problem and that there are now significant political factions aligned with the different options. If they choose one, they won’t really solve the problem and they’ll have a revolt on their hands from the losing factions. So, they smoosh a few options together, taking the good and bad, to produce a relatively miserable compromise with which no one is really satisfied, but at least no one will kill anyone else.

No wonder the results of our typical choice-making processes tend to be mediocre. To produce better decisions, we need a better process.


Beyond Mediocrity

What if we rejected the tradeoff and sought to create a new, great choice? This would mean seeing our job as building a great answer that really solves the problem, rather than choosing between existing sub-optimal options. One helpful path to doing that is through the tension of opposing ideas, using the most extreme and opposing options to spur creative solutions.

We’ll get more into the process for doing just that later in the course. But first, we need to build some foundations. We’ll begin with thinking about our own thinking. Tomorrow, we will explore how we understand the world and why how we think matters so much when it comes to solving tough problems.


Recommended book

Creating Great Choices: A Leader’s Guide to Integrative Thinking by Jennifer Riel, and Roger L. Martin


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