Integrative Thinking: Avoiding “Either-or” Decisions
In business books and articles, the processes of addressing management challenges are described in a linear fashion. They suggest that, given a particular problem or opportunity, following a particular set of prescribed steps will most often result in an optimum outcome. Although people understand that life and business situations are dynamic with many conflicting factors and options, they may still try to use a linear-step process to develop approaches to move them closer to their goals.
In a Harvard Business Review article titled “How Successful Leaders Think,” Roger Martin states that after interviewing more than 50 leaders with exemplary records of business success, he concluded that they shared an unusual trait.
“They have the predisposition and the capacity to hold in their heads two opposing ideas at once. And then, without panicking or simply settling for one alternative or the other, they’re able to creatively resolve the tension between those two ideas by generating a new one that contains elements of the others but is superior to both … It is this discipline—not superior strategy or faultless execution— that is a defining characteristic of most exceptional businesses and the people who run them.”
This trait can be summarized as the ability to not settle for an either-or choice. This can be challenging because the demands of time and a natural human desire to reduce complexity make this very unappealing for many managers.
This is important because, in Martin’s view, conventional thinking tends to limit options, whereas integrative thinking seeks to find as many as possible. Integrative thinking is best used when faced with a “messy” problem. The following are general guidelines, in no specific sequence or order of importance, that can be helpful when you face a complex problem.
- Listen to all points of view and seek less obvious and less clearly relevant data
- Look for multiple causes and nonlinear relationships between factors
- View problems as a puzzle. Look for different ways the parts can fit together and how one
decision impacts all the parts. Test multiple hypotheses at the same time.
- Avoid selecting the most apparent choices immediately. Purposely look for several innovative solutions.
Leaders are often confronted with contradictory information and opposing options. The challenge is how to hold this information in mind and find a creative resolution without succumbing to the impulse of selecting one or the other as the best answer even if it has many downsides. This kind of either-or thinking is efficient but not always as effective as the leader wishes and the organization needs.