Integrative Thinking

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Integrative Thinking

What is Integrative Thinking? Meaning.

Integrative Thinking is a decision making approach for complex problems based on finding new, creative solutions rather than merely choosing the best solution from a list of alternatives.

Origin of Integrative Thinking. History

The concept of Integrative Thinking originates from cognitive psychology and from several contemporary business leaders and management thinkers.

Many people consider integrative thinking as a consequential criticism to formal Strategic Planning. In 1994 Henry Mintzberg in his book Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning, argues that key to complex problem solving is Synthesis instead of mere analysis.

Similarly to the earlier Lateral Thinking and Design Thinking approaches, Integrative Thinking is also based on Abductive Reasoning. Other influences on the development of Integrative Thinking as a management methodology, comes from Argyris and Schön’s concept of Organizational Learning.

In his 1999 article The Art of Integrative Thinking, Roger Martin, Dean of Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto argues the main limitation of critical or analytical thinking is the impossibility to provide new creative ideas as long as managers are focused on analyzing contexts already known to them. In other words, when we are faced with a complex problem, what we can expect from a analysis is the generation of a definite number of solutions structured according to our existing knowledge and experience. According to Martin, in this way we act just like a computer would do if asked a query.

Often decision making is not only related to finding the best solution by choosing the most suitable alternative. In fact, the majority of complex issues require an innovative solution that draws just in the middle of the most suitable alternatives. To generate such solutions it is important to eliminate barriers to creativity (fed by rational analysis) and think of new, not yet explored, ideas.

Martin came to this concept in his attempt to map how decisions have been taken by successful contemporary business leaders. He interviewed a group of around 50 CEOs of innovative companies across many different industries, trying to identifying common behaviors in their decision making process. The outcome was that most of this people based their decision on creating new models and ideas instead of choosing the appropriate ones among those already existing.

Martin argues that Integrative Thinking is the capacity to generate a new idea, model or solution using:

  1. Your lifetime experience
  2. Your gut feeling
  3. Your imagination capacity: just like when you are dreaming, when thinking to a solution let your brain explore any new opportunity and try to envision future directions they could take.


Steps in Integrative Thinking. Process

Martin describes a 4 step decision making approach to come to integrative solutions:

  1. Salience. At this stage information and variables relevant for the decision have to be considered. When we are modeling, the more variables there are, the more complexity and work is introduced. For this reason quite a few managers arrive at the wrong decisions as they try to reproduce a simplified model of reality to test their decisions. Their attempt to reduce complexity results in the ignorance of certain information and variables which may be relevant for the problem solving. Integrative thinkers suggest instead to embrace complexity and consider as many variables as possible. Managers should not limit their job only to inclusion or exclusion of variables, but establish also relevance of those factors salient for their decision. Relying on their ability to perceive – sensitivity - and on their capacity to compare and contrast – discrimination - they should try to spot and assess salient factors.
  2. Causality. Attentively explore causal relationships between salient factors for your decision and eventual choices. Do not limit your analysis to linear relationships but extend it to non-linear causality and multidirectional causal relationships. Develop multiple causal models and consider many alternative theories.
  3. Sequencing or Architecture. At this phase you have to decide what is in and what is out, in terms of elements necessary for a decision and their priorities in a timeline. An approach suggested is similar to that one used by painters: still considering the whole, bring the most relevant parts in the foreground and put the secondary ones in the background. When sequencing try to avoid breaking problems into sub-problems, as it may mean losing some relevant causal relationships indispensable for the whole problem resolution.
  4. Resolution. At this stage it is very difficult to be not too critical and not to see things as black or white. Many managers fearing complexity try to solve their problems by cutting off parts of them. Integrative thinkers are those who keep the appropriate part of each problem still remaining focused on the whole. This phase of the Integrative Thinking process requires a high tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty.

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Compare with: Dialectical Enquiry  |  Thinker's Keys  |  Lateral Thinking  |  Delphi Method  |  Contingency Theory  |  Gestalt Theory  |  Design Thinking  |  Abductive Reasoning  |  Soft Systems Methodology  |  Systems Thinking  |  Pyramid Principle

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