Business essentials translated: integrative decision-making

by MPA20 Nov 2014

We shouldn’t look at what successful leaders do, because their actions have very specific contexts. Instead we should examine how they think.

That’s the message from Roger Martin, Professor at the University of Toronto, who specializes in productivity and competitiveness. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, he strongly advocates ‘integrative thinking’. So we decided to look at what integrative thinking actually means, in theory and practice.

Integrative thinking, according to Martin, is 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”.

Our usual reaction to two choices is to look for strengths in one or the other, which can stop integrative thinking before it even gets going, warns Martin. With a corporate culture geared to stop ‘overcomplicating things’, it makes it tough to attempt integrative thinking, but it can distinguish good from great leaders.

Determining salience
Put simply: working out what really matters. Specialists naturally pick out certain factors as salient: people working with numbers often pick statistics before emotional considerations. Integrative thinkers don’t just consider the main factors; they look for more, and embrace the resulting complexity. This is of course very much the day-to-day experience of smaller brokerage heads, who can’t just delegate out tasks.

Analyzing causality
i.e. how the factors relate to each other. Too often we’re pushed into seeing problems as straight-line causality: A leads to B, when the linkage is far more complicated. Integrated thinkers and outstanding brokers are again linked here: they have the ability to accept and understand complex linkages and situations, whether that be a struggling client of balance sheet.

Envisioning the decision architecture
Otherwise known as deciding the order in which you’ll make decisions, which obviously affects the outcome. But integrative thinkers don’t split these tasks apart, because they don’t want to lose sight of the end objective: they think about all factors simultaneously when making decisions.

Achieving resolution
Where a normal thinker would accept a trade-off, on the grounds of simplicity, an integrative thinker would continue looking for other options, even if that causes delays, because having a workable solution will save resources further down the line. Re-using a quote from one of his research interviews, Martin comments that with integrative thinkers, “they don’t accept that it’s an ‘either-or.’”

Read Roger Martin’s original article here.


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