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The Four Stages of Integrative Thinking

How to embrace opposing models and apply Integrative Thinking in four (not always easy) steps.

By Jennifer Riel and Roger Martin

Opposing models are only a problem when we choose to treat them as such.

How to embrace opposing models and apply Integrative Thinking in four (not always easy) steps.

In The Effective Executive, Peter Drucker writes at length about decision making, arguing that it is a central executive task. An effective decision-maker, he says, focuses on the most important decisions, works to achieve deep conceptual understanding and isn’t overly impressed by speed. But Drucker also points to a particular idiosyncrasy of effective decision-makers: “The understanding that underlies the right decision grows out of the clash of conflicting opinions and out of serious consideration of the competing alternatives.”

Effective decision makers, Drucker says, disregard conventional wisdom about reaching consensus and instead work to create disagreement and dissention. He points to the man who turned General Motors into the largest company in the world: “Alfred Sloan is reported to have said at a meeting of one of his top committees: ‘Gentlemen, I take it we are all in complete agreement on the decision here.’ Everyone around the table nodded assent. ‘Then,’ continued Mr. Sloan, ‘I propose that we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.’”

Sloan, Drucker says, “knew that the right decision demands adequate disagreement.” In other words, it is in the tension between competing ideas that we come to understand the true nature of a problem and start to see possibilities for a better answer.

Conflict is uncomfortable and runs counter to our natural desire for certainty. We feel intuitively that opposing views are threatening to organizational harmony and that consensus should be our goal. No wonder, then, that when we’re faced with opposing options, we often discount one of them as simply wrong, and its proponents as either ‘misguided’ or ‘illintentioned’.

In fact, as Drucker hints, opposing models are only a problem when we choose to treat them as such. Sloan’s example offers another, more productive approach, which is to use conflicting ideas to truly understand the problem. We can dig deep into the opposing alternatives, and into the tension between them, to look for a better answer, treating opposing models as the raw materials — the building blocks — to create something new. This is what we call Integrative Thinking.

Over the past seven years, we’ve developed a process to apply Integrative Thinking in a deliberate, conscious and directed way. Following this process won’t necessarily produce integrative solutions every time, but it will provide a higher probability of coming to a creative solution.

The Four Stages of Integrative Thinking

There are four key stages to the Integrative Thinking process.

  1. Articulate the models
  2. Examine the models
  3. Explore new possibilities
  4. Assess the prototypes

At a glance, the process appears to be linear. In practice, it isn’t quite so simple. Often, the real learning only comes with repetition, as your understanding shifts and deepens.

Stage 1: Articulate the Models

First, identify two extreme and opposing answers to the problem, turning an issue into a two-sided dilemma. In this stage, the goal is to make the solutions extreme expressions of a core idea.

Why two extreme ideas? First, it gives you a manageable place to start. Rather than having to work through a daunting range of ‘all possible answers’, it narrows the field to a manageable size. Second, by making the two options extreme alternatives, the starting options naturally include a large number of alternatives between them. If there is another very distinct option, it can be included as a third opposing model.  However,  exploring  a  fundamental   tension  between two  options  tends  to  surface  enough  information  to  generate new possibilities.

It  is  important  to  sketch  the  two  opposing  ideas  out  to enough  resolution  that  an   observer  could  understand  the  essence of each model. This means taking the time to explain, in a few sentences, what each model would look like in practice.

Once the opposing models are clear, you explore each side in greater detail. To do so, ask who the key players are — the people most affected by the issue, who most need to be engaged by the answer. Often, these players will be customers, employees and the organization itself. Alternatively, players could be different types of employees, partners, government, etc.

Exploring multiple perspectives helps to expand the relevant features under consideration. For example, while an organization may care very much about how a model delivers profits or motivates employees, customers care most about the value a model delivers to them. Exploring the perspectives of multiple players helps to create a clearer picture of what really matters.

For each player, explore the benefits the potential solution offers to them.  This approach — focusing only on the supporting logic and not on the negatives — goes against conventional wisdom. But focusing on the positive effects of the models, rather than looking generally at pros and cons, is intentional and important for three reasons:

  • Citing negatives can easily shut down discussion; if a particular drawback seems insurmountable at the outset, it is hard to understand what might be valuable in it;
  • It is essential to understand the virtues, or what’s best about each model, so that valuable elements can be incorporated into a new integrative model; and
  • If the models are truly opposing, the negatives of one model should be the positives of the other.

When exploring the logic of each model, work in order and genuinely attempt to ‘fall in love’ with each model. Explore, as deeply as you can, what makes each model work well and what is valuable about it. For the moment, forget that any other models exist.

Avoid judging or critiquing the models; the task isn’t to determine which is best, it is to consider rather than evaluate.


Stage 2: Examine the Models

Integrative Thinking is about leveraging the tension between models to create something new. So, once opposing models have been articulated separately, the next step is to look at the models together, explicitly holding them in tension. To do so, three sets of questions are helpful.

  1. How are they similar? Consider how the benefit is produced differently and how it might be produced in a new model. Then consider the tension between the models.
  2. What assumptions underlie each model? What are the crucial causal relationships?
  3. What problem are you trying to solve? Has it shifted during the analysis? Which elements of each model do you want to keep in the new model?

In terms of causal relationships, have a look at the critical outcomes of each model and how they are produced. By digging into the causal relationships, you can reconfigure the models thoughtfully and anticipate the effects of new models.

Remember, there is no single right answer: the things you value in the models may be different from the things I value. But by identifying them, we can progress towards a range of possible ‘better worlds’.

Stage 3: Explore the Possibilities

The third stage of the process signals a fundamental shift from analysis to creation. Once the models themselves, their respective benefits and their relationships are understood, you are ready to ask, How might they be integrated into a new and better answer?

One way to approach this stage is to reflect on your thinking and simply ask, How might I turn those elements I want to keep into a better model?

This is not an easy task. It requires creativity, reflection, insight and some luck. Fortunately, when the answers aren’t forthcoming, or time is a pressing issue, the task can be made easier by exploring three guiding questions:

  1. Under what conditions could one model actually create one core benefit of the other?

  2. How could a new model be created using a small building block from each model?

  3. How might the problem be looked at in a new way, so that each model could be applied to a different part of the problem?

The goal of stage three is to create ‘prototype integrations’, so rather than censoring ideas at the outset, encourage wide and diverse suggestions. After generating a set of solutions, you’ll pare down the ideas as you explore them more deeply. Work to articulate what each solution could be, and in the process, some solutions will move to the fore and some will fall away.

Stage 4: Assess the Prototypes                              

The final stage of the integrative process is to test your potential solutions.

Testing is crucial, because one of the most significant challenges for any new idea is a lack of data to prove that it will work. This presents a challenge: all organizations want innovation, but most feel safer in the status quo, so new initiatives are either quashed before they start or sidelined when they fail to meet initial hopes and dreams. Given this dynamic, work to shorten the odds: test out the new ideas to create the data you need.

The simplest way for testing your prototypes is to share your ideas — as clearly and concretely as possible — with customers. Early on, get the prototype into the hands of real customers, and ask for feedback and suggestions, co-creating better prototypes together.

Let’s assume, for now, that we’re focusing on a single prototype answer. Prototype in mind, return to the same players you considered up front and ask, What would have to be true, relative to them, for the new solution to be a truly happy integrative answer? Reflect on what would have to be true about what each player wants and values to make this possibility a good one.

Once these conditions are captured, move on to identifying those conditions you are least confident actually hold true.

Remember, the daunting thing about new ideas is their lack of proof; knowing the specific aspects of the new idea that are most ‘worrisome’ allows you to set about generating data specifically directed at those worries. For each worrisome condition, a test can be designed to determine whether the condition holds.

In Closing

As testing of your new model progresses and you gain confidence in the integrative solution, it is important to note that the challenge isn’t over. All solutions will eventually be made obsolete, and as a result, integrative thinkers tend to treat their solutions as temporary. As new models emerge in opposition to the integrative   solution, the process begins again. However, if applied thoughtfully, this process will give you a fighting chance at resolving the wicked problems you face.

Jennifer Riel (MBA ’06) is an Adjunct Professor, Faculty-at-large and Managing Director of the Martin Prosperity Institute’s Knowledge Infrastructure Project at the Rotman School of Management. Former Dean Roger Martin is the Institute Director of the Martin Prosperity Institute and the Michael Lee-Chin Family Institute for Corporate Citizenship at the Rotman School of Management and the Premier’s Chair in Productivity & Competitiveness. He is the author of 11 books including Creating Great Choices written with Jennifer Riel (Harvard Business Review Press, 2017). Rotman Executive Programs offers a one-day workshop, Integrative Thinking for Leaders, which teaches leaders at all levels how to train their brains to think integratively. This article was excerpted from the Spring 2014 issue of Rotman Management. To subscribe:

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