Friday, June 08, 2007

The Power of Integrative Thinking

Roger Martin, Dean of University of Toronto's business school, has a wonderful article in the June issue of Harvard Business Review. He argues that successful leaders are integrative thinkers. By that, he means that they attack problems in the following manner:
  • They examine problems as a whole, with careful consideration of how different parts of a situation fit together, rather than analyzing different elements in isolation.
  • They consider multiple avenues of causation for a problem, as well as possible nonlinear relationships between cause and effect, rather than thinking of terms of simple linear relationships between a single cause and effect.
  • They embrace the tension between opposing ideas, and they use that conflict to generate creative new alternatives, rather than making simple either-or decisions.

In short, Martin argues that successful leaders think holistically and embrace the power of conflict. In my work, I have argued that constructive conflict within a management team leads to better decisions. Martin stresses that successful leaders also have to embrace conflict within their own mind. They must "hold two conflict ideas in constructive, amost dialectic tension." Martin points out that many people find this internal tension uncomfortable, and thus they shy away from it.

While I would agree with Martin in general, I am reminded of the challenges associated with this type of integrative thinking, as described by Karl Weick in a famous 1984 article entitled "Small Wins." Weick argued that large, complex problems can sometimes be cognitively overwhelming. Thus, he argued that decision-makers should break complex problems into parts, and seek a series of "small wins" as a means of generating solutions to complicated issues. Martin explicitly argues against breaking problems into pieces. He says that holistic thinkers view problems as a whole. Here, I disagree slightly with Martin. I think one can approach a problem holistically, yet still follow Weick's advice to seek small wins while working through the organizational decision-making process required to solve the problem. Trying to achieve small wins in attacking a problem does not mean that a leader fails to think about how various elements of a problem fit together.


Phil Stone said...

I recently caught Dr. Martin's article as well and found his conclusions facinating. And then I read the end of the article.

It seems that Dr. Martin had identified a truly unique talent possessed by certain individuals in our society and then discounted it with an aspirational interjection - a hope that we might all one day have opposable minds.

I admit that I am neither a social scientist nor a psycologist and I may be completely wrong in my thinking that an opposable mind can be developed with time and effort. One thing I am very sure of is that I will never be an NBA superstar, no matter how much I practice or desire to be one. With a good coach and my drive to achieve, I may marginally improve my freethrow and perhaps develop better ball control or passing accuracy, but put me up against a godlike superstar like Shaq and the world will instantly know that I am a mere mortal. People with opposable minds just think differently. Their talent isn't better per se, it's just different. Admittedly however, these folks tend to be a little on the quirky side. I work with several and they are definitely unique.

With regard to your retort to Dr. Martin's point regarding breaking problems into pieces, I disagree. People who are blessed with the talent of integrative thinking don't feel a discomfort in their own mind while holding two conflicting ideas in dialectical tension and they don't break problems down. They integrate them. That's the glory of their talent and the very essence of their difference. I think Martin is right on this one. They naturally approach complexity holistically and that's why they often arrive at such creative solutions to the tension they experience between the conflicting ideas. That's what drives these folks. It's energizing to them and they do it flawlessly.

Your suggestion via reference to Weick's article to break complex problems down into smaller parts to minimize the cognitive whelming is an excellent suggestion for instances of "detail" complexity. For issues of "dynamic" complexity of the kind that Martin's article describes, I suggest the decision-maker begin a talent search to find an individual with an opposable mind. And fast.

Graham Douglas said...

Integrative thinking can be learned in a way that ensures the small parts and the connections are, well, integrated.

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