The 4 Steps of Integrative Thinking

All great leaders who apply integrative thinking go through a decision-making process when examining a problem.

Roger Martin has served as a business consultant, a dean of a business school, and has written several books on a wide range of leadership topics. In his pioneering book “The Opposable Mind,” he breaks down a concept that might behoove us to incorporate into our own leadership worlds: Integrative Thinking.

Martin defines it as follows:

“The ability to face constructively the tension of opposing ideas and, instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generate a creative resolution of the tension in the form of a new idea that contains elements of the opposing ideas but is superior to each.” Martin believes all great leaders have the same 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. This process of consideration and synthesis can be termed integrative thinking. It is this discipline — not a superior strategy or faultless execution — that is a defining characteristic of most exceptional businesses and the people who run them.”

All great leaders who apply integrative thinking go through a decision-making process when examining a problem, whether it’s small or large. Martin believes this involves 4 steps:

Step 1: Determining Salience. This simply means which of all the factors does the decision-maker take into account as necessary and vital.  Nothing is tossed aways as integrative thinkers love having a mess to examine. The messier the better. As Martin claims, “they welcome complexity because that’s where the best answers come from.”

Step 2: Analyzing Causality. In this step, you attempt to analyze how many factors relate to one another. Straight-line thinking often is conventional, but an integrated thinker isn’t afraid to question the validity of something that seems logical in the chain. These questions force different thinking, which forces different answers.   

Step 3: Envisioning decision architecture. This allows the person deciding to think ahead, to be proactive, and understand the pitfalls that could occur once the decision is finalized. This peak into the future often results in retracing your steps to find a better solution. 

Step 4: Achieving Resolution. An integrative thinker is always reworking the decision for the best outcome, not the most timely one.  They never ask, “what else could we do.” Instead, they think more holistically, even if it means creating delays. Being right is more important than being on time. 

Integrative thinking is just one of the revolutionary topics Martin writes about. His books are tools to assist us in becoming better leaders and decision-makers.


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