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The Power of Integrative Thinking

Jan 22, 2021 | Reflections

With no disrespect to Norman Vincent Peale, there is something more powerful than Positive Thinking.  First an example.  Several years ago, I was on the leadership team of the Phoenix Club of Nashville’s Leadership in Philanthropy dinner.  The debut event had been held a few years earlier but was driven largely by a single person who had an unbelievable rolodex (hat tip to you JC).  As we contemplated hosting the event again, our team wrestled with how to put an event like that on sustainable footing where it would not be as dependent on the efforts of a single person.

Charity events are a dime a dozen.  Some are great, some less so.  Some have good food; the others have the inevitable overcooked protein with side of asparagus.  Adding a new event to the social calendar is not something to under-take lightly.  While I have never validated this, the refrain in Nashville is that the social calendar here is as busy on a per capita basis as NYC / Palm Beach, etc.  

We knew that we could put on a great event – a core competency of the Phoenix Club.  But how to build an event that would attract a larger crowd and create something special.  To do that, we looked at the concept of leadership and recognized how many of the leaders we desired to attend were so involved in mentoring others.  We thought about other types of events leaders attend – most common being the coffee meeting.  With that, we saw a key insight.  For our event, we asked all attendees to bring someone they were mentoring and doubled the price (even though it was a 2 for 1), effectively merging a dinner event with a ‘mentoring coffee.’  The result has become a regular event in Nashville that is a favorite.  It brings tremendous leaders of Nashville together for a night of collegial enjoyment and most interesting, a group that spans age ranges.

Now, unfortunately, I have taken a bit of narrative license with the benefit hindsight.  I cannot claim that our initial leadership team figured this out ahead of time.   Instead, it was something that seemed to make sense, we tested it and it worked.  

What is Integrative Thinking?

But what if there was a way to develop novel solutions like this and do so with a formal process, rather than just through random success?  There is – using a framework called Integrative Thinking.  Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a voracious reader.  While I published in early December, my list of favorite books read in 2020, little did I know that my ultimate favorite of the year was still to come.

Allow me to introduce, Jennifer Riel and Roger L. Martin’s tremendous book – Creating Great Choices – A Leader’s Guide to Integrative Thinking.  For the rest of the post, I would like to offer a few highlights from this tremendous book.

The key insight of the book is that when a problem is faced, by reframing it as an either-or-choice between 2 mutually exclusive options helps shift one’s perspective in ways that allow new, novel solutions to be developed.  In some ways, integrative thinking is a systematic way to bring to light what Charlie Munger has been exhorting investors to do for years in his “Invert, Always Invert” maxim. 

Decision making in recent years has been a fertile field of study.  Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky opened the world’s eyes to how humans make sub-rational decisions.   Deeper understanding of social dynamics has shown how groups are challenged in making effective decisions together.

What is needed then is a better process of thinking – a systems of steps that anyone can follow to help reach better decisions.  Integrative thinking is meant to be such a process that helps minimize the common errors in decision making, along with being highly empathetic (attuned to the perspective of others) and creative (generating new and better choices). 

Integrative thinking follows 4 steps:

  • Articulate the models – For any problem, develop 2 either/or models that could be possible solutions.
  • Examine the models – Create the pro / pro list for each – what is the unique value that each model delivers?
  • Explore the possibilities – Is there a way to generate a new model that is better than the two?
  • Assess the prototypes – Determine how to test and evaluate possible paths forward.

The book itself is a tremendous read which explores these steps in greater detail and illustrates them with excellent examples.  What I have recognized is how I may have engaged in integrative thinking on an implicit basis in the past.  With a more formal process, I am beginning to explore how to apply it more systematically in my life and work. 

If you are interested in learning more, pick up a copy of the book from Amazon here.

(Note all links on the blog are Amazon Affiliate links which pay a small commission for the referral)


For the truly interested, it is fascinating to see how Integrative Thinking builds off a number of strings of thought.  First would-be Kurt Lewin’s Action Research Model.   Chris Argyris added to this pool of ideas looking at the concept of organizational learning.  Argyris also worked at Monitor Company – where Roger Martin worked for a period.  As best I can tell, it does seem like Lewin and Argyris have a lot in common with the work of military strategist, John Boyd.  Another notable student of Argyris is Peter Senge known for his work on Learning Organizations and systems thinking.  Much of this seems to connect nicely with the process of Design Thinking and / or Blue Ocean Strategy work.


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