beyond trade-off thinking

January 22, 2018

Could you briefly capture the concept of ‘integrative thinking’?

The basic premise of ‘integrative thinking’ is in situations where they are faced with opposing models in the form of an apparent either/or choice, most people simply accept the trade-off and choose one model or the other, consciously foregoing any potential benefits of the model not chosen. However, the most effective people productively utilize the tension between the models to produce a creative resolution of the tension in the form of a new model that contains elements of the existing models but is superior to both. As a consequence, they produce spectacular results thought not possible before their integrative solutions.

As popular perception goes, ‘disagreement’ and ‘tension’ hamper the process of smooth decision-making. How would you substantiate your contrarian view?

The statement is absolutely true. Disagreement and tension do indeed hamper the process of decision-making! But that is only the case if you frame disagreement and tension that way. If you do, you will fear disagreement and tension and try to avoid them by doing things like quickly compromising or building a coalition to crush the opposing point of view—which is unpleasant and unproductive.

It is an issue of stance. It is, as my late mentor Chris Argyris would have described, self-sealing. If you are fearful of disagreement and tension, you will by your actions ensure that disagreement and tension produce unproductive results.

However, if you view disagreement as a wonderful gift in that it provides fantastic raw material, not currently in your possession, for a potential integrative solution, then disagreement will not produce tension at all but rather excitement and anticipation. And it will enhance the chance of a breakthrough solution.

But the only way to substantiate it is for each person to attempt a thought experiment. When someone disagrees with you, instead of thinking that the task at hand is to try to crush his opposition or give in to it or compromise, simply be curious. View it as a curious puzzle to figure out: how could this sensible person see things so differently than me? What is she seeing that I do not?

Curiosity will lead you down the path to integrative thinking. And I guarantee it will be fun!

What are the pathways to resolve tension?

Jennifer Riel and I have found three pathways to integrative solutions in our work: hidden gem, double down, and decomposition. Each is a very different way of removing the seeming trade-off between the two opposing models to come up with an integrative solution.

In a hidden gem integration, the integrative thinker tosses out most of the two models and only keeps the one thing he wants from each model and combines it in an integrative way. For example, Bob Young of Red Hat threw out almost everything from both the free and proprietary software models and kept only: 1) giving the customer the source code and therefore the ability to customize the software; and 2) selling services not software licenses. In doing so, he tossed overboard the trade-off caused by a revenue model that depended on selling software licenses and created the dominant Linux provider with a decades-long advantage.

In a double down integration, the integrative thinker commits more to the one model in a way that generates the one key desired benefit of the other model. For example, Piers Handling of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) loved almost all the features of the community-oriented film festival—which TIFF exemplified—and while he hated most of what exclusive/elitist film festivals—exemplified by Cannes—stood for, he loved their ability to generate sponsorship revenue to make them financially robust and sustainable. So he doubled down on inclusivity by making the People’s Choice Award at TIFF a centrepiece and helped it become the most important prize in film festivals worldwide, creating huge buzz for TIFF and therefore highly attractive to sponsors.

In a decomposition integration, the integrative thinker breaks what is thought to be one problem space with an unresolvable tension into two spaces and applies different solutions to the two problem spaces. For example, when AG Lafley, newly appointed CEO of P&G in 2000, faced the tension of increasing or decreasing P&G spending on innovation. He overcame the tension by recognizing that there was no innovation system at P&G but rather two systems: an invention system and a commercialization system. He applied a entirely new approach to invention—‘Connect & Develop’—in which he sourced 50% of all P&G inventions from outside. And that doubled the pipeline of inventions for commercialization, in which he was able to invest still more. As a result, he increased innovation with lower total cost.

“One critical failing of our decision-making process is that it tends to be conclusion-oriented.” How can metacognition help in this respect?

The rush to conclusion is the enemy of integrative thinking. A way to stop this rush is to stop along the way to ask: why am I thinking the way I am thinking about this problem? That is metacognition—literally thinking about thinking. If one does not take this metacognitive step, one implicitly convinces oneself that the only way to think about the problem at hand is the current way. There are always other ways.

Again as my mentor Chris Argyris taught me, I do not want to be a thermostat. If set at 70 degrees Fahrenheit, the thermostat tells the system to cool if it is above and heat if it is below. It never asks itself: is 70 the proper temperature at all times under all conditions? He taught me to always ask the moral equivalent of that question.

Relevance of ‘controlled empathy’ in the context of design thinking…

If you have no empathy for the possessor of an idea that opposes yours, you will be likely if not certain to get the least out of that idea rather than the most. The idea will create tension and you will not know why the other person thinks the way she does. You will be inclined to think that she is either stupid or evil. If instead you empathize, you will ask questions that help her help you understand the gifts and insights that lie within her idea. And you will have the raw materials to find an integrative solution.


 “Creativity isn’t a gift, and it isn’t a solitary act… And it is something each one of us can cultivate.” This again goes against the widely held view that creativity is innate. Could you elaborate on this thought?

Creativity is indeed innate. Everyone is creative. Just watch any kid and you will see that it is in every human at birth. However, it is systematically crushed by participation in the trappings of society, particularly the modern education system. So the task is remedial—giving people a safe place and a set of tools and approaches for letting them express their creativity. And that is what we teach in integrative thinking—how to express your creativity while working with others and their often-conflicting ideas.

Briefly describe the four phases that make up the integrative thinking process.

The first step is to articulate the opposing models. There are three important pieces to this step. First, push the models to their most extreme form–example, 100% centralized vs 100% decentralized—because models that are already a compromise—eg mostly centralized vs mostly decentralized—do not contain as much in the way of clues to better models. Second, fall in love sequentially with each. To understand each you have to love it and act like nothing else in the world exists. Third, make sure you understand how they produce the results that they do. Do not evaluate; explain.

The second step is to examine the models. Figure out with specificity what the real tensions between the models are, and what is similar. Start to identify what elements of the model you would love to keep in the new model—example, the recurring revenues from service contracts, the buzz of Cannes, the low-cost invention from diverse sources.

The third step is to explore possibilities. Use the three pathways—hidden gem, double down, and decomposition—to explore possibilities for an integrative solution to your problem. For hidden gem, ask: how could small components of each model be brought together to form the basis of a new answer? For double down ask: under what conditions could one model actually generate a core benefit of the other? For decomposition, ask: how could the two models happily co-exist applied to distinctive parts of the problem?

The fourth step is to assess the prototypes. Take a designerly approach. Do not commit totally to the first integrative idea that jumps to mind. Think of how you could prototype a solution or multiple solutions to get feedback and make it better and better and better.

As you have observed, stance is a crucial piece of the integrative thinking puzzle. What constitutes the core of an integrative thinker’s stance—one that helps him accept opposing views of the world, shift boundaries, get beyond suboptimal options, and create great choices? 

We see six important attributes of an integrative thinking stance, three about the world and three about our role in that world.

The first three are as follows:

01 The world is complex, so we understand it through simplified models. These models are constructions and at least a little bit wrong.

02 The world is understood in different ways by different people. These opposing ways of seeing the world represent an opportunity for us to improve our models.

03 The world is full of opportunity to improve our models over time, so long as we are open to the idea that a new answer is possible.

The second three are as follows:

04 Therefore, my job is to get clearer about my own thinking, opening it up to inquiry so that I can better understand my own model of the world.

05 Therefore, my job is to genuinely inquire into opposing views of the world, to understand and leverage those opposing models.

06 Therefore, my job is to patiently search for answers that resolve the tension between opposing ideas and create new value for the world.

(As told to Anitha Moosath)