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Integrative Thinking: A Tool for Creating Better Choices

Integrative thinking is a problem-solving approach based on discovering new possibilities and designing superior choices. The concept was developed by renowned strategic thinkers Roger L. Martin and Jennifer Riel, who view integrative thinking as a mindset, a “way of being in the world”.

Photo Credit: Sebastian Rück/ Unsplash

Like futuring, integrative thinking is a method for expanding our thinking; its aim is to create new answers to difficult problems. When faced with sub-optimal choices, we believe that a trade-off can be the only outcome. Instead, Martin and Riel suggest that there is a third way; a decision-making approach that leverages the tension between two opposing ideas “to create transformative new value.” Integrative thinking draws from behavioural science to mitigate cognitive biases and heuristics that distort our thinking and inhibit creativity. It also employs design thinking practices to help generate novel ideas.

Martin and Riel suggest that to improve our decision making, we must first improve our thinking. Better decision-making ultimately rests on three principles: metacognition, empathy, and creativity.


Metacognition is the ability to access our own thinking and gain insight into our mental models and their limitations. It encompasses both the concept of self-awareness and self-control, because beyond understanding our thinking and making it more explicit, metacognition is about purposely steering it towards better decisions and conclusions. To access our thinking, the authors suggest “the ladder of inference”, a tool developed by Chris Argyris.


Empathy offers a deeper understanding of the thinking of others, which helps to illuminate gaps in our own thinking and provides opportunities for collaboration. The problem with empathy is that we are more likely to feel it for people who we see as “like us”. To overcome this bias, we must cultivate “controlled empathy” and deliberately practice curiosity about those who we perceive as outside our group. Only when we make the mental effort to feel empathy towards others and their experiences can we truly collaborate and leverage a diversity of views. Martin and Riel propose that design thinking, which is used by designers to generate user understanding, can be a helpful tool for fostering empathy. To build empathy it draws on three ethnographic methods: observation (the process of watching people closely in their natural habitat), engagement (the process of directly engaging with a person by asking for stories from her life), and experience (the process of trying to directly experience what another person goes through).


Creativity is the ability to create new original ideas rather than simply choosing between existing options. Most organisational decision-making processes don't produce creative solutions but rather "converge on a doable, realistic answer.” To come up with more creative answers, we need to let go of our fear of being judged by others and give ourselves permission to be creative. We must redefine creativity as something each of us has the capacity to do. In addition, we must reframe what the outcome of our decision-making should be; not the choice between existing options, but a novel idea that most effectively solves the problem. When we think of creativity as a practice, we can follow five principles for generating creative ideas:

  • clearly define the problem to be solved (by asking more questions),

  • think of creativity as the ability to recombine existing ideas (don’t start with a blank piece of paper),

  • defer judgement and learn to value bad ideas,

  • visualise the idea by building a quick prototype (anything from a storyboard to role-playing) and lastly,

  • give yourself time and space to think.

Integrative thinking both benefits from these three skills and helps to build them. The process of creating integrative possibilities then consists of four steps:

1. Articulate the models: Understand the problem and the opposing models more deeply.

Start with articulating the problem and writing a simple problem statement. Then turn your general problem into a two-sided dilemma by identifying two opposing and extreme answers. Examples of opposing models include centralisation vs. decentralisation; consumer needs vs. shareholder expectations; local vs. global; broad vs. deep; short-term choices vs. long-term choices. Describe the essence of each model in a clear and simple manner. After defining the meaning behind each model, explore how it works, what benefits it produces, why these outcomes matter, and how the benefits might differ between different stakeholders. Try to capture what the models are all about without evaluating whether they are good or bad.

2. Examine the models: Define the points of tension, assumptions, and cause-and-effect forces.

First, look at the models together and hold them in tension via exploratory questions. Try to understand how these models are similar or different and what the implications of these similarities and differences are for the path ahead. Consider what you most value from these models and how the perception of value might differ between different people on your team. Next, start to question the models as you have articulated them and the benefits that you defined. What drives the tension between the two models? What are the assumptions underlying each model? What if the assumptions didn’t hold? How might you think about the problem then? It’s also helpful to explore the cause-and-effect relationships at work in the models, for example by examining the relationship between different benefits. The purpose of the questions is to dig deeper into how the models work, where they break down, and how they might be understood differently.

3. Explore the possibilities: Play with the pathways to integration.

After the models are defined and examined, seek to integrate them into a new superior answer. To get there, you could ask: How might I turn those components of the models that I most value into a new model that better solves my problem? And what might that look like? If you find that this question doesn’t yield satisfying answers, try these three guiding questions instead:

  • How might we create a new model using one building block from each opposing model, while throwing away the rest of the model?

  • Under what conditions could a more intense version of one model actually generate one vital benefit of the other?

  • How might the problem be broken apart in a new way so that each model could be applied in whole to distinct parts of the problem?

Once you have generated several new possibilities that have the potential to create more value than either of the original opposing models, you can move on to the next step.

4. Assess the prototypes: Test and refine the possibilities.

During this stage, prototypes are tested to see if they can be discarded or improved. Regardless of the testing method, the goal is to design a test that will help you see how well each possibility would work in practice and how effectively each possibility would solve your problem. To do that, share the ideas – as clearly and concretely as possible - with customers. Your customer research should help you place a bet on one of the possibilities, moving from there towards full implementation. This requires managerial judgement from your team based on weighing the outcome of the tests, assessing relative risks and probabilities, and making a choice about how to proceed. This stage is designed to increase collective confidence and make the chosen possibility more likely to be implemented.

Examples of integrative thinking include the LEGO movie, Toronto International Film Festival, Tennis Canada, and Vanguard Group Index Fund.


Check out "Creating Great Choices" for a more detailed description of each stage, worksheets, and integrative thinking in action.


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