The Career-Building Power of Integrative Thinking

In the world of business, it’s common to face seemingly opposed, bad choices. But, instead of choosing the least-bad option, it might help to think differently. Roger L. Martin offers two fabulous books, The Opposable Mind and Creating Great Choices (co-authored with Jennifer Riel), in which he suggests using an integrative thinking approach to resolve the least-bad option dilemma.

Integrative-thinking emphasizes harnessing the constructive tension between two ideas to generate a unique, more attractive option.

For product professionals who regularly face a series of conflicting choices, developing your critical and integrative thinking skills and learning to think differently might save your organization and make your career.

INTEGRATIVE THINKING IN ACTION: A CASE STUDY

A product leader in a global electronics manufacturer unit supplying retail point-of-sale systems pondered her business unit’s next steps. After four years of a tug-of-war battle with an unrelenting competitor on price cuts and new-product rollouts, neither organization had gained ground. To this longtime product professional, the situation was one of mutually assured destruction, as both organizations were navigating declining margins and incurring resource strains.

As she stared at the latest ideas for pricing promotions proposed by her sales and marketing team, along with the most recent product investment ideas from her product management team, she realized it was past time to tackle this conundrum by taking a different approach. Pricing cutting was addictive and self-destructive. And innovating your way out of a pitched battle with a tenacious competitor was an exercise in futility. It was time to get outside of the organization’s four walls. After all, the truth is always in the market, and nothing important happens in the office (NIHITO).

Fast-forward several months, and our product leader found herself in front of her organization’s management team explaining her product team’s findings. Management was confused and initially resistant to the ideas she was suggesting.

“I was talking about something foreign to them, and I knew this would be challenging to sell. Yet, what we learned was so important that I needed to gain at least grudging support to prototype our idea.”

WHAT THE PRODUCT TEAM OBSERVED

During a series of client visits, product team members deliberately focused on studying the bigger picture of client operations beyond their unit’s immediate products. What they saw pointed to some creative new ideas.

“It’s hard to go into client visits and not focus only on our products. This time, we elevated our altitude and observed the broader client operations. We saw a series of store-level technologies that didn’t play nice with each other, generating many inefficiencies when it came to analyzing and leveraging data to make quick decisions at the store level. And while there were the typical price, feature and reliability comments about our systems, you could tell by observing and listening that we weren’t the problem keeping these business owners awake at night.”

The proposal to leadership suggested that the organization explore playing a systems integrator role for this community of clients. The effort included startup costs to acquire new talent and facilitate systems integration with outside companies. Additionally, our product leader proposed forming a customer council for this group and hosting their initial meeting at company headquarters.

“We saw an opportunity to help a focused group of customers solve a big problem. While I couldn’t tie revenue to my ideas initially, this initiative—when successful—would effectively reduce the competitor to an afterthought.”

The top marketing and sales executives were intrigued by the customer intimacy approach. The management team gave grudging approval for the project for the balance of the year, with the expectation that a tighter business case would be produced before investing additional time and effort. The results were eye-opening for everyone.

Initially, customers were surprised at the offer to be involved in their more extensive store-level systems activities, but they recognized the sincerity of the offer. Before long, our product leader’s organization helped its clients create specifications for new systems and outline operational changes that eliminated bottlenecks and improved information flow speed.

To the outside observer, these efforts were incongruous with the organization’s mission to sell more systems and licenses. However, what happened next carried the day for this new approach.

The customer community was so impressed with the investment and results to automate that they began almost reflexively purchasing systems. Price negotiation disappeared and the competitor was more often not even considered in the process. Jump ahead by a few years and this strategy was so successful that the formerly pesky competitor exited the market, unable to gain ground with typical price or product development approaches.

Score one for thinking differently!

INTEGRATIVE THINKING AS A HABIT FOR SUCCESSFUL LEADERS

The most successful organizational leaders I have encountered are relentless about seeking counter-intuitive approaches to business challenges.

They resist the rush to choose between traditional tactics and instead strive to reframe challenging situations as “what if?”-type opportunities.

In every circumstance in which I’ve observed the application of integrative thinking, it didn’t happen without the individual or group silencing the reflexive, pattern-matching portion of their brains and creating opportunities for new ideas to flood the system.

In the case study, the product leader never would have conceived of the new idea without breaking the habit of asking customers about their satisfaction with her unit’s products.

Instead, she and her team members stepped back and just observed. And what they saw convinced them that their customers had much bigger fish to fry than worrying about her unit’s offerings.

While her unit was focused on creating the next version, running the latest price promotion or building a new, low-cost product, their customers were barely treading water trying to tie systems together to run their operations more efficiently.

This concept of stepping away from the perceived visible choices—whether to cut costs or innovate faster or both—and striving to understand the real burdens or issues in the situation is a hallmark of integrative thinkers.

FIVE TOOLS TO PROMOTE INTEGRATIVE THINKING IN YOUR ORGANIZATION

The dicey issue for integrative thinking is teaching people to break their pattern-matching approach to solving problems. Our brains love patterns, and they create deep grooves. But there are five tactics that I’ve seen yield remarkable results for those striving to jump-start individual and group integrative thinking.

1. Hit ‘Pause’ on Common Responses to Problems

Organizations run in cycles. From annual strategic planning efforts (anachronistic in this era) to the routine of quarterly promotions and new product launches timed with industry events, the pattern repeats while the world changes. As a leader, learn to recognize and challenge this pattern. Use “why?” coupled with, “How might we change and do something unique and valuable with that money/effort?”

2. Apply Multiple Framing Techniques to Problems

How you frame a situation determines the type and aggressiveness of the proposed solutions. Groups will almost invariably offer a different set of solutions for a situation framed as a problem rather than framing it as an opportunity.

The next time you encounter a problem that seems to point to two less-than-great choices, reframe the issue and develop alternative solutions. What if you framed the situation as an opportunity? How would you respond to create the best outcomes for both your company and your stakeholders? What problem are you trying to solve?

3.Conduct Association Exercises

This technique is a personal favorite for breaking the back of traditional thinking. For example, if you are trying to respond to low or declining customer service ratings, identify an unlike company in an industry far away and ask, “How would X company strengthen our customer service?” Challenge a cross-functional team to explore how this far-removed company does such a great job and then look for ideas to apply to your environment. The goal isn’t emulation, but idea-prompting.

4. Observe. More.

As outlined in our case study, cultivating the ability to observe situations objectively offers a potential treasure trove of ideas and insights.

Designers are experts at studying individuals in their environments. Design firm IDEO famously studied the use of shopping carts in grocery stores in a made-for-TV example of how an item many of us use every day—the shopping cart—might be reconceived.

While the “Deep Dive” feature on the “ABC News Nightline” broadcast is dated, the approaches employed to think differently and apply integrative thinking are timeless. In another example, a company specializing in data management software observed “a day in the life of data” and quickly discovered costly bottlenecks and manual processes that, when fixed through added technology and professional services, saved significant time and manual labor.

5. Employ Parallel Thinking Techniques

I love Edward deBono’s ‘Six Thinking Hats’ approach to parallel thinking. The approach emphasizes harnessing the collective brain power of groups by helping them focus on a single issue or topic instead of the usual conflux of opinions, facts, political agendas and emotions that overpower most group discussions.

THE BOTTOM LINE

While there are many tools to promote creative thinking and problem-solving, the most critical opportunity is recognizing the need to think differently about a situation. Seemingly common sense, it’s challenging in practice to pause and then make the effort to explore alternatives. Know that your pattern-grooved brain and the dominant logic in your organization are significant obstacles standing in the way of innovation and success. But in a world undergoing systemic change, it pays to put in the effort to think differently.

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Art Petty

Art Petty

Art Petty is a former software industry executive and now an executive and emerging leader coach, author and graduate management educator. He is creator of Pragmatic Institute’s Partner Learning Network online course, “Level-Up Power Skills: Influence, Lead and Develop Yourself.” He also writes the Management Excellence blog and Leadership Caffeine articles and books. Connect with him on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter.

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