Integrative Thinking: 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.
Woohoo, rethinked*annex has officially started! Kicking off the discovery phase with Roger Martin’s The Opposable Mind: Winning Though Integrative Thinking. The goal of this reading was to identify broad themes and areas that I might want to focus on for the Integrative Thinking cycle of rethinked*annex (December 1, 2012-March 1, 2013).
While Martin touches on multiple interesting concepts, I identified two main themes of particular interest: perception & personal knowledge systems. I have focused on two areas within each of these two themes: empathy & creating multiplicities for the perception theme and the stance/tools/experiences nexus & awareness for the personal knowledge system theme.
Empathy: the cognitive discipline that Martin describes leads to a very nuanced and inclusive understanding of reality. Integrative thinking is based on the assumption that we are never truly limited to binary or opposing ideas, systems and models. The system in place, whatever it may be, is just one of endless possible other systems, and as such we have the power to imagine and create entirely new options and solutions. This reminded me a lot of Amartya Sen’s Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny (2006). Sen argues that identity is much more fluid and permeable than we usually conceive of and experience it. Identity is not predestined nor is it fixed, rather, it is in a constant state of flux as we foreground and background different aspects of ourselves in response to the various contexts and situations in which we find ourselves. While Sen recognizes that our identity is shaped, to some extent, by certain constraints, he highlights the immense freedom we enjoy when it comes to choosing which aspects of our identity we foreground in any given moment. We have not just the freedom but the responsibility, Sen argues, to enhance those aspects of ourselves that are inclusive rather than exclusive of others in every situation. Sen’s understanding and analysis of identity is a brilliant demonstration of how an integrative thinker perceives the world and his place within it. I would be very interested to know more about how the integrative thinkers that Martin interviewed experience and act out empathy. I wonder if integrative thinkers, with their much more nuanced understanding of reality as being highly permeable and relative, share commonalities in their understanding and experiences of empathy, similarly to how they share common features in their individual stances. Further, would thinking like an integrative thinker significantly impact one’s perspective and experiences of empathy? I have no idea how I would go about exploring these questions but I would be very interested to find a way to create a design challenge around how, if at all, integrative thinking affects my understanding and experience of empathy.
Creating Multiplicities: Another concept that Martin touches upon that I found fascinating is the idea of actively constructing multiplicities where none are originally perceived. Martin spends a great deal of the book demonstrating how global leaders in a variety of fields have created multiplicities-new connections, patterns and relationships within ideas and systems–where their competitors perceived none. Failing to share a similar sense of agency to integrative thinkers, conventional leaders are unable to conceive of themselves as people who have the autonomy, resources and mastery to imagine and create entirely new solutions than the ones currently available. Martin walks us through the steps of thinking and decision-making (salience, causality, architecture & resolution) and the specific traits that integrative thinkers share in how they approach each step (focus on more points of salience, identify new patterns and relationships, find new connections to integrate all these moving parts to form a coherent whole and are not afraid to question everything up to the last minute and start over if necessary). But I am unsure how to create multiplicities within things that we do not perceive as problems or questions. Integrative thinkers are highly aware of how and what they think. They evaluate their thought processes and question deeply their assumptions and perspective whenever presented with a new problem or decision, aware that the issue at hand has an infinite number of potential outcomes depending on which connections and data they foreground as salient in this particular instance. But how does one question things that he or she perceives as not needing questioning? This is not to say that we should all start questioning everything, but isn’t it precisely those ideas, behaviors, patterns and beliefs that we are most comfortable with, those things we most take for granted that we should be most suspicious of? How do we not revert to the ‘factory settings’ that Martin describes as our natural human penchant to pick one model or system for understanding and experiencing reality and then stick to it by defending it and forcing anything that might question it into our own self-reinforcing narrative and perspective? Where does the drive to rethink the things we hold as most true and essential to our experience of self and reality come from?
Stance . Tools . Experiences: Martin lays out the three levels of the personal knowledge system: stance (who you are), tools (the formal theories, systems and rules of thumb that you use to understand your world & your place within it) and experiences (how you use your tools to reinforce and deepen your stance). According to Martin, stance is too personal, too individual and context specific–as it is a product of your tools and experiences–to be taught. But he does highlight six common features that integrative thinkers share in their individual stances; the first three of which pertain to the self and the last three to the world. These six features are:
- Whatever models exist at the present moment do not represent reality; they are simply the best or only construction yet made. (111)
- Conflicting models, styles, and approaches to problems are to be leveraged, not feared.(112)
- Better models exist that are not yet seen. (112)
- Not only does a better model exist, but that they are capable of bringing that better model from abstract hypothesis to concrete reality. (112)
- They are comfortable wading into complexity to ferret out a new and better model, confident that they will emerge on the other side with the resolution they seek. (112)
- They give themselves the time to create a better model. (113)
It would be interesting to focus on a couple of these assumptions and find ways to make them more immediate and tangible in my daily life.
Reverse Engineer my own models and systems by using, as a starting point, some of the exercises that Martin has his students at the Rotman School of Management do in his integrative thinking workshops.* The purpose of most of these exercises is to make students more aware of their own thinking and decision-making processes so that they can engage more deeply and effectively with feedback to evolve their systems and solutions. The exercises are also aimed at making the students more attuned to how each step of their thinking, even (and especially) the ones they take for granted, is crucial to the outcomes they create. I would be very interested in doing a sort of deep dive into my own knowledge base, by engaging deeply with each of the layers: my stance, tools and experiences. I’d like to think more deeply about my own thinking–unearth, observe and test my assumptions, tools and experiences. Be more attentive and aware of the feedback and redesign the whole structure, starting by identifying key aspects of my stance and evaluating the tools I posses and those I want to acquire, as well as the types of experiences that would reinforce the whole.
Once I have read the other “core” books, I will be able to see how each theme and area that I identified from those first readings all fit together to form a holistic exploration. I will then select one or two of the areas listed above to be the focus of the Integrative Thinking cycle of the rethinked*annex project. I will further elaborate tangible steps that I will take to try and live out one aspect of each theme or area. The goal is to be as specific as possible to ensure that these ideas get played out in concrete and salient ways in my every day experience.
* (Some of the exercises mentioned. Source: Martin, Roger. The Opposable Mind: Winning Through Integrative Thinking. Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2009. Print)
At Rotman, we give students practice at all three levels of causal modeling. The simplest practice is to ask students to reverse engineer their own models. We ask them to pick a belief (better grades help get a better job) or practice (calling team meetings every Friday morning) and break down the causal reasoning that underlies the belief or practice. This helps them recognize how they’re already using causal modeling without realizing it, and shows how the modeling might improve by being more explicit about it. We then graduate to interviewing another person to understand the causal modeling that underlies a particular belief or practice. This exercise entails speculating on the logic another personal follows to arrive at a particular conclusion, and many students find it challenging. 155
The most important takeaway from these interview sessions is that it’s extremely difficult to build a causal model that adequately takes account of human beings and their wishes and dreams. It taxes students’ abilities to take a wide view of what’s salient, to perceive complex causal relationships, and to hold the whole in mind while drilling down on a particular part. The faculty’s goals in these exercises are threefold. First, we want students to see themselves as thinkers capable of conscious causal modeling. We want them to understand that their modeling gains power and effectiveness when they’re conscious and explicit about it. And we want them to practice using techniques such as system dynamics and radial metaphors to build sophisticated causal models. 156
We try to teach students how to engage in productive dialogue in the face of clashing models, and the vehicle we use for teaching it is the “personal case.” I have adopted the technique from the methods and theories of Chris Argyris, a professor emeritus at Harvard Business School and a leading theorist of organizational learning. We ask each class participants to recall an encounter with another person that involved a clash of views or positions. This encounter, moreover, had to end badly, in egocentric terms. That is, the outcome had to be less favorable than the one the student sought at the outset of the interaction. If it is only a failure in the minds of others, the student can distance himself or herself from the failure (i.e., I succeeded but they thought it was a failure), and in doing so, lessen the learning. We ask participants to explain in a paragraph or two the purpose of the failed encounter, and then in another paragraph or tow explain what they hoped the interaction would accomplish and how. Then we ask them to record, as best they can recall, the actual conversation during the interaction, and present it as dialogue in a play. We ask that they display the dialogue on the right half of the page. On the left half, we ask them to provide a sort of running commentary on the dialogue, made up of what they thought and felt but did not say. Finally, we ask them to write a paragraph or two of reflection on the outcome of the interaction. […] At the end of the exercise, we want participants to better understanding how they built from directly observable data to higher-order conclusions, and how that sequence might have ended in a productive resolution instead of unproductive conflict. 158