When can we use Integrative Thinking?
A student argues with a classmate at recess; back in class, she asks that classmate to sit down to help her understand just why they disagreed. A teacher, struggling to refresh her practice after decades in the classroom, stops thinking about her classroom as place to teach and starts to think about her classroom as a think tank. Finally, a principal, working with her team in a brand new way, helps her teachers move past the age-old scheduling challenge between rotary and single-subject timetabling.
Each of these outcomes was unexpected, yet unsurprising.
That student, teacher and principal found themselves in similar situations, in conflict, stuck between opposing views of the world. Integrative Thinking gave each one a new way to think about their situation and a pathway to a better answer.
Integrative Thinking is at once a mindset, a methodology and a pedagogy for problem solving. Fundamental to the practice is the ability to see our ideas for what they are — our own interpretation and simplification of the world around us — and only one piece of a much larger puzzle. In recognizing that our ideas only tell a part of the story, Integrative Thinking forces us to consider how other people interpret the same situations — especially when those other people have a different and opposing point of view. Like the student, teacher and principal above, a capacity for such consideration empowers Integrative Thinkers to uncover the unexpected and to create new worlds.
In his new book, The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking, which the Harvard Business School Press is due to publish in December, Martin sketches out the process by which innovators as varied as Procter & Gamble chief AG Lafley, choreographer Martha Graham, and Red Hat co-founder Bob Young used the constructive tension from two conflicting ideas to “think [their] way through to a new and superior idea.”
Martin holds that design thinking is a critical component of integrative thinking. In a phone interview, he argued that designers often engage in abductive reasoning: they imagine what might be and act on that insight—even though they can’t prove it. This was the first step that Isadore Sharp took when he imagined a new model for a luxury hotel—a model that gave birth to the Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts Ltd.
As Martin tells it, in the early 1970s, there were two dominant business models for would-be hoteliers: small motels offering a few homey frills at modest prices and large, downtown hotels with expensive amenities that catered to business travelers. Rather than follow the lead of most business strategists, which is to look at a decision as a series of “either-or” propositions and settle for the choice with the fewest downsides, Sharp held the two opposing models in his head, stared into the mystery of how to imagine a third way, and hit upon a design that would “combine the best of the small hotel with the best of a large hotel.”
Sharp’s new model for Four Seasons replicated the “at-home” feeling of the small hotel by being the first to offer shampoo in the shower, 24-hour room service, dry cleaning, and the like. Four Seasons replicated the efficiency of the office by being the first to install two-line phones and well-lighted desks in every room and 24-hours business centers. Sharp essentially redefined luxury as a service that temporarily filled in for both the home and the workplace. “By offering guests a distinctly different kind of service,” says Martin, “Four Seasons could charge a substantial price premium.”
Sharp couldn’t prove that his new model would succeed until he actually built it—a key reason why many executives dislike talk of “design thinking.” After all, it’s a lot easier and safer to run a billion-dollar business than it is to invent one. And yet today, Four Seasons, with 73 hotels, is considerably larger than the next biggest luxury hotelier, Ritz-Carlton, with 59 hotels.
Successful designers often speak of having a “creative breakthrough.” Perhaps what they’re really describing is integrative thinking: creatively resolving the tension between two opposing ideas, as Isadore Sharp did more than 30 years ago.