Are You an Integrative Thinker?

It’s one solution or the other.

If “A” is true, then we should definitely do “B” – it’s so obvious!

Let’s solve this problem one step at a time.

As government officials, we often feel our job duties are closer to those of an ‘inferno abatement specialist’ (government speak for “firefighter”) than those of a public servant. So, if you are like me, you have probably heard all of these statements at one time or another. The sense of urgency we often feel when we are “putting out fires” may lead us to believe that we lack the time it takes to explore alternative solutions, question an easy solution’s integrity, and test our assumptions. However, if we can apply integrative thinking to a problem – think through our thinking, and look for the “and” instead of the “either/or” – we may be able to find more effective solutions even under the most pressing circumstances.

What is Integrative Thinking?

Integrative thinking involves simultaneously embracing two differing views or ideas, and considering multiple options while solving a seemingly “either/or” dilemma.

In an article for the Rotman Management magazine, Roger Martin writes:

“Integrative thinkers show us what is possible. They consider more features of the problem as salient to its resolution; they consider more complex kinds of causal relationships between the features; they are able to keep the whole problem in mind while they work on individual parts.”

When a team applies integrative thinking to a problem, the problem does not become more complicated. Instead, integrative thinking encourages leaders and their teams to reframe the problem by fusing two or more ideas to form a creative, less obvious, and perhaps entirely new solution.

For example:

Traditional Thinking = We can build either a low cost, low quality house, or a high cost, high quality house.

Integrative Thinking = Maybe we are not limited to one option or the other. What are some of our other ideas? How can we build an affordable, high quality house?

I am currently reading a book entitled An Ocean of Air, by Gabrielle Walker. In it, she describes how Joseph Priestly, the scientist credited with isolating oxygen, and Antoine Lavoisier, the father of modern chemistry, were at odds with each other over the “doctrine of phlogiston.” In the late eighteenth century, when these two men were conducting their experiments, many scientists believed that phlogiston was a mysterious, fire-like element found in combustible substances. These scientists believed that when a combustible substance burned, phlogiston was released from the substance, and absorbed by phlogiston-free air (oxygen).

While Joseph Priestly remained focused on discovering several oxygen-related curiosities based on the assumption that the phlogiston principle was true and sound, Antoine Lavoisier did not “buy into” the phlogiston principle. In fact, Lavoisier believed phlogiston-based thinking was keeping scientist from discovering oxygen’s true nature, and he was “prepared to think in ways that nobody had thought before.” He refused to accept the conventional thinking that a substance burned (“A”), because the substance contained phlogiston, and oxygen did not (“B”). Instead, Lavoisier used integrative thinking to consider and test all the options, even the ones that did not make sense or were not easy to prove. His integrative thinking allowed him to dispel the doctrine of phlogiston, and discover the real story behind combustion, oxidization, and oxygen’s true nature, as science understands it today.

Why Are Integrative Thinkers Rare?

Humans prefer to keep things neat and tidy; we find it much easier to “buy into” modern-day phlogiston theories, or accept the easiest answer:

“A” must equal “B”!

“A” must cause “B”!

If “B” happens then we must do/it must be because of “A”!

We tend to label one answer as “right” and all the other answers as “wrong.” We don’t like the messy process of entertaining multiple possibilities or conducting “thought experiments,” and we don’t want to hassle with alternative ideas that might reveal a need to start over. We feel anxious under messy and uncertain circumstances, especially when we are already feeling the pressure of a looming deadline.

Conversely, seasoned leaders are comfortable with complexity and messiness because they would rather find the best solution, create the most effective program, and the build the most sustainable project model, than simply select the first option that pop in their heads. These leaders remain patient throughout the integrative thinking process and do not mind starting over if that is what it takes to make the best decision.

Why Use Integrative Thinking?

  • To generate fresher, more relevant program or process options and solutions.
  • To uncover creative solutions that we might be overlooking.
  • To avoid settling for an easy but ultimately shortsighted, ineffective, and/or hackneyed solution.
  • To cultivate excitement, inclusiveness, and team-building through brainstorming and creative problem solving.

Next Monday, in part two of this blog series, I’ll provide a few useful tips and tools that will help you and your team build high quality, low cost houses!

For more information about integrative thinking, you can also check out Roger Martin’s book The Opposable Mind.

Hope Horner is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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