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The Power of Integrative Thinking
on December 28, 2007
As I began to read this brilliant book, I was reminded of what Doris Kearns reveals about Abraham Lincoln in Team of Rivals. Specifically, that following his election as President in 1860, Lincoln assembled a cabinet whose members included several of his strongest political opponents: Edwin M. Stanton as Secretary of War (who had called Lincoln a "long armed Ape"), William H. Seward as Secretary of State (who was preparing his acceptance speech when Lincoln was nominated), Salmon P. Chase as Secretary of the Treasury (who considered Lincoln in all respects his inferior), and Edward Bates as Attorney General who viewed Lincoln as a well-meaning but incompetent administrator but later described him as "very near being a perfect man."
Presumably Roger Martin agrees with me that Lincoln possessed what Martin views as "the predisposition and the capacity to hold two [or more] diametrically opposed ideas" in his head and then "without panicking or simply settling for one alternative or the other," was able to "produce a synthesis that is superior to either opposing idea." Throughout his presidency, Lincoln frequently demonstrated integrative thinking, a "discipline of consideration and synthesis [that] is the hallmark of exceptional businesses [as well as of democratic governments] and those who lead them."
The great leaders whom Martin discusses (e.g. Martha Graham, George F. Kennan, Isadore Sharp, A.G. Lafley, Lee-Chin, and Bob Young) developed a capacity to consider what Thomas C. Chamberlain characterizes as "multiple working hypotheses" when required to make especially complicated decisions. Like Lincoln, they did not merely tolerate contradictory points of view, they encouraged them. Only in this way could they and their associates "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 [whatever its causes may be] in the form of a new idea that contains elements of the opposing ideas but is superior to each."
This process of consideration is based on a quite different model than the more commonly employed scientific method based on, as Martin explains, the working hypothesis that is used "to test the validity of a single explanatory concept through trial and error and experimentation." He rigorously examines the process of integrative thinking in terms of four constituent parts: salience, causality, architecture, and resolution. He devotes a separate chapter to each, citing dozens of real-world examples, and then (in Chapter 5), he introduces a framework within which his reader can also develop integrative thinking capacity.
For me, some of the most interesting and most valuable material is provided in Chapter 7 as Martin explains how integrative thinkers "connect the dots." He cites Taddy Blecher (co-founder of CIDA City Campus, an innovative South African university) as one example. I think the details are best revealed within their context. Suffice to say now that for Blecher, "existing models are to his mind just models, each with something useful to offer." However, his objective was to find a better model of post-secondary education and Martin examines Blecher's use of "two of the three most powerful tools at the disposal of integrative thinkers," generative reasoning and causal modeling, to achieve that objective. He also discusses a third tool, assertive inquiry, and offers aspiring integrative thinkers a few lessons along the way.
In the next and final chapter, Martin suggests that "mastery without originality becomes rote" whereas "originality without mastery is flaky if not entirely random." Successful leaders integrate both while strengthening their skills and nurturing their imagination. They realize that existing models can be informative but are imperfect. They leverage opposing models, convinced that better models exist and can be found. And they "wade into complexity," allowing themselves time to be creative as they expand and nourish their personal knowledge systems. Throughout their own process of discovery, readers will be guided and informed by what Roger Martin so generously and eloquently shares in this brilliant book.
Those who share my high regard for it are urged to check out David Whyte's The Heart Aroused and Judgment co-authored by Noel Tichy and Warren Bennis as well as Howard Gardner's Five Minds for the Future, Justin Menkes's Executive Intelligence, Richard Ogle's Smart World, Albert Borgmann's Holding On to Reality, and Gary Hamel's The Future of Management.