Create Tension and Find a Better Solution


Several years ago, I read Roger Martin’s, The Opposable Mind, and immediately saw the need and opportunity for integrative thinking.  Martin proposes that we don’t have to choose between two unsatisfying paths but if we think deeply enough, we can identify a third path that captures the desired benefits of the other two.  After writing the book and promoting the concept, Martin realized  telling people they just needed to “think harder” didn’t help very much.  His latest book, Creating Great Choices, (co-authored with Jennifer Reil) provides the methodology to move beyond an interesting idea to an approach that helps us think differently.


A key starting point in the process is to see that the decision making goal is  more than just analyzing options but to generate new possibilities.  With routine problems the most efficient approach may require only to weigh the pros and cons.  Martin argues that difficult problems require more. These are the kinds of problems that often our solutions make us feel like we didn’t create a true pathway for success and certainty. 


Martin and Reil also emphasize the benefits of an integrative thinking process to overcome our natural decision making flaws.  We need to be reminded that our decision making process is not nearly as rational and logical as we believe.  Even our attempts to provide safeguards like utilizing decision making models are often flawed by a desire to impose a model on a problem it was never intended to solve. An additional challenge in organizational decision making is to silo problems to utilize  expertise and then force fit the different solutions.  When we combine  this compartmentalized approach with the need to craft solutions that produce buy-in,  it is easy to see why many of our decisions allow us to tread water rather than lead to a higher level of performance and competitive advantage.


To improve our decision making requires us to think about our thinking.  Martin and Reil encourage using many of the principles and tools of design thinking.  Starting with using empathy to better understand the problem from different perspectives to removing constraints in our thinking to building prototypes and validating our solutions. 


A unique aspect of the integrative thinking methodology is to articulate two opposing models.  We tend to quickly gravitate towards narrowing options that reinforce our existing preferences.   Examples of opposing models are centralization/decentralization, local/global, and long term/short term choices.  By developing two opposing solutions we force ourselves to think differently.  In most cases, one of the models will make us uncomfortable.  It requires a heavy dose of  empathy to see the benefit of both models and  to “fall in love” with both.  Martin and Riel suggest creating a “pro/pro chart” in order to identify potential benefits of both models.


Once both models are well understood and appreciated, we need to drill down to identify assumptions, causal relationships and leverage points.  This process allows us to see the similarities and differences between the models and most importantly what do we value most in each model. From this understanding, we can begin to generate integrative solutions.  Martin and Riel highlight three approaches.


The Hidden Gem – Select one deeply valued benefit from each model and eliminate the rest of the model

The Double Down – Use all of one model and add one key element of the other model

Decomposition – Break down the problem and apply each model to a separate part of the problem



The methodology presented is not designed to create an express lane to a breakthrough idea.  Rather It helps us to slow down the process and wrestle with the most interesting and salient questions.  Equally important,  it creates an individual and group mindset that promotes greater diversity and discomfort in decision making that more accurately reflects our increasingly complex world.


Martin and Riel share the story of Alfred Sloan, the former CEO of General Motors, who ended a meeting in which consensus had been reached with an unexpected request. He proposed to his team that they postpone the discussion in order to give them time “to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.”   The longer we spend in the tension of our decision making the deeper our insights and the greater likelihood we emerge not with a single decision but a strategic perspective.