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The Opposable Mind, Winning through Integrative Thinking April 16, 2010

Posted by matildawong in Design Thinking, Leading Strategy Change, Opposable Mind.

In the first half of the book, Martin takes the reader through a journey of turning points in various leaders’ lives and illustrates how each was able to come to a superior outcome through the use of “integrative thinking.” Martin formally defines integrative thinking as: 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. The author then dedicates the second half of the book, with commendable effort, to explaining what he describes as the process or “knowledge system,” that can help one develop integrative thinking.

The concept of integrative thinking is not entirely new if one rereads the above definition a couple more times…the resolution of the either-or dilemma  is likely to come to mind.  Nevertheless Martin is progressive in advocating this concept and illustrates this with examples from left-brain dominated industries and should be applauded as such.  While Martin’s examples lack convincing direct linkage to the hypotheses he draws, they do suggest that this form of thinking is practiced and worthwhile.  Perhaps the most useful part of the book comes in the second half when Martin explains (albeit in somewhat painful academic jargon) the process by which to develop integrative thinking.  The knowledge system that Martin proposes is clear, well thought out, and structured but it is not without questions and concerns as one will find more apparent upon a second reading.

The knowledge system is made up of stance, tools, and experiences.  It is not meant to be a one directional process but rather a revolving cycle where stance drives tool acquisition which shapes experiences and the cycle recycles itself as experiences influence existing stance.  Martin advocates six guiding principles surrounding stance:

Three to do with how one views the world:

1)                  Existing models do not represent reality they are our constructions.

2)                  Opposing models are to be leveraged, not feared

3)                  Existing models are not perfect; better models exist that are not yet seen.

Three to do with how one views oneself:

4)                  I am capable of finding a better model

5)                  I can wade into and get through the necessary complexity.

6)                  I give myself the time to create a better model.

Martin believes that the stance in turn influences the types of tools acquired and presents three tools that are prevalent amongst integrative thinkers:

1)                  Generative Reasoning – the use of abductive logic, which seeks the best explanation in response to novel or interesting data that doesn’t fit an extant model via leaps with one’s mind; the process inquires after what might be and is modal in intent

2)                  Causal Modeling – the ability to think and apply systems based on two forms of causation: i) material causation – under certain set of conditions, x causes y to happen and 2) teleological causation – what is the purpose of y

3)                  Assertive Inquiry – the process by which integrative thinkers searches for another’s view and tries to fill in the gaps of understanding; it seeks common ground between conflicting models

Finally, Martin concludes that experience deepens mastery and nurtures originality, which is plausible.  This “tripod,” knowledge system does a good job in translating undefined and abstract concepts into understandable lessons.  In addition, this method has been long missed in a business world dominated by left-brain thinking and traditional forms of logic (deductive and inductive); executives and leaders can all stand to complement their existing toolkit.

So how exactly can we train these traditionally left-brained executives to follow in the ways of the avant-garde integrative thinkers?  How do we go from deductive reasoning to making “leaps of the mind”?  How can we get them to think that reality isn’t’ really reality, especially on the back of 30 or so years of experience?  These are gaps which I had hoped Martin could have filled.  The upside is that integrative thinking is actually starting to be taught in various business schools so the generation now will hopefully have it in their disciplines.

Integrative thinking is great and useful, but is it always applicable?  One can think of mergers that have occurred; two players were brought together because their value would be greater (via cost efficiencies, cross-selling opportunities, etc) combined rather than as separate entities.  But not every merger resulted in greater value – think AOL-Time Warner, MCI-WorldCom, and maybe even Bank of America and Merrill to name just a few.  The same can be said about opposing decisions faced by leaders – is taking a bit of both ideas or creating a new idea based on the two always preferable to just picking one?  How about companies that are faced with the option of targeting two opposite groups of customers and the best solution is actually choosing one group.  This is common in fashion companies when they look to source growth from different segments but risk losing themselves when they trade up or down, ending up somewhere the middle with no strong customer association.

Finally, if we follow the cyclic method of {stance à tools à experience à stance1 à tools1 à experience1 ), at what point can we draw a stop and conclude that we have achieved as best a model as we can for a particular problem so that we can turn our attention to another concern.  Is there a form of measurement for this type of thinking or are we simply measuring it by terms we are already familiar with such as bottom-line or market share?  If that is the case, can we argue that any form of thinking will do since they can all get us to the same end results?



1. Jon Pittman - April 22, 2010

I’m not sure I buy your acquisition argument around integrative thinking. Many acquisitions are fraught with execution and political problems and suffer from illusory views of integration rather than true integrative thinking and execution.

2. Jon Pittman - April 22, 2010

On your critique of the cyclic method – we assume there is an optimum solution. I think an integrative approach assumes that there isn’t necessarily an optimum solution, but rather many potential valid solutions – this is the core of Martin’s reliability vs. validity argument that we discussed in class.

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