Decisions usually involve choosing between different options. Over time, we become more skilled in making these decisions.
What if the best decision doesn't involve picking between two options, but combining them in an unusual way to create a new, better – perhaps infinitely better – solution?
That's the approach of integrative thinking, the mainstay of Rotman School of Management courses, drawn from former dean Roger Martin's findings unveiled in his book a decade ago The Opposable Mind, which found that some of the most successful business decisions involved bringing together two seemingly contradictory notions.
It can be a tantalizing idea. But not easy to implement.
"The leaders Roger studied were doing it in an idiosyncratic way. But how do you do it systematically?" says Jennifer Riel, a student of Prof. Martin's from that era who has worked alongside him over the years in developing integrative thinking and now as an adjunct professor is his co-author in a book setting out a four-step process, Creating Great Choices.
It starts by defining the problem you face and outlining the opposing possibilities – the two professors call them "models" – that offer a way forward. "Typically in an organization, we are looking for the right answer – a single answer. But there are very few problems for which there is a single right idea. So we start with opposing ideas," she says in the interview.
She points to Lego, which developed its own feature-length film, Lego: The Adventures of Clutch Powers, that was so true to the brand it was a boring flop. When approached by Warner Brothers about another film, this time by outsiders, it faced the question of whether it was better to have complete creative control or none. In the end, it ceded control but insisted the creative team spend time immersed in the brand, including meeting superfans.
Control versus non-control is a common paradox. The ones she sees most often arising, however, are centralization versus decentralization, standardization versus customization and whether to continue with the status quo or build something new for the future.
Whatever the possibilities, discuss them so you understand the limits of each, perhaps even sketching them in diagrams to assist. There can be a tendency to get into pro-con discussions but she insists groups keep it positive, looking at the best elements of the two choices (although if they are truly opposite, the benefits of one points to the cons of the other).
Now examine the possibilities together rather than individually, as you move into the second stage, to understand the similarities and differences – and how they might combine fruitfully together.
Some questions to ask: Where do you see benefits that occur in both models in some way? What are the benefits produced in one model but not the other? When you consider the most valued benefits, how do they fall between the two models – are they mostly in one possibility or fairly evenly distributed between both? What elements of the two models are in tension and what would you have to do differently to make the tensions go away?
The third stage, generating possibilities, is where organizations struggle. So the two professors came up with three questions to help:
- Hidden gem: How might we create a new model using one building block from each operating model, while throwing away the rest of each model?
- Double down: Under what conditions could a more intense version of one model actually generate one vital benefit of the other? (An example from the book: Could you play with decentralization in a way that it reinforces something core to the company’s culture, thus serving a centralizing purpose?)
- Decomposition: How might the problem be broken apart in a new way so that each model could be applied in whole to distinct parts of the process?
Usually the discussion will indicate which question is worth starting with but she cautions that you should apply all three, to understand the possibilities better. From this, you can generate a plan – decision-making is still about choosing, but you have created a new choice. However, don't run into the organization and yell, "Eureka! We have a magical solution."
Instead, stage four draws from design thinking and urges you to develop prototypes – perhaps only notions you test on experts or concepts you develop on spreadsheets – to be sure you're on the right track and refine the solution. Ask yourself what needs to be true for your solution to work out and test that hypothesis.
"There is real value in diving more deeply into opposing ideas than we normally do and considering the complexities," she concludes.
Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. E-mail Harvey Schachter.