In his book, The Opposable Mind, Roger Martin describes integrative thinkers as people who have “the predisposition and capacity to hold two diametrically opposing ideas in their heads. And then, without panicking or simply settling for one alternative or the other, they’re able to produce a synthesis that is superior to either opposing idea.”

There are two assertions made that I find most salient:

  1. It has become common to accept that ideas are cheap. However, adequately executing on the right vision beats perfectly executing on the wrong one every time. So, the most effective leaders specialize in the mastery of problem solving architecture - i.e. thinking.
  2. All people use models of reality to frame the present and subsequently predict the future. Any one person’s model is of course skewed by past experiences. So it becomes important to continually hold all models (experiences) in mind and craft an entirely new model.

At first, this sounds like a fancy way of saying, “compromise is important.” But it’s not at all the same.

A compromise is defined as “a settlement of differences by mutual concessions.” This sounds a lot like consensus decision-making, where ideas are merged together in a way that are least controversial and therefore most comforting to all stakeholders. Consensus decision-making succeeds at maintaining peace and structure, but fails at finding the best solution to a problem.

Integrative thinking, on the other hand, requires the discipline to foster the type of conversation and research that will lead to a better model of reality. I would liken it to asking two people - one in New York and one in California - to decide on a location to meet. A sensible compromise might be Nebraska.

New York to California

But if one of the people were an integrative thinker, she might begin to question some underlying assumptions - such as whether or not an in-person meeting is required in the first place, and if perhaps video conferencing could get the job done. This is more than a simple compromise; it’s an entirely different way of looking at a possible solution.

Leadership is a delicate balance between thinking and doing, and it’s tough to know exactly where the line is between analysis and paralysis. That said, it’s worth assuming that nearly every person’s model of reality is flawed from the start. We are all human after all. And the more complex a problem, the more arbitrary the model for solving it becomes. Those sorts of problems are ripe for careful, integrative thinking.