Integrative Thinking For Better Business Decisions

Combining options instead of choosing key to success

A decade ago, former dean Roger Martin of the Rotman School of Management and author of The Opposable Mind, disclosed in his findings that highly successful decisions were being produced by combining, rather than eliminating, conflicting options.

An engaging idea, “but how do you do it systemically?” Asks Jennifer Riel, an adjunct professor and former student of Professor Martin who co-authored their integrative thinking book, Creating Great Choices. The book lays out a four-step process for improving the ability to make decisions.

“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,” says Riel. She cautions against getting caught up in pro-con discussions. The objective is to understand the best attributes of an option, while concurrently acknowledging the limits of each.

Simplistic as it sounds, analyzing and then gleaning the benefits of multiple options, represents nothing less than a paradigm shift for companies accustomed to implementing processes based on a single, and potentially limited course of action. Research is showing decisions based on the concept of integrative thinking cannot only result in positive outcomes but conceivably lead to infinitely better solutions.

While opposing viewpoints are plentiful, Riel more often than not encounters four primary areas of disunity: control vs. non-control; centralization vs. decentralization; standardization vs. customization; and whether or not to continue with the status quo or build something new for the future.

The integrative thinking protocol encompasses four stages. The first step is deciding on the options to be discussed. Once those choices are determined, it is important to examine the possibilities together rather than individually – what is similar and what is different – as the process moves forward.

The second stage involves introducing more in-depth questions…what are the benefits of each model? What are the most valued benefits? What elements of the differing models are creating tension and what would have to be done to make it go away?

Once relevant questions have been addressed, the third stage – generating possibilities – many times becomes challenging for organizations. To help alleviate the bottleneck companies were experiencing at this point in the decision-making strategy, Riel and Martin devised three questions to help navigate the thought-provoking terrain:


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 generates one vital benefit of the other? (Example: Could you play with decentralization in a way that 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?


There is real value in diving more deeply into opposing ideas than we normally do and considering the complexities – Jennifer Riel

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