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Integrative Thinking and Decision Making Published: Sunday, March 6, 2011 8:00 am By: Ramón L. Rivera, President & CEO

The key job of leaders is to make robust choices. In an idealized world, leaders are efficient choice makers, processing information, options, and consequences and rolling decisions off their personal assembly lines every day. However, daily operations rarely run as smoothly as expected, because choices are varied, complex, and demanding. Leaders must decide where and on whom they will focus their attention, on what initiatives they will spend resources, how, with whom, and where they will compete; what capabilities they will build upon; what activities they will stop or start doing; and how they will motivate their charges. This suggests the need for managers who can attend simultaneously to a vast array of interconnected variables and related choices to deal effectively with enigmatic choices. In short, modern leadership necessitates integrative thinking.

Integrative thinkers work to see the whole problem, embrace its multi-varied nature, and understand the complexity of its causal relationships. They work to shape and order what others see as a chaotic landscape. They search for creative resolutions to problems typically seen by others as an irresolvable bind brought about by competing organizational interests. Managers with an integrative thinking stance also embrace

complexity and seek to wade into complexity rather than try to skirt it. They don't view imposed simplicity as an unalloyed virtue, but rather as the potential result of narrow thinking.

The first consideration in integrative thinking is SALIENCE: Which information or variables are relevant to the choice? At this stage, much potential integrative thinking dies. Overwhelmed by the number of factors coming to bear on the problem at hand, managers feel a huge temptation to relieve tension by chopping out complexity and ignoring some of the variables that cause complexity at the outset of the thinking.

It is critical to assess when the sensible bounds of salience have been reached to make a robust guess as to when enough relevant aspects have been taken into account. At some point, considering yet another variable begins to confuse the choice making and adds no value. As an integrative thinker becomes skilled, he or she begins to sense intuitively when the "salience threshold" is reached and can revise this threshold as progress is made.

The second task for the integrative thinker is to develop an understanding of the causal relationships that connect the variables and choices under consideration. By taking time to identify critical relationships, the integrative thinker creates the opportunity to make a more robust choice than does the less integrative thinker who relies on an incomplete understanding of important relationships or overlooks these relationships entirely. The integrative thinker deals with ambiguity by creating multiple causal models, developing many alternative theories and embracing mysterious elements, rather than excluding them, even though the causal relevance is not easily identified.

SEQUENCING, deciding where and how to cut into the problem is the third step in integrative thinking. In essence, the integrative thinker creates a causal map that links together the variables considered salient in the first step. Considering all of the salient variables at once is extremely difficult, if not impossible. No one can address all the variables and the relationships between these variables simultaneously; hence, this third step is critical. The integrative thinker recognizes that many salient variables and the whole causal map must be kept in mind during the entire problem-solving exercise. Instead of solving an isolated set of sub-problems, the integrative thinker keeps the whole causal map in mind as he or she focuses on different parts of it at different times.

The last but most critical integrative step is RESOLUTION. At a certain point after the salient variables are identified, the causal map is built, action is sequenced, and choices must ultimately be made. This represents a challenge because it isn't possible to do everything desired. At this point attitude is critical. The less integrative thinker will be inclined to see the challenge as a bind - I can do x or y, but neither is satisfactory, and will tend to focus on developing a strategy for coping with the bind. An example is a CEO who sees himself as too busy to deal with the internal pressures of managing the firm and the external pressures of managing the shareholders, capital market, etc., but who understands that the two worlds are inexorably linked. He sees this as a bind and decides to cope by splitting the job in two and handing off the external job to a chairperson. This typical non-integrative solution involves accepting the bind and separating two previously integrated activities.

Integrative thinking assumes that all trade-off challenges are tensions to creatively manage, not binds to wrestle with and agonize over hopelessly. The associated skill is to learn not to be so frightened by challenges that the immediate reaction is to see a "this or that" bind in which both options feel like an unacceptable compromise. Integrative thinkers refuse to accept the bind and learn to hold tension and fear long enough to continue to search for the creative solution. This requires a high tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty, and an attitude of openness to continuous optimization, rather than a push toward closure. Integrative thinkers understand that they are engaged in a creative process that avoids easy, pat, or formulaic answers. In short, integrative thinking is the management style we need if we are to solve the enigmatic problems that face our organizations in the new millennium.


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