Editor's Choice

Creating Great Choices: A Leader's Guide to Integrative Thinking

September 15, 2017


Jennifer Riel and Roger Martin have written an essential how-to book on integrative thinking.

Creating Great Choices: A Leader's Guide to Integrative Thinking by Jennifer Riel & Roger L. Martin, Harvard Business Review Press, 272 pages, Hardcover, September 2017, ISBN 9781633692961

Roger Martin has been recognized in our annual business book awards more than any other author. We’ve named five of his books—The Design of Business, Fixing the Game, Getting Beyond Better, Playing to Win, and The Opposable Mind—among the year’s best books when they were released, with three of those leading the category they were entered in. Perhaps the only thing more impressive than the consistently high quality of that prolific output is its range. But, in his latest effort, Creating Great Choices, co-authored with Jennifer Riel, he returns to the idea he first explored a decade ago in The Opposable Mind—integrative thinking.

We all operate within our own mental models of the world. It is how we are able to function in a complex world. But, when making decisions, we must make sure that we’re not restricted to those models, riddled as they are with “cognitive biases and unproductive heuristics.” Integrative thinking, incorporating both behavioral [decision making] economics and design thinking, helps us overcome these inherent biases by improving our metacognition (awareness of our own thought processes) our empathy, and our creativity. That final piece, creativity—buttressed by the former two—is the active part of the process, as it shifts the paradigm from passively accepting existing choices to actively creating new ones. To understand this, the authors ask us to consider:


How often do you make choices? Really make them? Or how often do you instead accept one of the choices handed to you?


We tend to passively accept the world as it is, and the choices presented to us, attempting to find the “right” answer to every question, the correct solution to every problem. This is, the authors forgive, largely a product of our formal education, but the real world is not a multiple-choice quiz with a single correct answer, and the tension created between different and opposing views often opens up a new way forward. And, yet, we tend to fall back on conventional wisdom and existing options, usually coming by consensus to the “least-worst” option—usually one amongst many false choices. Riel and Martin believe that:


To change this outcome, we need a different path to creating the world around us, to generating new, superior answers, and to building genuine alignment. We need a process that does more than recognize the dangers of our implicit mental models, deep-seated cognitive biases, and unfortunate decision-making patterns. We need a process that provides new tools to make thinking explicit, helps us understand how others see the world differently, and gives us room to create great choices.


Integrative thinking is about encouraging the tension between opposing models to find what David Taylor, CEO of Proctor & Gamble, calls “a third and better way.” (P&G is cited often in the book, and Martin’s book Playing to Win, written with former CEO A.G. Lafley, is largely an account of Lafley’s tenure at the helm of the company.)

It is a third way that the Riel and Martin have distilled into a process in the decade since The Opposable Mind was released, as they taught and tested the methodology with students and executives. The process for integrative thinking they’ve developed contains four primary stages:


  1. Articulate the models. Understand the problem and opposing models more deeply.
  2. Examine the models. Define the points of tension, assumptions, and cause-and-effect forces.
  3. Explore the possibilities. Play with pathways to integration.
  4. Assess the prototypes. Test and refine the possibilities.


After briefly, but clearly, explaining what that process looks like in practice, using an HR challenge presented by “a good friend who was appointed chief learning officer at a financial services firm,” they devote a chapter to each stage, providing the kind of depth, background, and broad range of contexts that will allow you to grasp the process in both its entirety and its minutiae. More importantly, along the way, they provide the reader with the tools (there are even templates to guide and document your thinking and work at the end of each chapter) needed for real world application of the process. This ensures you’re getting things done, and doing the right things.

It is important, throughout the process, to question your assumptions, but first you must capture your thinking, which the templates and “Try This” thought experiments scattered throughout the book help you do. Even if it gleans but one insight or idea, dissenting opinions and opposing models are important to consider.


As Adam Grant puts it in his book Originals, “Dissenting opinions are useful, even when they are wrong.”


It is often in those opinions that you find a key element or perspective, that when integrated into your existing model, makes it more robust. If nothing else, it provides a fuller, deeper understanding of the problem you’re trying to solve, or a way to break that problem into separate parts that you can tackle independently. And while they acknowledge that integrative thinking is not a silver bullet, the book provides a process that will improve and expand your thinking on any topic. Creating Great Choices is a “how-to book rather than a know-what book.” But that doesn’t mean the book is devoid of great stories, or without a dash of humor. It is hands-on, but it also lights up, sparking ideas while providing practical ways to put them into action. The examples of it providing new solutions to particularly wicked problems include the development of the community focus at the Toronto International Film Festival and the customer focus of Jack Bogle’s Vanguard Group, which developed the first index mutual fund. It incorporates the wisdom of the founder of modern management Peter Drucker, and the founder of Roc-A-Fella Records, Jay Z. It covers Unilever’s century-old model community for workers in Cheshire, England and its current CEO’s Sustainable Living Plan, and tells the story of a local high school’s students improving the customer experience of a local food bank that shares space with their school.

But integrative thinking is more than just a decision making process, the authors contend. It is a stance, a way of being in the world:


Integrative thinkers see the world as a place of possibility, understanding that the arc of human history has been one of refining and changing our models of the world over time. … Integrative thinking is fostered by a belief that better answers are possible, even if they are not immediately evident. … This stance is tricky, in some ways, because not all attempts to solve a problem will result in an integrative solution. You won’t always find what you seek. But if you don’t go looking at all, if you settle for what we know and believe now, your chance of advancing your models are slim indeed.


There are six elements to this stance, one being that you come to believe:


My job is to genuinely inquire into opposing views of the world to understand and leverage those opposing models.


What if, instead of ending up in constant gridlock, we used the tension between various worldviews to come up with new model? What if, instead of settling for weak compromises, we set our sights on creating great choices—new answers? Integrative thinking can help us begin that work, and is something that can be learned and practiced by anyone. And, like every great practice, it can enhance our lives, change the way we see the world, and become a part of who we are and how we show up in the world.

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