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

September 19, 2017


Jennifer Riel and Roger Martin write about the importance of creating room for understanding, and the empathy that grows from it—one of three core principles at the heart of a better decision-making process.

Jennifer Riel and Roger Martin's new book, Creating Great Choices: A Leader's Guide to Integrative Thinking, hits bookstore shelves today.

We posted an early review last week, if you'd like our take on it. But, thanks to the good people at Harvard Business Review Press, who provided the excerpt below you can go straight to the source. In it, they importance of creating room for understanding, and the empathy that grows from it—one of three core principles at the heart of a better decision-making process.


In 2015, as part of our work at the Martin Prosperity Institute, we conducted a series of interviews with middle-class Americans. Our desire was to gain insights into what it is like to live in America today by talking to individuals from many walks of life—a firefighter in Florida, a teacher in North Carolina, a truck driver in Illinois, a corporate trainer in Utah, and so on. For several hours, via Skype, we sat with each person and listened to stories about their lives.

As part of interview preparation, we asked participants to select an artifact—an object that represented, for them, what it means to be an American. Many of the artifacts were what you might expect: there were quite a few footballs and ags, family mementos, a graduation photo, and a business card. And then, from a city in the Midwest, we interviewed a young hairdresser with a warm smile and great highlights.

Kelli, as we’ll call her, started the interview by saying that she would only participate if we could promise her that nothing she said would be twisted to reect poorly on America. She was proud to be an American, she explained, and she worried that her words might be used to make her country look bad. We reassured her, she visibly relaxed, and we continued with the interview. After a short introduction, our colleague Quinn Davidson asked Kelli to share her artifact.

“I’m going to warn you that it’s a little cliché,” Kelli said. “But there’s a deeper-rooted meaning behind it. So, before you make any judgments . . .” A pause, as she reached behind the camera. “Here, I have my hunting rifle. I know, cliché, cliché.” She brandished a shiny .30-06 gun.

Suppressing an urge to duck and run, we pressed on. “Say more,” Jennifer prompted, honestly expecting to hear a spirited defense of the right to bear arms.

Kelli continued, “I thought about it, and it took me half a second to decide what artifact really made me feel like an American. Yes, I’m a gun-toting American, but there’s so much more to it than that.” She smiled. “There’s so much conflict going on right now in America about gun rights and gun laws. I think it’s amazing to live in a country that lets you say how you feel about it. In America, we have freedom of speech, the freedom to say how we feel about things. Some countries don’t have that.”

She went on to explain that she was well aware that her right to speak her mind came to be only because so many women before her had spoken theirs. “I just think that that’s so amazing. And I think it’s what it means to be American: having a conflict and having a lot of people speak their mind about it.”

In short, what we had expected to be a partisan defense of the Second Amendment was actually a thoughtful and reasoned reection on the First.

People can surprise you in wonderful ways, but only if you give them the room to do so. Creating room for that understanding, and the empathy that grows from it, is one of three core principles at the heart of a better decision-making process—three elements missing from most decision-making processes based on standard operating procedures. The first principle is that we need better access to our own thinking, as a way to understand our existing mental models and their limitations. This is metacognition. Second, we need a deeper understanding of the thinking of others, an understanding that helps illuminate the gaps in our thinking and provides opportunities for collaboration. This is empathy. And third, we need an imaginative spark, an ability to create new and better answers rather than simply choose between existing options. This is creativity. Taken together, metacognition, empathy, and creativity have the potential to provide the foundation for richer decision making.

In theory, there are many approaches you could take that would leverage these three foundational ideas. In practice, we’ve found that integrative thinking contains within it steps that both benet from these skills and help build them. You will be a better integrative thinker through metacognition, empathy, and creativity. And you will be better at metacognition, empathy, and creativity through integrative thinking.

Integrative thinking is a process for creating new answers and designing great choices. We’ve developed it as an alternative to existing processes that can short-circuit our thinking, amplify our biases, drive divisions between individuals, and minimize creativity. Over the past decade, we’ve honed a methodology to apply integrative thinking in a deliberate, conscious, and directed way. It isn’t a recipe, exactly. It’s a heuristic: a rule of thumb to help you work through difcult problems you face in your work. Following this process won’t necessarily produce winning integrative solutions every time, but the process gives you a clear path to follow and a higher probability of coming to a creative answer.

Excerpted from Creating Great Choices: A Leader’s Guide to Integrative Thinking.
Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press.
© Copyright 2017 Jennifer Riel and Roger L. Martin.
All rights reserved.


Jennifer Riel is an adjunct professor at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto and a strategic adviser to senior leaders at a number of Fortune 500 companies. She is coauthor, with Roger Martin and A.G. Lafley, of the Playing to Win Strategy Toolkit (Harvard Business Review Press).

Roger Martin is an author, business school professor, and strategy adviser to CEOs. He is Director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the Rotman School of Management, where he served as Dean from 1998 to 2013. He is a frequent contributor to Harvard Business Review and other leading publications and has published nine books, including Playing to Win and The Opposable Mind.

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