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My product management toolkit (42): Integrative Thinking

Plenty of books and blog posts have been written about decision making. How does one make a decision? How do you know you’ve made the right decision? I recently read “Creating Great Choices” by Jennifer Riel and Roger Martin which inspired me to write this toolkit post. If you think about it, traditional decision making often follows these stages to get to a single choice or answer:

  • We consider a number of choices, discussing the pros and cons of each choice or option.
  • If data is available, we’ll present data for each option.
  • We vote for our favoured choice (dot voting is a nice technique to use here).
  • We end up with a single choice that we can or can’t all live with, and perhaps we made compromise to get to the final decision.

A single decision or answer is the outcome of the aforementioned process. Often, Riel and Martin argue in their book, we thus arrive at “the least worst option”; the single option that is least destroyed by the process of analysis. We choose one option and move on.

At first glance, this might sound like a reasonable process, followed by a ditto outcome. The problem, however, is that we too often end up with a watered down compromise that we can live with, but that doesn’t fully address our needs or address the problem. “Integrative Thinking”, an approach introduced by the aforementioned Roger Martin – former Dean and Institute Director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the Rotman School of Management – radically changes the traditional process of making decisions (and compromises).

The pivotal part of Integrative Thinking is that you consider two opposing models or solutions, allowing for the tension between the two opposing options to feed into an integrated approach. In my latest book “Managing Product = Managing Tension” I write about how this can be a great way to use conflict constructively. Going back to the late Alfred Sloan, longtime General Motors leader, who realised that his team would be better equipped to solve tough problems if he allowed for and actively encouraged disagreement.

In “Creating Great Choices”, Riel and Martin outline four critical steps as part of the part of the process for Integrative Thinking:

  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 the pathways to integration.
  4. Assess the prototypes – Test and refine the possibilities.

Now, let’s go more deeply into these four different stages:

Articulate the models

First, you define the problem you face. For example, through a problem statement you can figure out what the problem is and whether it’s worth solving. The next step is to sketch two opposing ideas, explaining at a high level what each model would look like in practice. Once the opposing models are clear, you explore each model in turn, seeking to understand how the model works, what benefits it produces, and why these outcomes matter.

Examine the models

This is the step where you actively encourage the tension that comes from looking at the two opposing models together, doing so through a series of exploratory questions:

  • Ask yourself how the models are similar and different.
  • Consider what you most value from the models as they’re articulated.
  • Question the models as you have articulated them and the benefits you’ve defined.
  • Explore the assumptions that underlie each model.
  • What are the cause-and-effect relationships there at work in the models?

Explore the possibilities

After we’ve defined and examined opposing models, the next step is to try and integrate them into what Riel and Martin refer to as a “new, superior answer”. One way to approach this stage is to reflect on your thinking and simply ask “How might I turn those components of the models that I most value into a new model that better solves my problem?” There are three guiding questions that you can use to come up with a new, integrated solution:

  1. How might we create a new model using one building block from each opposing model, while throwing away the rest of each model?
  2. Under what conditions could a more intense version of one model actually generate one vital benefit of the other?
  3. 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 problem?

In short, these guiding questions really help in comparing and contrasting the available options, effectively being able to ‘pick and mix’ from opposing solutions.

Assess the prototypes

The final step in the integrative process is to test your prototype solutions in order to discard or improve them. The other night I listened to a talk by Greg Moran – Co-Founder & CEO at Zoomcar – where he shared what is probably the simplest and cheapest way to assess prototypes: sharing your ideas with (target) customers.

Main learning point: The idea that decisions can be a matter of ‘and’, instead of a single ‘either or’ outcome, is very powerful. Integrative Thinking sets out to resolve the tension of opposing models by creating new models that contain elements of the original models. As a result, we’re creating new, superior solutions and ways of thinking.

Related links for further learning:

https://hbr.org/2007/06/how-successful-leaders-think

https://hbr.org/2013/07/how-criticism-creates-innovati

https://marcabraham.com/2020/08/19/eigenquestions-framing-the-problem-and-asking-the-right-question/

https://rogerlmartin.com/archive/articles/-in-thoughtpillars/thought-pillars/integrative-thinking

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