A Different Approach to Decision-Making

March 20th, 2014 | Simcha Weinstein | Comments Off on A Different Approach to Decision-Making

opposingIdeasRoger Martin, the former Dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, examined how exemplary leaders think and identified a common approach that he termed ‘integrative thinking’. According to Martin, integrative thinking is:

“The ability to face constructively the tension of opposing ideas and, instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, to generate a creative resolution of the tension in the form of a new idea that contains elements of the opposing ideas but is superior to each”.

Einstein argued that we should make everything as simple as possible, but no simpler. Often we try to make complex issues too simple and leave ourselves with too few options based on our limited point-of-view. Simplifying ideas is often viewed as the “efficiency of leadership”, and while it certainly makes decision making easier, it does not typically produce the innovative results that the tension of opposing ideas provides.

If we instead embrace complexity and learn to deal with it, we tend to find better solutions. As Martin writes in his book, The Opposable Mind, “More salient features make for a messier problem. But integrative thinkers don’t mind the mess. In fact they welcome it, because the mess assures them that they haven’t edited out features necessary to the contemplation of the problem as a whole. They welcome complexity because they know the best answers arise from complexity.”

To truly master integrative thinking, one must embrace an open stance – one in which we see it as our job to integrate opposing models rather than to choose between them. It takes communication tools that balance advocacy of one’s own position with genuine inquiry into another person’s point of view. This approach is one of the central tools for integrative thinking and a key to superior leadership within a company.

If we are really serious about finding optimal solutions then we need to breed and foster a climate of constructive tension within the workplace – one that actually accepts diversity of thought. Opposing ideas are the richest source of new insight into a problem. We really don’t learn much from someone who sees a problem exactly as we do. It feels comforting and supportive, but it does not push us towards more innovative solutions.

In her book, A Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin reveals that Lincoln assembled a cabinet whose members included several of his strongest political opponents. Lincoln had the capacity to hold two (or more) opposing ideas in his head and was then able to produce a synthesis of them that was superior to the original opposing ones. Throughout his presidency, Lincoln frequently demonstrated integrative thinking. He did not merely tolerate contradictory points of view – he encouraged them.

Do you have a team of rivals assembled… and are you willing to tolerate a paradox to bring forth the best outcome? Decision-making should not be about ease or efficiency. It should be about results.

Let’s get a little messy and complicated and see what happens.