Jennifer Riel and Roger Martin on integrative thinking: Part 1 of an interview by Bob Morris

Jennifer Riel is an adjunct professor at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto, specializing in creative problem solving. Her focus is on helping everyone, from undergraduate students to business executives, to create better choices, more of the time. She is the co-author of Creating Great Choices: A Leader’s Guide to Integrative Thinking (with Roger L. Martin).  An award-winning teacher, Jennifer leads training on integrative thinking, strategy and innovation, both at the Rotman School and at organizations of all types, from small non-profits to some of the largest companies in the world.


Roger Martin is a strategy consultant and business professor who was just named the #1 management thinker in the world in the 2017 biennial ranking by Thinkers50. He was Dean of the Rotman School of Management for 15 years. His passion is exploring mysteries related to the ways we think about or model our world. He’s examined, for example, for common patterns in the way successful leaders tackle difficult “either/or” dilemmas. He’s also explored how it is that corporations drive out innovation — even as they desperately seek it. Moreover, Roger has examined the way in which theories that are meant to help corporations achieve financial goals and make shareholders rich actually produce the opposite results. In each of his books, he attempts to understand a particular way in which our thinking can get in our own way, and provides specific advice for addressing that challenge. In addition to Creating Great Choices, Roger is the author or co-author of these books: Getting Beyond Better (2015), Playing to Win (2013), Fixing the Game (2011), The Design of Business (2009), and The Opposable Mind (2007)

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Before discussing Creating Great Choices, a few general questions. First, what are the defining characteristics of a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive?

Riel: Personally, I think it is a culture in which reflection on our practice is not only encouraged, it is expected. Donald Schön writes about reflective practice as the ability to reflect-in-action – to seek to understand what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and how we might improve. I see lots of leaders who are so focused on execution, on responding to the next emergency, that they fail to thoughtfully look around and learn from what they are doing right now.

This means designing experiments rather than seeking perfection. It means seeking critique rather than validation. And it means being open to the possibility that what we’re doing right now is not the only way

Martin: I concur entirely and would add — from the work of Jim March — that a great workplace culture is one that values both exploitation of what the organization is great at now and the exploration of promising new capabilities at which it is not at all competent now. And it is a culture that recognizes that the forces of exploitation and exploration are hard to reconcile, so that if it doesn’t happen readily, that doesn’t mean that balance between the two is a bad goal – but rather a lofty one for which to strive.

Recent research indicates that, on average, less than 30% of employees in a U.S. company are actively and productively engaged. The others are either passively engaged (“mailing it in”) or actively disengaged, undermining the success of their organization? How do you explain this situation? What’s the problem?

Martin: I think the remaining 70% are being treated as theoretical people, not real people that their employers attempt to really understand. They are treated as appropriately paid task executors who should be happy because they are being paid to do their tasks. That is not how real people work. They want to feel that they are doing something important, alongside people who they care about.  This is rarely appreciated by employers and the lack of it results in the high levels of employee disengagement.

Riel: When it is clear that your opinion isn’t valued, why would you share it? Why would you engage in making an idea better or going beyond what you’re told to do? We receive so many implicit and even explicit messages in large organizations that opposing ideas or contradictory opinions are unhelpful. “Get on board!” “Why are you complicating this?”

Eventually, we just turn our critical thinking off. If all you want is for your team to nod and agree, fine. But they will be disengaged and frustrated. We all want to be part of something bigger than ourselves. We all want to contribute. But it hard to do so when you are told to simply execute on someone else’s idea – whether or not you agree with it or understand it.

In your opinion, what specifically must be done immediately to increase the percentage of actively and productively engaged employees?

Riel: Changing the way we think about meetings. As I see it, the only reason to have a meeting is to engage in thinking together. So often, meetings are about selling perfectly-packaged ideas. Instead, they should be about working together to understand, prototype, test and advance those ideas in real time. This means, instead of conducting corporate theatre, we need to actually engage in real conversations about our thinking, as messy and challenging as they may be.

Martin: We need to design the employee experience as carefully as we design the best customer experience. Don’t dictate: ask. Don’t assume: inquire. Don’t wait for perfection: prototype and improve. Think like Peter Drucker.  Your employees should be treated like volunteers not as contractors.

In your opinion, what is the single most important business subject that even the best business schools now neglect? Please explain your selection.

Martin: Peter Drucker once told me: “Roger, there are no marketing problems, no finance problems, no tax problems; there are only business problems.”  Although Peter is one of the best management thinkers of all time, business schools continue to teach students that the important problems are marketing problems, finance problems, and tax problems. And by and large, they have absolutely nothing useful to say about business problems. That is why I pioneered integrative thinking – it is a tool for solving real business problems.

What are the core principles of integrative thinking?

Riel: Integrative thinking is a process if using opposing models – two solutions to a problem that are in fundamental conflict with one another – as the starting point for generating better solutions. The new solutions take elements of the original models, but are superior to each. The core principles are 1) to seek out and leverage the tension of opposing ideas and 2) to create new solutions rather than choosing or merely compromising between existing ones.

Martin: And it is a creative act.  Integrative thinking isn’t an algorithm – like the Black-Scholes Option Pricing Theorem. It is a heuristic – a way of thinking that will improve the likelihood of finding a better answer.

When can integrative thinking be of greatest value? Please explain.

Riel: We had always thought that integrative thinking was best used in the circumstances when you see and understand the choice in front of you as a trade-off. Should we centralize the sales team, or keep it decentralized? Should we invest in innovation to build for the future, or cut R&D spend to bring this quarter’s expenses down? What we have found in practice is that integrative thinking can actually be used for any problem you really care about, any problem for which your current solution fails to satisfy you. In these cases, you can actually work to reframe the problem as a trade-off, as an either-or choice, as a way of finding a better answer.

How to avoid “paralysis by analysis”?

Martin: Paralysis by analysis is a symptom, not a problem. It occurs when a problem is poorly framed – or not framed at all.  The vast majority of SWOT analyses embody analysis paralysis because they are analysis without explicit framing of the problem and the solution that is being sought. There is no danger whatsoever of paralysis by analysis with a well-framed problem – and framing does not require analysis, just hard thinking.

I believe it was Mark Twain who once suggested that “a camel is a horse designed by a committee.” Your response?

Riel: I think Twain is talking about compromise, that old win-lose negotiation frame in which I give up a bit of what I care about, and so do you, and we arrive somewhere in the middle. We wind up creating a weak-kneed solution, a compromise that is actually worse than the answers we started out with. Think of a company like Sears. It is neither as low-cost as Walmart nor as differentiated as Nordstrom. And it is really struggling. It is a camel. Our aspiration is — or should be — higher than that. We don’t want a camel, we want the best possible horse for our particular course, a new solution that leaves both of us better off.

Looking ahead (let’s say) 3-5 years, what do you think will be the greatest challenge that CEOs will face? Any advice?

Martin: It will be similar to the challenge they have always faced – productively balancing exploitation and exploration. Companies only enjoy a multi-generational life if they can exploit what they now do well to explore what they currently don’t know what to do. And then when that exploration reveals a new avenue to exploit, the company will continue to explore for the next value-creating opportunity. Most companies tilt towards over-exploitation as they become more successful.

Riel: I think that other people are always the greatest challenge, whether that’s customers, employees or board members. If and when machines do start to surpass humans on all manual and even thinking tasks, the interpersonal and creative domains will loom even larger for leaders. Fostering productive relationships with others will become even more important, as will our ability to create new solutions with other people.

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Jennifer and Roger invite you to check out the resources at these websites:

Roger’s link

Rotman link

HBR link

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