Jennifer Riel and Roger Martin on integrative thinking: Part 2 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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When and why did you decide to write Creating Great Choices, and do so in collaboration?

Riel: Roger published The Opposable Mind 10 years ago, and as he was in the process of writing it, he asked me to work with him on translating his theory of integrative thinking into an MBA class. Since then, we’ve learned a great deal about what it takes to learn integrative thinking and to engage in it productively. In essence, the highly successful leaders that Roger wrote about – like AG Lafley, Isadore Sharp and Jack Welch – engaged in this way of thinking organically. No one had taught them how to do it.

So, we needed to codify a process for the rest of us – to help those of us for whom this way of thinking doesn’t come naturally to do it ourselves. As we tested and learned, we became more confident that the process we had developed was worthwhile, and worth sharing. That is what the book is all about.

Martin: Yes, the admonitions from my long work with Chris Argyris rang in my ears from 2007 onward. He taught me that knowledge on which the recipient is incapable of taking action is not knowledge worth having. If you are a basketball player, I can do the math and figure out that it would be better for you to be taller. However, telling you to grow four inches isn’t particularly helpful if you are past puberty. So as I watched readers of The Opposable Mind struggle to put its content into action, I realized that I needed to give them better and more actionable advice. I worked on that with Jennifer and others for a decade and Creating Great Choices is the actionable product of that work.

Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Martin: I was blown away when I figured out that none of the great integrative moves that I studied came as a result of starting with a blank sheet of paper – as many innovation coaches suggest. Integrative solutions came directly from mining the existing models for the best of their nuggets. So I never start with a blank sheet of paper anymore.

Creating Great ChoicesTo what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ significantly from what you originally envisioned?

Riel: I think most of the revelations came in the 10 years before we started writing the book. We learned that, while stories of superstar CEOs are motivational, they are much more difficult to translate to other contexts than we had imagined. Students really struggled with applying the way of thinking they had read about to their own lives.

We also learned that we were pushing back on a lot of what students learn in secondary, post-secondary and MBA education. It was a real struggle, in some cases, for students to accept that there was no single right answer to the problems they were trying to solve. They really wanted a way to know when they’d cracked it! In terms of the actual writing, though, most of the changes were related to flow and clarity. The final book has much of the same content as our initial draft – just in a different order.

In the Preface, you suggest that people “are biased toward data that is immediately available.” So what?

Riel: Our bias toward immediately available data is limiting. We come to conclusions and make choices based on the data that we choose to pay attention to, usually the data that is easiest to find and fits with our existing world view. But is some cases, the data that really make the difference are the data that are more obscure, that challenge our assumptions, and that has the potential to reframe our thinking. It is in part why the media eco-chamber we hear so much about is problematic. If we only watch CNN or Fox news, we are only exposed to the data that already fits our political perspective and that is easy for us to assimilate. But that kind of data stops us from truly thinking, from challenging and extending our perspective on the world. It means we aren’t learning anything new.

Why is it so difficult to get rid of bad habits while strengthening good habits?

Martin: The status quo is more tenacious than anyone would ever imagine. The human mind prefers continuity rather than change. So it really has to be committed to eliminating a bad habit to even start down that path.

Riel: Our existing models of the world, and our existing ways of being in the world, are very sticky. We like to feel certain. We like closure. Doing things differently is hard work. The human brain is quite lazy, so it takes real effort to engage in the consideration of new ideas and to try new things. Plus, we like to do what we’re good at. Trying new things brings with it the very real possibility of being bad them and even failing at them. For some of us, that can be threatening to our sense of self, to our identity as highly competent, smart doers. All this makes it hard to establish new habits in place of the old ones.

You draw connections between design thinking and integrative thinking. Please explain a bit about design thinking, and how you see it connecting to Creating Great Choices.

Martin: The fundamental purpose of design thinking is to produce something that does not now exist. And so it is with integrative thinking – in the face of conflicting models, it seeks to generate a creative resolution of the tension in the form of a model that contains elements of each but is superior to both. So the goals are aligned completely.

Riel: There are a few big ideas that are typically associated with design thinking. 1) It begins with real people, with human beings, aiming to solve the problems they face and meet their unmet needs; 2) it involves divergence, the generation of multiple different possible solutions for consideration and 3) it requires taking those possibilities and engaging in rapid prototyping, which is iterative testing of early, rough prototypes of the solutions with the aim of learning and improvement.

In our process for integrative thinking, we were particularly inspired by the idea of generating multiple possibilities, to reduce the dependence on any one solution being perfect, and on the idea of testing those ideas early, while we can still learn and make them better. Those are the two biggest connections, though we would argue that design thinking and integrative thinking are two complimentary thinking tools, with a shared mindset – a desire to solve old problems in new ways.

What is the relevance of integrative thinking to behavioral decision making?

Riel: The field of behavioral science has been hugely significant in helping us understand how we think and how people make choices. Most traditional business educations starts with the principle that people are rational value-maximizers.

Behavioral science tells us that we are far from rational, and that we have predictable biases that impact how we think and how we choose. The implications for integrative thinking are two-fold: 1) we need to be aware that these biases exist (both for ourselves and for other people) and 2) we need to get much better at thinking about our thinking, questioning what we believe and why we believe it. It is why so much of our process us about articulating exploring and questioning our thinking about the world. If we can unearth our biases, we can start to challenge them consciously, as opposed to unconsciously reinforcing them.

Martin: Integrative thinking attempts to take into account the fundamental biases that behavioral decision-making theory has uncovered. One is anchoring – we anchor quickly on the model that we know and tend to look for data that supports our existing view. That is why was encourage people to sequentially fall in love with two opposing models. The game of falling in love with the opposite model is an attempt to help the participants escape the clutches of anchoring/confirmation bias.

In your opinion, what are the most valuable lessons to be learning from the making of The Lego Movie?

Riel: I love the story of The Lego Movie. Briefly, the Lego leadership team faced a challenging trade-off when they were approached with the idea of making an original film. There were two competing desires at odds with one another: On the one hand, we want to protect and bolster the Lego brand. On the other, we want a great movie.

These don’t seem so incommensurable until you consider how we typically think about getting to those outcomes. To protect the brand, we would insist on strict creative control, giving Lego sign-off on every decision. To get a great movie, though, we need to hire the very best talent and give them room to create. How can the filmmakers do that if Lego Group has ultimate creative control? And how can Lego Group protect its brand if it gives up its creative control? That’s just irresponsible.

To resolve this trade-off, then-CEO Jorgen Vig Knudstorp accepted that he had to give creative control to the filmmakers as a base assumption. But how might he still protect his company under those circumstances?

Here, he decided the best way to protect the brand was to help the filmmakers truly fall in love with Lego, so that protecting the brand would become second nature. He asked them to spend time before starting the film with Lego’s biggest fans – kids and even adult-super fans. Once they did, the filmmakers had become insiders; they were super-invested in doing right by those fans. This helped Jorgen achieve his goal – a film that was great as entertainment and great for Lego.

What is metacognition?

Riel: It is the ability to think about our own thinking. It is awareness of our thinking and deep engagement with it: what do I think? Why do I think it? What might I be missing?

What is its relevance to “the new way to think” process?

Martin: In order to have a hope of creating better answers, we need to deeply understand the logic of the opposing answers. That means thinking about how we think about both models – not just do we like one versus the other. Rather we have to ask: How do I think each model produces the results that it does? Metacognition, thinking about thinking, builds up our capacity to do that and to play with opposing ideas – and new models – in real time.

What are the most important dos and don’ts to keep in mind when attempting to generate new ideas?

Riel: Don’t look for a single right answer; seek lots of answers at the beginning. Don’t judge ideas too early; keep them alive for a while to see where they might lead you. Do ask for help; bring in people who see the world differently than you do to work on the problem with you. Do give yourself the time to think. Great answers don’t arrive in an instant. They come by giving yourself time to roll them around in your head.

When explaining the process for integrative thinking in Chapter 4, you focus on four steps. Which do most decision-makers seem to find most difficult to complete? Why?

Martin: It really doesn’t strike me that any one of them is particularly more challenging than the others. The biggest problem is diving in and getting to work. The seeming intractability of the problem is often daunting. Once they start down the process, they tend to be pretty happy campers from there on in.

Riel: I don’t know that any of the stages are all that difficult once you’ve learned about them. In most cases, we don’t engage in this kind of thinking because we don’t know it is possible. But, once people know the process, I think the biggest danger is getting so excited about a potential solution that you fail to generate multiple possibilities, or you move straight to implementation – seeking buy in rather than feedback. It can be easy to fall back into old patterns once you have an idea you like, so we encourage people to slow down and explicitly generate more possibilities than they think they might need, and then test them out.

In your opinion, what are the most important dos and don’ts to keep in mind when examining/evaluating opposing models?

Riel: Sometimes people give short-shrift to this step; they treat the prompts we offer as a check list and just move quickly through them. Really, this is the step that sets you up to create a better answer. You’ve already taken the time to fall in love with the two models, now you need to consider them together and hold them in tension.

What do you notice that might be a new insight or a new way to think about the models? Examining the models is when we really challenge our thinking, so the key is to push yourself to really dig into assumptions, tensions and cause-and-effect forces.

What is John Bogle’s unique significance as an integrative thinker?

Martin: Jack shows that integrative thinking can be applied in whatever time you have got at your disposal. He had less than 12 hours to come up with a better answer after he was fired from Wellington Management late one evening and was set to meet with the next morning with the board of the affiliated Wellington Funds. He knew he was likely to be fired there too. So, he came up with a model for running the funds that could work for him and for his board, and it really laid the groundwork for what was to become Vanguard. He had to question what Wellington Funds existed to do, and the role he could play there.

Please share what you consider to be the key points with regard to the three pathways to resolve tension. First, “The Hidden Gem”

Riel: A hidden gem is the kind of solution to pursue when you look at the two models see that there is really just one small element of each you most value. In this case, you throw the rest of the models away and just start fresh by ask: if I were to build a new a better answer from these two elements, what would it look like? Imagine you are trying to decide how best to grow your business, either by investing in your biggest market or by launching into a totally new market.

You most value the market power you can generate results from the big-market approach and the entrepreneurial mindset that comes from launching in a new market. How might you create a new answer built around using your market power in a innovative, surprising and agile ways?

Next, “The Double Down”

Martin: This is where you have one model you really love, but see that it has one unacceptable flaw, a key missing element, that the opposing models have.

Here, we explore how you might double down or extend the model you love in such a way as to get the one component you value from the opposing model. Say you love everything about taking a customized approach to service delivery for your customers, but the cost position is unsustainable. You see that a standardized approach creates economies of scale. Could you imagine leaning so hard in to customization that you actually achieve some important economies of scale. What could that look like?

Finally, “Decomposition”

Riel: Here, you have two models you love equally but you can’t imagine how to do both at once – they are fundamentally in tension with one another and you can’t see how to be, say, centralized and decentralized at the same time. A decomposition challenges you to find a meaningful dividing line, a way to break the problem apart in a new way so that can actually do both and still be better off. You ask, where does decentralization really benefit me? And where does centralization drive the most value? And how might I create a system in which I can get the benefit of both?

How can integrative thinking accommodate the requirements of all three pathways?

Martin: The pathways are simply thought starters. The first two steps – articulating and examining the models – are standard. The pathways provide what we think of as search vectors to explore for creative new solutions. Generally speaking, any group that gets to the third step of imagining possibilities can find at least one promising possibility along one of the search vectors.

Which of the integrative thinking tools seems to be the most difficult to master? Why?

Riel: For some folks, falling in love with the two models can be hard, because one model feels right to them. They already love it. It can take some practice, and some help from others who see the world differently, to keep from falling into the old habit of playing devil’s advocate against the model you don’t like as much. It is why we ban all discussion of the negatives of the models at the outset – to make it easier to stay in a place of objective consideration rather than judgement.

When engaged in negotiation with someone whose thinking process has reached conclusions quite different from one’s own, how best to resolve those differences with integrative thinking in order to reach an agreement and thereby conclude negotiation?

Martin: Typically to get toward a productive outcome you have to make the initial move of genuinely exploring their model. If you don’t, it is unlikely that they will be willing to explore yours. And if you genuinely explore and understand theirs – without judging it – they will be willing to explore yours. Once they reach that point, they are primed to explore the productive combination of both models and won’t be as obsessed about trying to make sure their model prevails.

Riel: Sometimes, a traditional negation is just fine. It is the optimal path to take, in those cases where you are in a one-off, win-lose kind of situation – or where you are rigorously prioritizing either the relationship or the outcome. Integrative thinking is for those times when the relationship and the outcome both matter, and you feel it is a problem on which it worthwhile to engage a little more deeply.

In those situations, seek first to understand. Ask the other person about their perspective and just listen. Then, share you own perspective in a way that invite inquiry into it. Think: “I have a view worth hearing, but I might be missing something.”

In your opinion, which of the material you provide in Creating Great Choices will be most valuable to those now preparing for a career as a schoolteacher or who have only recently embarked on one? Please explain.

Riel: Some of our colleagues spend a great deal of time with educators through a program called “I-think,” which is aimed at bringing integrative thinking into the K-12 system. In our experience, trying out the tools and steps on real challenges the students face, bringing the whole idea that better answers might be possible into the classroom, that’s really powerful. It isn’t about changing what you teach, but rather how you teach it.

Martin: My view of the schoolteacher reaction is that they would really take to heart the importance of distinguishing between reality and models of reality. Implicitly much of K-12 education treats models as reality – i.e. this is the right answer and hence is reality. Teachers already know in their hearts that they aren’t teaching reality but don’t quite know how to deal with that question and communicate it to students. They seem to find that the I-Think training helps them teach students the process of making inferences based on data and logic to create useful models – but these models do not always suggest the correct and only answer.

To first-time supervisors? Please explain.

Riel: I think for first-time supervisors, it can sometimes feel like you have to have the right answer when you come in to the room. Instead, lean into the idea that others see things you don’t see. Think together with you team and prototype possibilities together.

Martin: Agreed. And for novice supervisors, this doesn’t feel very leaderly. Yet the behavior Jennifer describes is observed by subordinates as exceedingly leaderly. So there is a disconnect between how first-time supervisors think they will be perceived and how in fact they are actually perceived.

To C-level executives? Please explain.

Riel: Think about setting conditions: what questions can you ask, what replies can you offer, that truly provide permission, to play with new ideas? People want to be totally prepared and totally prepped when they talk to the boss. That makes sense. But it means you will rarely get to think together with your people, to play with ideas, unless you create the conditions and set different expectations.

To the owner/CEOs of small-to-midsize companies? Please explain.

Martin: Just try it. The virtue of small-to-midsize companies is that they tend to be more flexible and it is easier to experiment with new ways of working. So just try to tackle one problem you’re really struggling with, together with your team. Get started and see what happens. Chances are you will be happy with the outcome.

Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Riel: For me, it would be a summary: “What do you hope people will take away from this book?” I hope people see that they have a choice. That we can each choose to try to create better answers, no matter our context.

Martin: “Why is this better way of thinking not taught generally at business schools? It threatens the status quo, which is the teaching of the piece-parts of business problems. Students are left to integrate on their own because integration is hard to teach. Therefore, the focus is on teaching the easily teachable instead of learning how to teach what is inherently harder.

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Here is a direct link to Part 1.

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

Roger’s link

Rotman School of Management link

HBR link

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