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Creating Great Choices

Moving beyond either-or decision-making can generate new, successful solutions

Executives make decisions every day, many of which require a great deal of time analyzing and debating the pros and cons before settling on the right option. When it comes to the most difficult choices, it can seem as if making trade-offs is inevitable. Yet, there are times when the trade-offs are too great and the solution isn’t good enough. Companies faced with two inadequate options may need to move beyond the either-or decision-making process to put the organization in a better position to win.

Jennifer Riel, an adjunct professor at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto and co-author of “Creating Great Choices: A Leader’s Guide to Integrative Thinking,” recommends a different approach: integrative thinking. First introduced in “The Opposable Mind” by Roger Martin, director of the Martin Prosperity Institute and a former dean of the Rotman School of Management, integrative thinking uses opposing ideas as the basis for innovation. In “Creating Great Choices,” Riel and Martin lay out the four-step methodology which can be applied to virtually any context or industry, as well as illustrate success stories and offer concrete steps for using this problem-solving approach. Riel talks about integrative thinking and her new book with YPO.

What distinguishes integrative thinking from trade-off thinking?

The foundation of all corporate strategy is the idea that you have to make trade-offs. There are some situations in which making the trade-off doesn’t seem likely to help the organization win; the trade-off is simply too big to make or doesn’t actually solve the problem. Integrative thinking uses the tension generated by the trade-offs to create a new and better answer that actually gets you closer to solving the problem. Integrative thinking combines the act of deeply diving into the opposing models that are already on the table with an understanding that your job is to use them as raw material to create new value that doesn’t exist today.

Does this approach require a different decision-making process?

When we think about a typical decision-making process in an organization, we begin by getting the decision makers in a room to discuss the problem and the options. Very often, we wind up debating which of those options we believe is the right answer. We do a bunch of analysis, figure out the pros and cons of the different answers, start to make the compromises we need to make, figure out what answer to choose and then tell the organization to execute.

Integrative thinking still begins with identifying the problem but then very quickly asks, “What are two extreme and opposing answers that could solve that problem?” Instead of doing the pros and cons, we focus on what works about each of those opposing answers. Step two is examining the two models and exploring the tension between them. Step three is the creative aspect. Instead of saying “how do I choose between the options on the table,” you say, “how do I use the options on the table as raw material to help me generate a few possibilities as opposed to a single right answer.” Step four is about experimentation, playing with the possibilities to make them better and then ultimately choosing which possibility to bet on.

Are there any common pitfalls to avoid?

The biggest pitfall is believing there isn’t a better answer. Very often it can feel like we have the right answer. If someone has the opposite answer, it can feel like a threat and a personal challenge. We often see the tension of opposing ideas as a bad thing. We want to come to consensus totally and graciously. That natural desire for consensus and closure is a huge pitfall when it comes to creating new answers. Consensus in the end is important, but we need to go through a bit of disagreement to get there.

Another pitfall is trying to put every option on the table and analyze them all equally. We found there’s real power in just working in the extremes. The third pitfall would be failing to test your ideas. Every idea, no matter how great it is, can get better with input. Being open to the idea that whatever you’re trying — even if you think it is fantastic — you can experiment with it, will help you create a better answer.

What was the most surprising thing you learned working with this approach?

When you’re seeking to understand the models, there’s not a lot to be gained from the typical pro and con mentality. Looking at the negatives of the models feels like we’re being rigorous but as we start focusing on what doesn’t work, it’s hard to shift to generating better answers or imagining that the problem is solvable. We ask you to focus entirely on the positives of the two models. Because the models are opposite, you actually are capturing the negatives of each model because they are very often the positives of the opposing one. It just lets you do so in a way that keeps you in a more generative mindset. Then you can use testing in Step four to get really concrete and rigorous about overcoming any of the challenges of the model.

What are the greatest benefits to this approach?

Every CEO worth his or her salt recognizes how important diversity of thinking is in the organization. The challenge is that in many organizations there is a single function or group of people who tend to have the greatest sway. Having a process for integrative thinking makes it easier to leverage more diverse voices in the organization and to recognize that there’s true value in having multiple perspectives around the table to solve the problem. It is another thinking tool that is more likely to yield novel insights, help you make new connections, help you see something about the problem differently. And that’s what you’re really looking for: ways of disrupting the status quo modes of thinking and helping you innovate in the way you have conversations and the way you solve problems.

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Melissa Fleming has previously worked for Catchafire, Fast Company, Harper’s Bazaar, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Time Out New York Kids, Town & Country and Vogue, among others.