Integrative thinking could be the difference between a failed and a successful nation


12 September 2017

SA has experienced its best moments when we created new options by integrating contradicting perspectives and embracing complexity and ambiguity. We need to do so again.

By Kosheek Sewchurran

Nelson Mandela, one of the great moral and political leaders in SA's history, once said a good leader can engage in a debate frankly and thoroughly, knowing that at the end he/she and the other side must be closer, and therefore emerge stronger.

One of the things I often notice from the current crop of leaders and policy makers in SA and elsewhere is that they are quick to dismiss those who disagree with them or opinions and ideas that contradict their own viewpoints. This undesirable approach to decision making possibly explains the current morass in which SA -and indeed other parts of the world - finds itself.  Perhaps it's always easier to go with one view. However, in this complex and unpredictable environment we live in, there is great benefit in considering contradicting perspectives.  

Integrative thinking, that is taking opposing ideas and creatively resolving the original either-or problem to generate additional options, is an extremely difficult yet crucial skill that more often than not makes a great leader, and has a huge impact on strategic choices taken by an organisation or even an individual.

One of the foremost thought leaders of our time, Professor Roger Martin, who recently visited the UCT Graduate School of Business (GSB) to launch his latest book and to present a strategy masterclass, views integrative thinking as the way in which we deal with the complexity of the modern world. For Martin, a former dean of the Rotman School of Management and co-author of the recently published book, Creating Great Choices, integrative thinking is an approach based on exploiting the human brain's capacity to hold two opposing ideas at the same time. Martin refers to this as the "opposable mind" or devising a third-way solution that is better than the accepted options.

Martin has also previously argued that in today's climate of constant change and relentless competition, the key job of a leader is to make robust choices. These choices inevitably involve tensions — what appears to be a trade-off, in which the choosing of one option precludes another attractive option. Tension, by its very nature, Martin points out, compels leaders to make choices of some kind. Maintaining the status quo, typically, is not an option. To move ahead, there is no choice but to choose. Often these choices are enigmatic, exhibiting a challenging combination of qualities including ambiguity, uncertainty, complexity, instability, uniqueness, and risk. Enigmatic choices with these features demand special consideration.

Integrative thinkers work to see the whole problem, embrace its multi-varied nature, and understand the complexity of its causal relationships, Martin argued in a book published in 1999. They work to shape and order what others see as a chaotic landscape. They search for creative resolutions to problems typically seen by others as a simple 'fork in the road' or an irresolvable bind brought about by competing organisational interests. At its core, Martin stated, integrative thinking is an art, not a formula or algorithm that can be followed routinely from start to finish. Managers who attempt to reduce choice-making to an algorithm are quickly overwhelmed by the enigmatic qualities their formula overlooks. As in art, a heuristic, not algorithmic process must guide the integrative choice maker.

Most of us, according to Martin, avoid complexity and ambiguity and seek out the comfort of simplicity and clarity. To cope with the dizzying complexity of the world around us, we simplify where we can. We crave the certainty of choosing between well-defined alternatives and the closure that comes when a decision has been made.

In the world of business, being decisive is often held up as one of the great virtues of a good leader. But, in rushing to make a decision, business leaders miss the opportunity of exploring and finding better options that may create more value for more stakeholders.

Integrative thinking by its nature involves some form of team work, echoing an old African proverb which states: "If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together."

Oliver Tambo was one of SA's finest examples of an integrative thinker.  He went well beyond thinking that those who disagreed with him or his ideology are "dumb" or "evil".  His quest was a sincere search for new options; not merely settling for options on the table.

It is also true to say that in our short history, SA has experienced its best moments when we created new options. There is an emotional commitment and energy that arises when we know we are not settling for 'least worst' options; or engaging in 'lazy' thinking. SA is littered with either-or options of the 'least worst' kind.  Furthermore, we seem to pride ourselves in engaging in lazy thinking.  We have to awaken ourselves from the illusion that expedient choices are among the 'least worst' options is progress.

Integrative thinking is a complex but crucial skill, which I believe should be included in the curriculum at all institutions at all levels. This could be the difference between a failing and a successful nation, which Mandela sought to build.

Associate Professor Kosheek Sewchurran is the programme director of the Executive MBA at the UCT Graduate School of Business




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