Designing Better Libraries logo

Main menu:

Recent Posts

Recent Comments






Creative Commons License

Creative Commons License
Designing Better Libraries by steven j bell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Design Thinking + Integrative Thinking = Better Library Decision Making

Roger Martin is the dean of the Rotman School of Management at the Unviersity of Toronto. He’s been mentioned previously at DBL, particularly for his writings on the need for B-Schools to incorporate more design thinking methods into the curriculum. By way of an article in the June 2007 issue of Harvard Business Review, I learned that Martin has a new book coming out titled The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking. In this HBR article, “How Successful Leaders Think”, Martin provides an overview of what it means to be an integrative thinker, and how it can lead to successful accomplishments. Based on my reading of the article I find commonalities between design thinking and integrative thinking. That’s no surprise given Martin’s past writings on design thinking. So I ask myself why he now uses the term “integrative thinking” rather than “design thinking.”

To some extent it may be that from a marketing position, the phrase “integrative thinking” be more effective at grasping a reader’s attention and sending a message about the book’s content. Design thinking could be perceived as being more esoteric, and clearly you’d want your book to reach a wide audience. Many experts have described the work of design thinkers as blending multiple disciplines. I came across this most recently in a chapter on creating a symphony, from Pink’s A Whole New Mind, in which he has a chapter on design. Hemple and McConnon, in a 2006 BusinessWeek article titled “The Talent Hunt”  described design thinkers as “hybrid professionals” because they combine multiple disciplinary skills into a single mind-set. To my way of thinking that could also describe an integrative thinker – and a blended librarian.

But Martin provides a slightly different perspective on what integrative thinking is, and it’s a bit more than just being a hybrid professional. He studied more than 50 business leaders to identify the characteristics of “how they think”, which Martin sees as being more essential to success than what they do.  What he discovered is that successful leaders all appear to have the ability to blend opposing ideas and to creatively resolve the tension between them. These leaders can take two very different and conflicting ideas and integrate them into a single new idea that is superior and contains elements of the two conflicting ideas – not an easy thing to do. So what can we learn from Martin’s research that could help us to add the power of integrative thinking to our design thinking?

According to Martin, integrative thinking is pretty rare. Why? Well, he says that it’s a process that requires dealing with complexity. He says “Most of us avoid complexity and ambiguity and seek out the comfort of simplicity and clarity…we simplify where we can.” While this seems to run counter to some basic design concepts, namely designing for simplicity, the problem with this according to to Martin is when it comes to decision making, and making great decisions is what makes great leaders great. To avoid complexity most decisions are reduced to a choice between right and wrong. Integrative thinkers develop more creative solutions. Martin then reviews the four stages through which integrative thinkers go on the way to making a decision. In short, integrative thinkers seek less obvious solutions keeping their eye on what is most salient, use nonlinear methods, see the totality of a given problem, and resolve the tension between opposing ideas.

And as some experts believe leadership can be learned, Martin likewise believes that integrative thinking can be learned and practiced. Unfortunately he doesn’t yield much information about how that happens, other than to say it involves developing a “habit of thought.” I suppose he wants to leave us with a reason to buy the book. I think that’s where it all comes back to design thinking. It’s about approaching challenging decisions with a different thought process, one that isn’t status quo for librarians.


Pingback from Designing Better Libraries » Find Your Inner Creativity With Thinkertoys
Posted: December 19, 2007 at 2:51 pm

[…] What I found really interesting was the link between one of Michalko’s techniques for improving creativity to solve problems and Roger Martin’s new book on the opposable mind. Both propose that in order to release creativity in problem solving one must be able to resolve “two opposite or contradictory ideas, concepts or images that exist simultaneously and that may even be beyond logic” (Michalko). This approach is what moves creative thinkers into the realm of seeing totally new perspectives on their existing problems in ways that free them from the biases of their routine approaches. We think there can’t possibly be another solution, that we’ve thought it all the way through. But when we explore options that are in complete opposition to our existing solutions, and then make the effort to resolve the two opposites a new solution is able to emerge. [NOTE – in the HBR article the authors pose that some decision-making situations are so utterly complex that one can only create an environment that allows solutions to emerge from the people affected by the problem; master problem solvers and highly creative individuals have the knowledge and experience to both establish the right environment and avoid the urge to impose their own solution]. […]

Pingback from Designing Better Libraries » Design Thinking As The Intersection of Science And Design
Posted: January 25, 2008 at 5:17 pm

[…] Another publication that I always look forward to is Rotman Magazine. It is published three times a year as the alumni magazine of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. You probably recognize the Rotman name because I’ve mentioned Roger Martin, the Dean of that School, a number of times in my past posts. He is one of the gurus of design thinking, and actively promotes the re-engineering of MBA education to focus as much, if not more, on design as it does on business theory and practice. […]

Pingback from Designing Better Libraries » Better Sleep On That
Posted: October 2, 2008 at 1:03 pm

[…] where my best ideas are likely to emerge. Some of the toughest challenges are the type where an opposable mind is needed to develop a good solution to resolve two conflicting ideas that stand in opposition to […]

Pingback from Designing Better Libraries » Instead Of Picking Model A Or Model B Create Model C
Posted: October 29, 2008 at 1:27 am

[…] questions about integrative thinking, which is a term Martin uses to describe design thinking. I’ve written about Martin before, especially in wanting to share ideas about his “opposable mind”, and how it is a way […]

Comment from Graham Douglas
Posted: October 29, 2008 at 3:19 am

Regarding learning and practising Integrative Thinking, there are modules described on my website for just those purposes. Please let me know if you have any questions about the training offered.

Write a comment