Practicing Integrative Thinking

… a core concept in Leadership Skills and Atlas 109

IntegrativeThinkingConcept description

Integrative thinking is an approach to addressing Complexity in management and is defined by The Desautels Centre for Integrative Thinking at the Rotman School of Management as a discipline and methodology for framing and solving real-world problems (at, accessed 28 February 2016).

According to the Centre:

“The study of the mind, how we think, decide and interact are all key components of Integrative Thinking. Each is a mental model by which we conduct our lives. … Once we are introduced to the constructs of our thoughts and actions, we are able to step back and perceive new ways of thinking and problem solving.” (At, accessed 28 February 2016.)

Former Rotman Dean, Roger Martin, describes integrative thinking as follows:

“The typical way of dealing with problems is to list several solutions and decide on the best one, as though it were wrong to select more than one. Business students are taught to analyze business problems in this way: option A yields $2.8 million, option B yields $3.4 million, so option B is superior. Integrative Thinking is a mindset that leads you to a new option, which combines the best elements of A and B. It’s a creative act.” (At, accessed 28 February 2016.)

According to Louis-Félix Binette’s review (reference below) of Roger Martin’s book Opposable Mind – Winning through Integrative Thinking Integrative Thinking, integrative thinking redefines the four steps of the traditional decision process:

  1. Salience: Traditional thinking aims to limit the number of criteria on which to base a decision. Integrative Thinking rather suggests that you expand it as much as possible, since some factors deemed unimportant at first or simply undetected often end up being the key to a project’s success. It’s better to explore those in advance than to be stuck with the “should’ve, could’ve, would’ve” syndrome a few million dollars later.
  2. Causality: After having explored the range of possible criteria, the integrative thinker associates them as to whether they are causes or effects of one another. He questions shortcuts and stereotypical associations (e.g., “a personalized product will necessarily cost more” or “clients will not pay for a more expensive product”) to map the causal chains of criteria that will influence his decision.
  3. Architecture: The simplest decision is of course a yes or no alternative, but in complex situations, the traditional approach is to break down the decision in more consecutive, digestible parts. When planning a vacation, one will start by booking the cheapest flight, then a hotel with the best location/price ratio. From there, a program of activities can be set up. Integrative thinking assumes that each decision will affect the others and suggests considering all aspects at once: booking a slightly more expensive flight could help save the first night at the hotel and even leave an extra afternoon for a museum visit or some beach time before the return flight.
  4. Resolution: Once the variables are satisfyingly balanced, a decision must be made. Traditional thinking simplifies each preceding step to rapidly reach a clear, unequivocal decision that can be evaluated based on defined initial criteria. Integrative Thinking is based on iterations, forcing one to go back to re-evaluate criteria or their causal arrangement. It is more difficult to evaluate the resulting decisions because they are unique, out of the mold. Rather than strict models, confidence, experience and a capacity to execute (and to adapt to a changing situation) will guide and benefit the integrative thinker.

These four steps are also described by Roger Martin in his 2002 article in Rotman Management (reference below).


Roger Martin and Hilary Austen (1999), The Art of Integrative Thinking, Rotman Management, Fall 1999, at, accessed 28 February 2016.

Roger Martin (2002), Integrative Thinking – A Model Takes Shape, Rotman Management, Fall 2002, at, accessed 28 February 2016.

Louis-Félix Binette (2013), Integrative Thinking: complex problems, creative solutions CLLBR (at, accessed 28 February 2016.

Atlas topic and subject

Handing Complexity (core topic) in Leadership Skills.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 28 February 2016.

Image: Louis-Félix Binette (2013), Integrative Thinking: complex problems, creative solutions CLLBR (at, accessed 28 February 2016.