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.

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