From Complex Contradictions to Simple Success

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.”  – F. Scott Fitzgerald

“Everything should be as simple as possible, but no simpler.”  – Albert Einstein

Connecting the dots

Are you drowning in the sea of data yet? As the world becomes more and more complex, with more and more information to understand and less and less time to do this, the importance of integrative thinking becomes more and more important. In The Opposable Mind, Roger Martin presents a number of convincing business case studies, including A.G. Lafley at P&G, Jack Welch at GE, Michael Lee-Chin at AIC and Martha Graham (who revolutionised modern dance), all of whom were able to see problems from a range of perspectives, think in terms of total systems and not component parts, and simplify complex ideas into straight forward (and often disruptive) solutions to problems.

This kind of thinking is not just for business leaders though, and the ideas in the book are critical in identifying key insights in research (I would love to see more system thinking from researchers!), and innovative approaches to new products and services through design thinking.

The best solutions often come from stepping away from ‘either, or’ and current trade offs, to identifying potential new directions which can combine the best elements of both alternatives (a key principle in disruptive innovation). He quotes A.G. Lafley in the book:

“We weren’t going to win if it was an “or”. Everybody can do “or”. That’s the way the world works. You trade things off but you’re not going to be the best in your industry. You are not going to win if you are in a trade-off game.”

Seeing the whole picture

One of the examples comes from IDEO’s work with Amtrak (which is also discussed in this article on design thinking), and their drive to understand not just the superficial performance of a product or service, but the emotional satisfaction that it provides within the total context of all interactions with the customer. For that reason, they employ a diverse range of talents, and emphasise the importance of stepping back from a problem rather than oversimplifying and overspecialising. If you focus too much on individual elements of a problem this will inevitably detract from finding the best overall solution (‘system thinking’ in the words of Russell Ackoff).

In the example, Amtrak were preparing to launch a new high-speed train service and asked IDEO to design the interior of the new coaches, seeking a railcar that was more attractive and functional than the interior of airliners (the primary competition). This was relatively easy to do (Amtrak’s existing cars were fairly poorly designed), but IDEO argued that Amtrak were missing a much larger problem with the whole customer experience, and that it was the total experience which discouraged use of Amtrak’s service and not the cars themselves (ie booking tickets, waiting in the stations, boarding procedures, etc). They identified 10 steps in the customer experience, of which riding in the car was the eighth (the steps were learning, planning, starting, entering, ticketing, waiting, boarding, riding, arriving and continuing).

Breadth and depth

When IDEO (or any smart employer) assess someone’s resume they look for ‘T-shaped’ skills. The T represents both a depth of knowledge and skills in a specific field combined with a breadth of interests and the ability to collaborate across many disciplines. The ability to apply knowledge and skills from multiple fields to problem solving is essential in interdisciplinary work teams and critical to creative thinking. Leaders like A.G. Lafley have such T-shaped skills and use their broad experience to deepen their mastery and also nurture creative thinking to find better solutions to business challenges.

The ability to see a problem from a range of perspectives does not make it more complex.  Rather it makes things simpler, as the world is usually highly filtered, and the meaning we create depends very much on the narratives that we have learnt to make sense of the world. If those narratives depend on our deep knowledge of a specific topic, then our narrative is already pre-determined by what we already know, and we fail to see what may be obvious to others.  As Epictetus said more than 2,000 years ago, “It is impossible to begin to learn that which we think we already know.”

It’s important to maximise what you learn from each new experience (and from as many experiences as possible), and as Peter Drucker said:

“One  always finds that the most obvious, the simplest, the clearest conclusion has not always been drawn except by a very small fraction of the practitioners. One always finds that the obvious is not seen at all. Perhaps this is simply saying that we never see the obvious as long as we take it for granted.”

Thinking differently

When you are faced with two options neither may be the most appealing solution, and that’s the time to think in a more integrated and holistic way. Roger Martin defines integrative thinking as:

“The ability to face constructively the tension of opposing ideas and, instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generate a creative resolution of the tension in the form of a new idea that contains elements of the opposing ideas but is superior to each.”

The ability to identify tension, and use it constructively is a key storytelling skill and the basis of a powerful tool for innovation based on mapping binary opposites (which I will write about in another article).

Roger Martin summarises the differences between conventional and integrative thinking in these ways.

  1. Focus on a limited consideration of features VS considering a much wider range of salient features
  2. Look at simple causes and effects VS considering multiple influences and non-linear causality
  3. Look sequentially at the pieces of a system VS visualising the whole system while working on individual parts
  4. Readily accept unattractive trade offs VS actively seek tensions and creative resolutions

What shape is your thinking?


The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking by Roger Martin (2007)

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