#589  Innovative Leader     Volume 12, Number 11        November 2003

Integrative Thinking
by Graham Douglas

Graham Douglas is a consultant in Integrative Thinking and author of The Revolution of Minds! and the SOARA (Satisfying, Optimum, Achievable Results Ahead) Process of Integrative Thinking. www.integrative-thinking.com.

Most people normally address a problem by using critical thinking; the type of thinking that our education has drilled into our heads.  That is, you:

    Break the problem down into parts.

    Look for past data about each of the parts.

    Analyze that data for trends.

    Check what others have done in similar circumstances.

    Do some brainstorming or use some other technique to come up with ideas in the context of these data and trends.

    Test these ideas with some "what if" analyses.

    Settle on the course of action that is best supported by your investigation.

    Rely on existing reporting systems to monitor progress.

When you are thinking critically, you will be reasoning by manipulating symbols representing what you know about the problem.  It's as though your mind were a computer, unconnected with the remainder of your body and your environment. You will be limiting yourself to what is known in the context of the problem. You will not be very creative.

The effects of this on our lives and work include:

    People who are predisposed to be less comfortable with manipulating symbols tend to become alienated from the better justifiers.          

   Power tends to lie with the better justifiers.

    As justifications become more specialized the difficulty of communicating increases and trust decreases.

    We tend to become locked into our justifications.

    We make a habit of being critical first, then thinking constructively, or not at all.

    We continue doing what has worked in the past even when circumstances change.

    Critical thinking based on different, crude and rigid categorizations often leads to unresolved conflict in groups and organizations. This unresolved conflict can surface later and undermine the group or organization.

    Similarly, as individuals we can be left with unresolved internal conflict.

    All this unresolved conflict leads to cruelty, unhappiness and inefficiency and hinders our creativity and performance.

Integrative Thinking

Integrative thinking will overcome these difficulties. We need to use our integrative mind of which our critical mind is a part.

Extensive research has shown:

    Our reasoning is influenced by our body's interaction within itself and with its physical, social and cultural environment.

    Much of our reasoning is done when we are not conscious of it being done.

    Over a lifetime of experiences, we develop a number of prototypes that are reflected in patterns in our brains.

    It is difficult to change these prototypes, so solving novel and complex problems in a creative way involves redeploying prototypes from another domain to the novel domain.

    The more prototypes we have (the broader and deeper our knowledge) and the greater our ability to trigger those prototypes, the easier it is for us to creatively address novel and complex problems.

    We tend to be simplifiers because we can keep only about three to four items in our short-term memory while we are working on other information.

This is what you do when you think integratively:

    Wonder about the problem against your lifetime of experience and training.

    Imagine how things might turn out (create a narrative) if you took certain directions.

    Let you mind explore the problem by sleeping on it.

    Wake up with a new approach to the problem.

    Go with your gut feeling to implement that new approach.

    Keep thinking about the approach and how it is working out because it is your creation.

    Sense and respond to further opportunities as they arise.

When you are engaged in integrative thinking, you will be giving your mind a chance to make connections between what you know in other fields and the context of the problem. This is the essential feature of creativity.

We all are capable of being better integrative thinkers but the emphasis on training our critical minds has tended to make us put critical thinking first.  So, to improve integrative thinking requires conscious effort. Here are some tips to improve your integrative thinking:

     Memorize some general categories to help trigger connections in your mind; for example, people, market, product, money, physical, social and cultural environment.

    Think integratively more often so you habitually make connections to create a whole new picture rather than habitually break down an old picture into its parts and put it together again with a "facelift."

     Wonder, from many angles, about what you have and what you want.  Problem solving is simply the negotiating of change from what you have to what you want.

    Create a sensible narrative connecting your wonderings.

    Manage your experiences in acting out the narrative. 

With uncertainty and risk the normal, you will benefit by solving both work and personal problems through integrative thinking.  Think about it!

Copyright Graham Douglas 2003

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