What is integrative thinking, and how can it help with collaboration?

Written by 
Dan Levy
October 1, 2021
Icons surrounding a mural
What is integrative thinking, and how can it help with collaboration?
Written by 
Dan Levy
October 1, 2021

The method called Integrative Thinking, coined by Jennifer Riel and Roger Martin in their book Creating Great Choices, involves taking different ideas and examining the problem they are trying to solve, with the end goal of opening up to new thinking and innovation.

People tend to think about difficult decision making in the workplace as a matter of choosing from a preselected list of options, usually handed down to them from management.

👉  Learn more about digital collaboration from facilitation experts like Dan in the MURAL Community! 

What is Integrated Thinking?

Integrated Thinking reframes decision making by moving it away from the process of settling on a compromise, towards actively breaking a challenge or opportunity down into its core elements and reassembling them into a new option that doesn’t compromise. Integrated Thinking allows two opposing solutions to be combined into a stronger option through a carefully designed and structured process.

Here we are going to break down the process into simple steps. Our goal is to provide enough of an overview so you can lead your team through the Integrative Thinking framework in your ideation process.

Click on the image above to get started using this template.


Integrated Thinking can help your team

Exploring, remixing, and testing new methods of working encourages people to have the confidence to take risks and think expansively to yield more interesting outcomes. By adding tools and frameworks such as Integrative Thinking, you can close the gap between wanting to solve the problem and the practical action needed to make it happen.

How to run an Integrative Thinking workshop

You can break the over process into two main phases with four big steps. The first two steps are designed to seek understanding and sense-making of the challenge. The second two are used to generate new models.

Step 1: Articulate the models

Understand the problem and options, holding space to clarify the two different and/or opposing models/ideas you wish to explore more deeply.

Define the problem

If you haven’t already, create a Problem Statement. Get the sentiment, it is important that your team feels it needs solving. A problem statement should clearly articulate:

  • Who is impacted (you can start quite broadly at this stage)?
  • What is the problem, opportunity, need, insight, or challenge?
  • Where is this happening (for context)?
  • Why is it worth solving? The big “why,” then the why from a business and stakeholder point of view in regard to value creation.
Related: How to identify the right problem to solve

 Identify potential answers to the problem

Here we invite your team to brainstorm and come up with as many ideas as possible. Whether from experience, competitors, or original concepts inspired by knowledge and insights. As a group, select the two extreme and/or opposing models or ideas (if more abstract). By transforming a general problem into a two-sided dilemma you can explore the fundamental tension between them and discover the best information to generate possibilities.

To make a decision we suggest using dot voting. For those unfamiliar with dot voting, it involves sticky dots and people silently voting on what they feel has the most potential. With platforms like Mural this is part of the functionality.

🚀  Make the brainstorming process easier with these effective brainstorming techniques.

Convey the opposing ideas clearly 

Take the time to condense each idea down to a simple, jargon free, model. Think of these ideas being so clear that an external party would be able to enter your meeting and quickly understand what they are. These should be simple enough that people understand the essence of each model, the fundamental components

Step 2: Examine the models

Once we have articulated the models the next step is to link this to the people who are impacted most. Creating a stakeholder analysis is a critical component of any human-centered design process. Not only does this keep the group honest. It also takes the conversation away from the organizational and sometimes biased view of value creation. Ideally you would have customer insights or data to refer. Or you can use a simple Stakeholder Analysis 2×2.

At this stage it is ok to be scrappy. Once you have some assumptions to test you can add more fidelity to your personas. You just want to get started. We suggest selecting a maximum of two people/cohorts. Your goal here is to focus on why each stakeholder might value the outcomes of each model. To do this as a group create a top five pro-pro list. To lead this discussion ask your group to consider:

  • How each model works for each person, what is its Job To Be Done?
  • How do the stakeholders feel about the existing solutions, how do they cause joy and frustration?
  • How do related outcomes impact stakeholders?

Once you have these stakeholder insights you will be ready to focus on how the models are similar and different, or where is the tension between them.

Determining what you most value from a model is a highly subjective task. Different people will value different aspects, this can help you determine benefits of each model because explaining why you value something can prompt deeper thinking and internal discovery. 

Related: Learn how to map your assumptions in Mural's guide to assumptions mapping.

Step 3: Explore the possibilities

After the models are defined and examined, the third stage signals a (big) shift to ideation. Here we use a structured process to remix and redesign with the goal of generating a new option(s). There are three approaches to achieve this. None are exclusive to Integrative Thinking. However, the power of the Integrative Thinking process is getting people to a mindset where they feel comfortable and confident to ideate with their team:

The Hidden Gem

We create a new model using only a building block from each model. Here we refer to the insights previously captured to take a component from each of the models.

The Double Down

Where we take one model and add only one benefit from the other. 

Hot tip: Rather than take a view of which is the most favorable, we encourage you to consider which components from each of the models you’d be loath to give up!

The Decomposition

Here we put the models together in a new way so that each model can be applied in whole to specific parts of the problem, e.g. how could they co-exist as part of a process? 

We suggest running through all of the approaches (The Hidden Gem, The Double Down, The Decomposition) until you have generated a number of possibilities. The point is to ask the question and see what comes of it as you never know where an idea could lead. 

Step 4: Assess the prototypes

The final stage is to test your prototype solution in order to discard or improve them. The simplest testing method is to share the ideas clearly with the people you included in the process — or if that fails —someone external to the group workshop. The goal is to learn if the new approach is a better experience, more effective solution, etc. Tests should be created to help you learn from the prototype (approach). Ensure you document all insights and present back to the team before deciding on the next steps.

There are three main outcomes you can expect from testing:

  1. Win: You have evidence to move from design into risk assessment and/or design implementation.
  2. A flawed success: You know you are on the right track, iterate and try again.
  3. An efficient failure: You get to fail fast and move on.
Note: This article originally appeared on Morespaceforlight

About the authors

About the authors

Dan Levy

Dan Levy

Dan is the Principal of “More Space for Light” an Australian-based consultancy that specializes corporate innovation and strategy.