Integrative Thinking:Leveraging the Opposable Mind

That which opposes produces a benefit  – Heraclitus
The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and  still retain the ability to function. – F Scott Fitzgerald

According to one of the greatest minds ever , Aristotle ; Excellence is attained by avoiding extremes

One should for example be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.

The author starts off with the argument that human beings are unique due to the presence of the opposable thumb. This confers on its own various advantages such as writing, painting a picture , guiding a catheter through an artery to unblock it.All of these activities would be impossible without the tension that is created between the thumb and the fingers. Without this tension , we would not have been able to develop these physical traits and the accompanying cognition. Similarly we have the opposable mind that is capable of holding two (or more) conflicting ideas in constructive tension . The ability to use the opposable mind is an advantage in any era .However  in our information saturated world ,every new piece of information threatens to complicate a pattern that (seemingly) is already staggeringly complex. The traditional tendency is to pick the first model that comes to mind , this is fraught with danger. In business and in life we often look at decisions as a series of either-or propositions or trade offs.

Integrative thinking tries to show us a way beyond.

In the vein of Benjamin Franklin who believed that virtues and skills can be cultivated through diligence and hard work, the author proclaims that the opposable mind is within every body’s reach. It can be developed by anybody who wants to use it and with use , one will develop a capacity for creating solutions that would otherwise not be evident. When these techniques are faithfully pursued , the student develops a habit of parallel or complex thought . Instead of a simple succession of thought in a linear order , this procedure is complex and the mind appears possessed of the power of simultaneous vision from different standpoints .

According to the author, decision making has 4 parts , they are listed as follows

1) Salience  – Is list of features that seem most relevant to the subject.

2) Causality – This is how we consider things related to each other , a little map in our heads. A causal map is an array of causal relationships .

3) Architecture  – Is basically the sequence of basing your decisions off the causal map.

and 4) Resolution. – Develop a solution

The author defines the components of Integrative thinking as

1) Stance – The way one views the world or who you are and what you are after

2) Tools – Our theories , principles , rules of thumb would be our conceptual toolkit.

3) Experiences – This is where our stance and tools meet the real world. Experience enables us, to hone our sensitivities and skills. Sensitivity is defined as the ability to detect variations from the norm whereas skill is the ability to execute the norm . Skill would be carving the wooden elephant hundreds of times consistently and sensitivity would be detecting the minutiae that make each elephant unique.

He proceeds to introduce a framework for integrative thinking as follows

1)Integrative Thinker’s Stance

a) Whatever models exist , they are not complete and do not reflect reality completely

b) Conflicting models , styles and approaches are not to be feared but to be leveraged

c) Better models exist that are waiting to be discovered.

d) I am capable of finding a better model

e) I am comfortable wading into complexity to ferret out a new and better model

f) With time, I will find what I want .

patience is a virtue,seldom found in women,NEVER found in men.

a) Modal (Generative) Reasoning – Traditional education teaches us deductive and inductive logic

2) Integrative Thinker’s Toolkit –

skills . Deduction is where we infer a conclusion based on predefined frameworks , for example the last man out of the toilet probably had beans for lunch. Induction is where we have seen the same experience over and over again for example if you play with fire then you get hurt . While deductive and inductive skills show us exactly what is  the issue, modal reasoning shows us what could be the issue.An example of modal reasoning could be the discovery of penicillin . Prior to Alexander Fleming it was commonly thought (via deductive reasoning) that antiseptics would kill internal infections. Through a lucky accident and Fleming’s willingness to look beyond what was commonly accepted, the world ended up with penicillin.  Almost every great innovation stems from modal reasoning. for the author , though I firmly believe that there are many more models available. For those interested in learning about multiple models, I recommend the online lectures of Professor Sanjay Bakshi,Charlie Munger’s Poor Charlie’s Almanack , Herbert Simon’s Models of my life.

in our understanding by searching for the other point of view i.e we seek common ground. This has the effect of enabling generative reasoning and produce more robust causal modelling

3) Integrative Thinker’s Experiences –

The integrative thinker is aware that we tend to accumulate experiences that reinforce the stances and tools that we start with . Stances guide the acquisition of tools and tools guide the sort of experiences we have. People who believe that their existing models equate to reality and fear opposing models are not likely to believe that better models exist . They will construct the model using deductive and inductive logic , build highly simplified models and advocate their own point of view rather than dispassionately considering multiple points of view. The experiences that they gather will tend to reinforce their initial stance and suggest that they have all the tools that they need thus propagating a vicious circle. The corollary to this is that you are aware that the models are not adequate , so there exists a better model that can be found by wading into complexity . They will use generative reasoning , causal modelling and assertive inquiry. The experiences that they gain building new models will reinforce their initial stance and they will increase the tools in their toolkit.

We shape our tools and afterwards those tools shape us – Marshall McLuhan

He discusses several cases where integrative thinking saved or created an industry . One of the examples he provided was A.G. Lafley of P&G . In 2000 when he took over , P&G was hemorrhaging money and there were two opposing camps, one that defined innovation as the lifeblood of P&G and the other wanted to cut costs . Rather than choose one or the other , Lafley went with both options in a way that defied the imagination through ‘open’ innovation and turned P&G around.

According to the author , Mastery enables originality and originality is a generative condition for Mastery. In my view that is the single most important advice in the book , regardless of whether we are convinced by his argument of the need for integrative thinking .

Mastery is not gained by accident but by planned and structure repetition of a consistent type of experience.

One needs to make a plan for developing the skills and have strategic milestones to measure progress , a structure for observing and reflecting on the results . If you do not have a plan, then you could develop bad habits which hamper your progress . An extremely influential book called Flow by Mihaly Csikszenmihalyi reinforces the above concepts very elegantly .

Practice is not something that you do after you have become a master, it is something you have to do to become a master.

b) Causal Modelling – System Dynamics and Radial Metaphors seem to be the models of choice

c) Assertive Inquiry – This is used to explore models that oppose our own. Basically we fill in gaps

Originality requires a willingness to experiment, spontaneously in response to novel situations and openness to try something different from the original plan.

The author finally gives us tips for exploring our own thinking

1) Document your thinking, questions and answers . Create an audit trail and see what other tools need to be improved to get the right answers.

2) Audit and record the logic of the decisions and compare the results to the outcome they predicted. If the results are valid then the stance and the tools are validated else the tools need to be improved.

Mark Twain admonished us almost a century ago “To a Man with a Hammer, Everything Looks Like a Nail”.

However lethargy and complexity have conspired to cause us to ignore that wisdom. This wanton disregard leads to an impoverishment of critical thinking facilities that the author is trying to address . The structure of innovative thought is extremely difficult (if not impossible) to document, so all we can do is introduce behaviors in ourselves and others that will create the right conditions for inspiration to strike so while I am not convinced that his approach is perfect ,it is a definitely a step in the right direction.

This essay is inspired by the book

The opposable Mind – How successful leaders win through Integrative thinking by Roger Martin

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