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If you do not adapt, if you do not learn, you will wither, you will die.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Let’s do away with ‘either-or’ thinking

From a pretty early age, I never much liked the either-or situation. It’s not that I don’t like making choices, it’s not that I can’t handle a ‘no’ (although I do admit I prefer the yes), nor that I’m necessarily spoiled. I just always felt that the many situations that were presented to me as choices, don’t have to be a choice-situation if you use a different mindset and think creatively. Still to this day, I prefer the bigger picture where different options can be combined or turned into something else, a third option, often better than any of the choices that seemed the only possibilities.

I recently read the book The Opposable Mind – Winning Through Integrative Thinking
by Roger Martin (2009) which talks about exactly this: how to move away from the
either-or proposition and from trade-offs. “We can either keep costs down, or we can invest in better stores and service. Either we can serve our shareholders, or we can serve our customers or communities.” Martin argues that these choices don’t have to be, and that they are limiting, stemming from a lack of integrative thinking. Martin describes integrative thinking as a way past the binary limits of either-or. Integrative thinking  “shows that there is a way to integrate the advantages of one solution without canceling out the advantages of an alternative solution”.

If you don’t feel forced to make a choice, you stand a bigger chance of remaining open to more than one option and, possibly, to options that you were not able to see before. A similar line of thinking in the area of problem-solving: If you are able to define the problem differently than you have before, or differently from how others define the problem, you can generate alternatives that others can’t imagine and that you couldn’t imagine before. I don’t know about you, but this seems very attractive to me, because you wouldn’t want to limit yourself to boxed-in thinking. You don’t want to confine yourself to the results of a tunnel vision and to set assumptions that seem to force you to choose one option before another, one solution before another.

Of course, I live in the same world as you do, so there are more choices to make every day than you and I might enjoy. That’s reality, and often a good reality. Choices, priorities, focus –they’re all important in business and beyond, and sometimes they’re even life savers. But your mindset, the way you think, whether you’re willing and capable to take the opposite position as well as your capacity to think in terms of ‘yes, and’ rather than ‘well, but’, this all affects the quality of your reasoning and your decisions, and thus the quality of your outcomes. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not that much different from most people. In my younger years (and not just then) I fervently defended my own position and my personal point of view. I stuck to my guns, even if I knew better. Winning the argument seemed more important than finding new truths and different perspectives. What I’ve learned through life and in my profession, however, is to increasingly question myself, my beliefs and assumptions, and my line of thinking. I’ve learned to work to integrate them with opposing views. Some people call this integrative thinking, like Roger Martin in his book. Stephen Covey calls it Third Alternative Thinking in his book with the same title. Whatever you want to call it, it is powerful to think in terms of ‘yes, and’. The revised procedures at the CIA are similar, and the CIA calls it differently yet again, but it’s the same principle.

A little more on the book that inspired me: The Opposable Mind – Winning Through Integrative Thinking by Martin. The author describes leaders whom he believes to be great integrative thinkers such as Four Seasons Hotels CEO Sharp and John Sterman, MIT expert in system thinking. The latter argues that we mistakenly tend to think that what we see is what’s really there and that our first impulse is often to determine which model represents reality and which one is unreal and wrong. After we’ve established which model (and who) is wrong, we then campaign against the idea that we reject. But in rejecting one model as unreal, we miss out on all the value that can be realized by holding in mind two opposing models at the same time, states Martin. Characteristic for integrative thinkers is that they “don’t take sides”. “It’s not a choice of this model or that model. They are all wrong. See what you can do to combine those multiple perspectives and enhance the quality of your mental model. You can see two opposing models as hypotheses rather than the truth, which gives you the emotional and intellectual latitude to weigh the merits and drawbacks of both models without needing to defend one and declare the other false”.

Martin, in my opinion, is in many respects a gestalt psychology–thinker and a system-thinker: “You always have to keep in mind the whole, when working on the individual parts. There are no finance solutions, or marketing solutions, or HR solutions, only business solutions”. The question rises why most people, consciously or not, shy away from integrating thoughts and possible solutions? According to Martin this is because integrative thinking leaves them with a much more complex situation or problem than they had before with many more relationships and interactions between aspects. Most people tend to shy away from such a complicated situation.

Just as is one of the premises in Neuro-Linguistic Programming, in Martin’s integrative thinking it’s important to realize that anything we think is real, is actually only just a model of reality, just one possible model of reality, and that model is probably imperfect in some important respects. In NLP terms: the map is not the territory. Opposing models are the richest source of new insight into a situation or problem. You learn nothing from someone who sees the problem exactly as you do even though I acknowledge that the confirmation and support that you receive from a ‘think-alike’ can feel pretty good. The agreement and reinforcement are gratifying but they certainly don’t enhance your thinking processes and your decisions.

Martin’s first step in integrative thinking is generally my starting point in any intervention, especially in personal coaching programs: examining personal beliefs and determining how and why you maintain them. In looking at problems and a wide range of approaches, make sure that you find arguments to support statements about the approach, as well as finding arguments to undermine each approach (or support an opposing model).

There is of course more to Martin’s book than I summarized here, but it boils down to moving from either-or thinking to integrative thinking, which is very appealing to me even though it often creates a challenge. Organizational psychologist Karl Weick, when talking about wise people: “The people we consider wise have both the courage to act on their beliefs and the humility to realize that they might be wrong and must be prepared to change their beliefs and actions when better information comes along.” The right kind of doubt and the right amount of doubt helps ensure that you get things right or at least that you get things better. It helps you listen and watch for evidence that you might be wrong. It helps invite others to challenge your conclusions which is fundamentally different from hanging on to your beliefs and conclusions with all your might. So my questions to you are: Are you up for the challenge of exploring models that you would normally defend yourself against in order to ward of challenges and criticism? Are you up for the challenge of speculating about the other person’s logic and reasoning, possibly coming to a different conclusion than you were originally heading for?  

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