What Is The Better Answer?

Decisions. The higher you go, the more difficult they become. President Barack Obama once said, “… by the time something reaches my desk, that means it’s really hard. Because if it were easy, somebody else would have made the decision and somebody else would have solved it.”  

Often there are no right or wrong answers. There are only better – or less bad –answers. Leaders might face choices that require bad things to happen to achieve a common good. Or they may be pressed to make a decision even though they lack accurate or tested information.  

One way to approach these situations is to use integrative thinking, an idea explored in the book The Opposable Mind by Roger L. Martin, a former dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. Integrative thinking is the ability to take two (or more) opposing ideas and, instead of choosing one over the other, create a new idea containing elements of the others. 

We See This All The Time In Marketing 

In content marketing, I often see leaders faced with tough choices – and choosing better answers. I’m working with one director of content strategy at a large B2C furniture and accessories company with product brands that are suffering market-share decline. She faces demands to refocus editorial on “low-cost” and “economic-driven” decisions about furniture and accessories from one corner of the company and simultaneous demands to focus on how the product materials are innovative, green, and longer-lasting.  

Both strategies were right. Both were wrong. And the director of content strategy chose neither. She chose a better answer – repositioning the editorial strategy around the idea of delivering what she called “superior and informed design.” She relentlessly communicated, through their content marketing hub, the company’s passion for design. The content demonstrated how amazing designs delivered through innovative materials lets the company provide products with a longer lifespan for less cost than their competitors can.

She succeeded in weaving together a better answer that pulled the best elements from both ideas.

It\’s Not About Trade-Offs

Integrative thinking isn’t about compromise or trade-offs. The conventional model of making a business decision is to look at two opposing ideas and list the pros and cons or the trade-offs each would necessitate. That list drives our decision of which to choose or how to alter one of the options to hedge our bets.

Integrative thinking is aspirational. As Professor Martin writes in his book, “Conventional thinking is a self-reinforcing lesson that life is about accepting unattractive and unpleasant trade-offs. The conventional thinker prefers to accept the world as it is. The integrative thinker welcomes the challenge of shaping the world for the better.”

Sometimes the need for integrative thinking seems so maddeningly obvious, we want to scream, “It’s not just right or wrong! Why do we have to go all one way or the other? We deserve better answers!”

We Need Integrative Thinking!

This week, that need felt maddening enough to me that I contacted Professor Martin and asked him why so few of our leaders take an integrative thinking approach. He responded with a long, thoughtful note in which one idea stood out to me. He said that one of the keys to integrative thinking is that you have to want a better answer.  This is a wonderfully provocative question when it comes to making decisions where we are looking at the least bad outcome: Do we really want a better answer?

For some people, looking at the answer from the perspective of who is proposing it or from the self-centered belief of what the answer should be is more important than coming to a better answer. That leads to worse answers ­– and all the wrong decisions.

It’s your story. Tell it well.

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