Rethinking the Rulebook with Integrative Thinking

By Cynthia Short

Leaders, lean in. It’s time to challenge the gospel of business as usual. You’ve likely heard whispers of Integrative Thinking, a concept pioneered by Roger Martin, former Dean of the Rotman School of Management. But what exactly does Integrative Thinking entail, and why should it be at the forefront of your strategic arsenal?

What Is Integrative Thinking? 

It’s more than a buzzword; it’s a radical approach to problem-solving that insists we can do better than choosing between option A or B. Instead, it suggests creating a new option C, superior to either original choice. This methodology is about embracing and merging conflicting ideas to uncover innovative solutions, a critical pivot from the “best practice” dogma that might just be anchoring you to outdated success metrics (source.)

Old Ways Won’t Open New Doors

Here’s the deal: Sticking to the same old strategies in a rapidly evolving business landscape is like using a flip phone to tweet. It’s quaint, but you’re not going to get the results you want. Integrative Thinking nudges you off the well-worn path, daring you to blend opposing ideas into innovative solutions that traditional methods can’t touch.

Why Integrative Thinking Wins

Beyond Compromise

While conventional wisdom often leads to a middling middle ground, Integrative Thinking propels you towards solutions that don’t just meet in the middle but set a new standard.

Adaptability Over Rigidity

In a world that prizes agility, this approach equips you to pivot with purpose, turning the clash of ideas into your competitive edge.

Unified Vision

It’s about crafting strategies that resonate across your organization, rallying the troops around a vision that’s both inclusive and groundbreaking.

The Lightbulb Moment

Think of the tension between opposing ideas not as a problem to be solved but as a puzzle to be embraced. This isn’t about picking sides; it’s about using the friction between those sides to spark something extraordinary. Integrative Thinking doesn’t just add another tool to your kit; it transforms how you see the entire workshop. Here are four key steps to help you harness the power of Integrative Thinking:

  1. Identify the Contradictions: Begin by identifying the conflicting ideas or viewpoints at play. These contradictions may initially appear as obstacles, but they are the raw materials from which innovative solutions are forged. Embrace the tension between these opposing forces and recognize them not as roadblocks but as opportunities for creative exploration.
  2. Seek Common Ground: Rather than viewing conflicting ideas as irreconcilable, search for common ground or underlying principles that can serve as a foundation for integration. Look beyond the surface differences and identify shared objectives, values, or motivations that can provide a basis for collaboration.
  3. Generate Options: With a solid understanding of the contradictions and commonalities at hand, brainstorm a range of potential solutions that incorporate elements from both sides of the divide. Encourage divergent thinking and explore unconventional ideas that challenge traditional assumptions. Remember, the goal is not to settle for a compromise but to generate new possibilities that transcend the limitations of the original options.
  4. Synthesize a Novel Solution: Finally, synthesize the best elements of the generated options into a cohesive and innovative solution that addresses the underlying tensions while maximizing value creation. This synthesis may require creative thinking, experimentation, and iteration as you refine and combine different elements to achieve the desired outcome. The resulting solution should not only resolve the initial contradictions but also offer a superior alternative that exceeds the capabilities of either side on its own.

By following these four steps, you can transform the friction between opposing ideas into a catalyst for innovation and discovery. Integrative Thinking becomes more than just a theoretical concept—it becomes a practical framework for approaching complex challenges and unlocking new opportunities for growth and success. So, the next time you encounter conflicting viewpoints, don’t shy away from the tension; embrace it as an invitation to think integratively and illuminate the path to extraordinary solutions.

Integrative Thinking In Action

In a podcast episode titled “A New Way To Think” on “Wisdom From The Top” with Guy Raz, Roger Martin discusses Procter & Gamble (P&G) as a prime example of integrative thinking. He highlights Alan Lafley’s tenure as P&G’s CEO and the pivotal decision he faced regarding R&D investment, ultimately showcasing Lafley’s innovative resolution and is a perfect example of integrative thinking. 


Procter & Gamble (P&G), a global consumer goods corporation, faced a critical juncture when its CEO, Alan Lafley, took the helm. Preceding Lafley’s tenure, P&G’s innovation strategy had led to escalating research and development (R&D) spending, causing financial distress as results failed to meet expectations. Wall Street’s discontent heightened as the company grappled with diminishing technological differentiation and declining profitability.


Lafley inherited a dilemma: whether to appease Wall Street by curbing innovation spending to bolster short-term profitability or to sustain high R&D investments to secure long-term competitiveness. Previous attempts to address this issue, including the firing of the former CEO, had not resolved the underlying tension between innovation and financial performance.


Rather than succumbing to binary choices, Lafley introduced a paradigm shift in P&G’s innovation approach. He questioned the conventional wisdom that innovation was a monolithic concept and proposed a nuanced perspective. Lafley posited that innovation comprised two distinct components: invention and commercialization.


Recognizing P&G’s limitations in invention compared to smaller, agile entities, Lafley advocated for a hybrid approach termed “Connect and Develop.” This strategy entailed sourcing 50% of innovations externally, leveraging the company’s robust commercialization capabilities. By tapping into a diverse network of innovators beyond P&G’s walls, the company aimed to amplify its innovation pipeline while mitigating costs.


The adoption of Connect and Develop yielded transformative results for P&G. Innovation levels surged, propelled by a diversified influx of external ideas. Simultaneously, innovation costs decreased, bolstering the company’s financial health. Lafley’s integrative thinking example  not only reconciled the tension between innovation and profitability but also positioned P&G as an industry leader in adaptive innovation practices.

Lessons Learned

The P&G case underscores the imperative of reevaluating entrenched assumptions in innovation strategy. By reframing innovation as a multifaceted endeavor, organizations can harness external expertise while maximizing internal strengths. Lafley’s strategic foresight and willingness to challenge orthodoxies epitomize the transformative potential of integrative problem-solving in navigating complex business landscapes.


The Procter & Gamble case exemplifies the power of visionary leadership and innovative thinking in driving organizational resilience and growth. By transcending traditional dichotomies, P&G emerged stronger, more agile, and better positioned to navigate future disruptions in the dynamic consumer goods market.

Striking the Right Balance

Let’s be clear: Tossing out every rule isn’t the goal of Integrative Thinking. The aim is to know when to adhere to the playbook and when to write your own rules. Integrative Thinking is your invitation to be both an artist and an analyst, blending creativity with logic to navigate the complexities of change.

So, before you reach for the standard operating procedure, pause. Ask yourself if there’s a better, perhaps less conventional, path that could lead not just to success but to breakthroughs.

Ready to Lead the Charge?

This is about more than just thinking outside the box; it’s about realizing the box was only ever a suggestion. Integrative Thinking offers a pathway to bold leadership, one that merges the wisdom of experience with the vision to reimagine what’s possible.

It’s your move. Will you play it safe, or are you ready to challenge the status quo and lead your organization into uncharted territory?