When we confront a complex problem, our impulse is often to try and simplify. We try to figure out what kind of a problem is. We separate it out into different concerns. Finally, we try to make a decision. We look at the options, weigh the pros and cons, make some trade-offs, and hold our nose and pick one.
Integrative thinking, though, as described by Roger L. Martin in The Opposable Mind, looks at things differently.
An integrative thinker, Martin writes, rejects the idea that decision-making means making trade-offs between discrete options. Instead of choosing A or B, they create a C.
The most important quality of an integrative thinker is that they embrace messiness. An integrative thinker wants to dig into the full complexity of the problem. A problem that's been simplified has been edited; that means that they're unable to see its true nature. They have a broader sense than most about what might be the salient features of the problem, and look for the unexpected connections that others might miss. They think about causality in a different way, as well. A doesn't always flow to B; A might flow to B, and to C, and to X, and sometimes to Y—all at once. They look for non-linear and multidirectional relationships between information.
Second, an integrative thinker is also reluctant to try to subdivide problems into separate concerns. They're wary of specialization, for instance. Specialization, after all, comes with it a bias toward seeing problems in a certain way—to specific mental models or tools for thought. Specialization narrows our perspective on what is salient. This might feel efficient, but it limits our ability to solve the biggest, most complex problems. When we think like a marketer, when we think like an ops person, when we think like an engineer first, we lose sight of the big picture context around the problem.
Instead, an integrative thinker considers multiple different mental models. They recognize that a mental model is a useful tool, inasmuch as it helps put raw data into a coherent narrative order. But they always represent a particular view of the world. The meaning we get from a mental model comes at the expense of information.
So rather than stop with one mental model, an integrative thinker will deeply several and put them into conversation with one another. If they're antagonistic, so much the better! The integrative thinker won't reject a mental model that contradicts their view; instead, they ask, "Is this showing me something I've missed?" They look to resolve tension between perspectives rather than accepting unpleasant trade-offs.
Finally, an integrative thinker practices what Martin calls "generative thinking." Martin suggests that Western education models over-emphasize deductive reasoning, focused on what should be based on existing frameworks and models, or on inductive reasoning, which infers probable general rules from empirical observation. Generative thinking, though, is closer to abductive reasoning, which infers new hypotheses and theories that can later be assessed.