What is Integrative Thinking?

Integrative Thinking is the ability to face constructively the tension of opposing ideas and, instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generate a creative resolution of the tension in the form of a new idea that contains elements of the opposing ideas but is superior to each.
— Roger Martin, The Opposable Mind (2007)
Opposable Mind Ball

When can we use Integrative Thinking?

A student argues with a classmate at recess; back in class, she asks that classmate to sit down to help her understand just why they disagreed. A teacher, struggling to refresh her practice after decades in the classroom, stops thinking about her classroom as place to teach and starts to think about her classroom as a think tank. Finally, a principal, working with her team in a brand new way, helps her teachers move past the age-old scheduling challenge between rotary and single-subject timetabling.

Each of these outcomes was unexpected, yet entirely unsurprising.

That student, teacher and principal found themselves in similar situations, in conflict, stuck between opposing views of the world. Integrative Thinking gave each one a new way to think about their situation and a pathway to a better answer.

Integrative Thinking is at once a mindset, a methodology and a pedagogy for problem solving. Fundamental to the practice is the ability to see our ideas for what they are — our own interpretation and simplification of the world around us — and only one piece of a much larger puzzle. In recognizing that our ideas only tell a part of the story, Integrative Thinking forces us to consider how other people interpret the same situations — especially when those other people have a different and opposing point of view. Like the student, teacher and principal above, a capacity for such consideration empowers Integrative Thinkers to uncover the unexpected and to create new worlds.


How Integrative Thinking Works

Integrative Thinkers start from a place of consideration — an openness to learning from other people’s ideas, especially those ideas that conflict with our own. This mindset allows them to approach challenges and problems from a unique position; where conventional thinkers opt to choose between points of view, Integrative Thinkers instead consider the value inherent in opposing models from more than one perspective. Understanding how each point of view is valuable lets Integrative Thinkers begin a problem solving journey with a rich menu of possibilities. 

After diving into opposing views of the world, Integrative Thinkers make sense of the tension between the ideas and reframe the problem to be solved in light of what they now see differently. Integrative Thinkers linger in this amorphous sense-making phase, diverging and converging as the situation requires and the tools demand.

With a clearer perspective on the problem to be solved, Integrative Thinkers then explore possibilities and iterate on prototype solutions. The tools of Integrative Thinking provide the structure and pathways for ideation, guiding thinkers toward fresh outcomes.

Unexpected outcomes can be uncomfortable; new ideas can seem unorthodox and dangerous if untested. So, at the end of the journey, Integrative Thinkers engage with others to test and experiment with the prototype solutions, building excitement for bringing idea to action.


Integrative Thinking in Education

At the I-Think Initiative, we work with educators to bring Integrative Thinking and approaches to innovation to classrooms. Fundamentally, we see our role as helping teachers to explore their stance in the classroom by providing tools that they can use to create experiences for their students.

The tools below foster a mindset that is ready to explore different and conflicting ideas. The tools help students to be clear about their own thinking and outline how the ideas of others can be used to enhance existing points of view. With deepened understanding comes renewed creativity, bolstered by a set of tools to stretch student thinking into unexpected places.

Brainstorming w: Post-Its.jpeg
Brainstorming w: Post-Its.jpeg

Exploring Opposing Models

Understanding opposing models is fundamental to enjoying and leveraging Integrative Thinking. We outline a framework for exploring the logic and benefits of models in tension.

Making thinking explicit

Making our thinking explicit let's us play with our thoughts, expand them, adjust them and make them robust. We can better collaborate and enjoy comfort with complexity.

Enabling creativity

Using a framework inspired by design thinking, we create an environment for our students to collaborate, build connections, and utilize constraints to their advantage.  We can foster creativity in every classroom.

Read the book

The opposable mind: How successful leaders win through Integrative THINKING

By Roger L. Martin

This book is the foundational theory for which the work of  the I-Think Initiative is based on. The leaders and thinkers explored in this book are the case studies that have helped us develop the tools of Integrative Thinking.