The Power of Integrative Thinking

Integrative ThinkingIn her classic book, The Change Masters, Harvard Business School Professor, Rosabeth Kanter, found that the key difference between truly innovative change leaders and those who focused only on incremental change came down to two different mindsets. The innovative leaders – those who succeeded in leading change projects that crossed boundaries and addressed formerly unseen organizational opportunities – had an “integrative” mindset. Those who focused only on incremental improvements had what she called a “segmentalist” mindset.  The same was true for companies. More innovative companies have organizational cultures that are more supportive of integrative thinking and leadership.

Whereas “segmentalist” leaders are tactical and focus on making incremental changes within the boundaries of their authority, integrative thinkers are more strategic, see how issues are connected, and are more skilled in leading cross-functional change initiatives.

Roger Martin, Dean of the Rotman School of Management in Toronto and author of The Opposable Mind – another student of leadership through the years – arrived at a similar conclusion:  The secret to effective leadership can’t be found simply in how leaders behave. The success of outstanding leaders, he says, lies in the fact that they are “integrative thinkers.” He contrasts these leaders with “conventional thinkers,” whose thought processes match those that Kanter called “segmentalist.”

The extensive research I conducted, captured in the rich stories in Leadership Agility, builds on these findings. My focus was on what differentiates leaders who are highly effective in leading under conditions of accelerating change  unprecedented pace of change and increasingly interdependence.  However, while Kanter and Martin each sorted their findings into one of two classifications, we found a spectrum of stages through which leaders develop more integrative thinking – and related capacities.  These stages are called “levels of leadership agility.”

At the conventional/segmentalist end of the Leadership Agility spectrum is the Expert level of agility. Leaders’ thinking becomes more integrative with each new stage (Achiever and then Catalyst).  The thought process of Achiever-level leaders matches in many ways what Kanter and Martin both call “integrative thinking.” At the Catalyst level, which we found to be the most effective in today’s turbulent environment, leaders develop an even more robust capacity for integrative thinking.

[I discovered that integrative thinking isn’t the only capacity needed in today’s world for highly effective leadership.  To name just one, another essential capacity that evolves in stages is stakeholder agility, the ability to put oneself accurately and empathetically in the “shoes” of one’s stakeholders. For more about the capacities that develop at different levels of leadership agility, see the Leadership Agility white paper].

These insights and many more are woven into our 2-day action-learning workshop, the Leadership Agility Change Lab and our next-generation assessment tool, the Leadership Agility 360.

At ChangeWise, we’ve used this framework of agility levels to design assessments, leadership workshops, and coaching and consulting services that help leaders use more integrative thinking to achieve needed business results.  (See client stories and results).

Image41Bill Joiner is co-author of the award-winning book, Leadership Agility.  He is President and resident thought leader of ChangeWise, a firm with international reach that specializes in leadership consulting, coaching and training; team development; and organizational change consulting.

Follow Bill Joiner on Twitter – @agileleader


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not of The HR Gazette or its team members.

Author: Bill Joiner

Bill Joiner is co-author of the award-winning book, Leadership Agility. He is CEO, resident thought-leader, and a Principal Consultant at ChangeWise, a firm with international reach that specializes in leadership consulting, coaching and training; team development; and organizational change consulting. Follow Bill Joiner on Twitter – @leaderagility

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