Integrative Thinking

Writing about thinking is never easy. Most of our thoughts have a component to them that is somewhat intangible, somewhat subvocal and inexpressible. But being able to talk about thought processes and translate complex thoughts into words is a core skill in communication. And being able to talk about the best ways to think, that’s a step towards being able to think in those ways.

Today I’m going to talk about two related ideas: integrative thinking, and integrative complexity. Integrative thinking is a way of thinking that takes ideas that are supposedly contradictory and finds a tertiary path that combines the two ideas. Integrative complexity is a psychometric measurement that quantifies how our thinking recognises and integrates different perspectives, and understands the complex multidirectional causal chains.

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise. F Scott Fitzgerald

I first came across the concepts involved in integrative thinking when I read this quote as a teenager. This quote became a self-defining feature of mine, and I would seek out contradictory opinions that I could hold and defend. In hindsight I think that this is one of the reasons I decided to study philosophy, a topic based on the idea of creating contradictions, as well as on finding contradictions and resolving them in a creative way.


One such example of a contradiction in philosophy is the frequently discussed topic of free will – do we have free will, or are all our actions just the consequence of our environment? Initially these two options are in direct contradiction, but when we take time to look at what each of these options mean we start to understand how they can fit together.

To have free will is for the origin of our actions to be within us. And for our actions to be a consequence of the environment, all that is required is for there to be a strict causal chain from our environment to our actions. These two options are compatible. There can be a causal chain from our environment to our behavior (this chain is often called biology, chemistry, or physics) and that chain routes via our desires and internal wants.

To think about it in another way, our desires dictate what we do, giving us free will, while our desires are shaped by the environment. We reject the “either or” and create an entirely new option, refusing to accept the contradiction.

When asked whether he thought strategy or execution was more important, Jack Welch responded: “I don’t think it’s an ‘either-or.’”


I first learnt about Integrative Complexity (IC) while studying Psychology. I learnt that the IC of a text can be scored by trained raters to measure the degree of differentiation (the degree to which different perspectives are recognised) and the degree of integration (connection of those perspectives and the the interactions between them). High IC signals complex, moderated thought, and low IC signals singlemindedness and thinking in black and white terms.

Low IC has been shown to predict conflict in areas of tension, and increases in IC has been shown to predict resolution to conflict. There are also therapies of sorts that use the concept of IC to help groups of at-risk people avoid radicalisation.

In my option, IC is a measurement of integrative thinking applied to social issues and to conflict between social groups. Increasing IC shows the ability to consider opposite points of view about moral issues and behaviours, and integrative thinking allows people to understand where these thoughts and feelings come from to find a common base or starting point for further discussion.


Roger Martin helped to popularise and create the idea of integrative thinking, and has authored many books on the topic, such as The Opposable Mind and Creating Great Choices. Martin talks about integrative thinking in the context of leadership. Within his framework, integrative thinking provides the opportunity to diverge from obvious choices and to avoid common dichotomies.

One common example of a leader with a valuable thinking style is Elon Musk. While Musk might not do much integration of different perspectives, he does elucidate his process brilliantly. Musk describes his process as thinking from first principles. He starts with the basic truths that we can be certain of, and works from those to create facts that we can trust. This is the process used in mathematics and Musk’s own field, physics.

But thinking from first principles is only part of the integrative thinking story. Integrative thinking starts by taking the contradictory statements and finding their common first principles. Working up the chain of reasoning, we can find the source of the difference between the two statements. Once there, we can reason from those principles to find a new unique solution.

Procter & Gamble CEO A.G. Lafley—when asked how he came up with a turnaround plan that drew on both cost cutting and investment in innovation—said: “We weren’t going to win if it were an ‘or.’ Everybody can do ‘or.’”

Integrative thinking is also incredibly useful at home and among friends. There is no better way to settle a disagreement than to find the root of the disagreement. Note, I do not mean the cause, or the thing that kicked the disagreement off, but the key difference in belief that the cause the two parties involved to reason in different directions.


One of the big issues in politics at the moment is that there is very little integrative thinking happening. Politicians (in the US anyway) are seeing arguments from their side and their side only, and refusing to reason about it. There is no way for compromise to occur, no way for a third option to develop, when politicians refuse to see the other side’s statements as valid.

To close the divide that we see in society between the left and the right, we need to increase the integrative complexity of the language used in political discussion. Starting with politicians themselves and TV presenters would be a good place to start, but starting with ourselves would be easier. Each of us has the responsibility to consider arguments from outside our own party lines.

We should regularly consider opinions that we can’t say, and try to interpret them favourably, trying to find some kind of logical platform for them. (Paul Graham has an excellent article on “what you can’t say” which I highly recommend.)

Finally, to increase integrative complexity in politics, we need to remember that it is okay to not have a concrete opinion. It is okay to hold conflicting opinions on political matters and to not always know which is “right”. After all, that is the sign of first rate intelligence.

What to do?

I’m not going to pretend I’m an expert on integrative thinking – that would be Roger Martin. However, I can suggest two things that can help you to increase the amount of integrative thinking that you do.

First, ask questions to find assumptions. Find those first principles that have guided you to the discussion and then question them. For example, if you can’t agree whether to have Chinese food or Italian food for dinner, start by questioning whether or not you need to eat the same thing. Or instead of asking which movie to go out and watch, break down the problem into what to do with your time that doesn’t cost more than £20. You might discover that going to the theatre might be more enjoyable, and fall under that cost limit.

Second, reject absolutes. Any time you read or hear an absolute statement, consider it carefully. Anyone who states facts in an absolute manner is likely wrong. For example, anyone writing with certainty about whether or not we are currently in an economic bubble is probably overconfident; experts around the world disagree about whether we are in a bubble, so it’s unlikely that a random writer on Medium knows the answer for sure.

So, in conclusion, what can we learn about integrative thinking? First, a lot of the time a contradiction or conflict only exists until we properly define what each statement means. Second, integrative thinking is necessary for collaboration between groups, and is valuable in predicting and avoiding conflict. Third, we should work from agreed on first principles, and should work hard to find those principles. Finally, sometimes both sides of an argument are right in their own way.