What you’ll learn

  • What integrative thinking is and when to use it
  • 3 steps to becoming an integrative thinker
  • Why integrative thinking is crucial for today's Enterprise Leader

The state of leadership today

Company leaders today can't achieve their business goals at the flip of a switch—especially if those goals involve making changes from the status quo. They have to consider an array of implications: customers who demand constant reliability from their service, shareholders who will not tolerate a drop in profitability, and political stakeholders who must support legislation that helps move a project forward.

In today's landscape, these leaders have to employ integrative thinking to perform today and transform for tomorrow.

They need to have an appreciation for the broad ecosystem of their business. They have to connect all the moving parts so that no area of the business has to suffer for another to succeed. They have to embrace conflicting viewpoints and work towards an end goal that's optimal for everyone.

Integrative thinking is a mindset that helps leaders do all of this and more. It enables them to balance competing priorities, juggle conflicting timelines and manage multiple tensions. It's one of five mindsets Korn Ferry has identified that are core to the Enterprise Leader - someone with the ability to mutually prioritize performance and transformation, creating an impact across and beyond their organization.

Along with purpose, courage, awareness of self and impact, and inclusion that multiplies across your organization, the integrative thinking mindset helps today's Enterprise Leaders thrive.

What is integrative thinking?

As the world grows more fragmented and yet also more hyperconnected, the challenges businesses face are multifaceted and paradoxical. Utility companies must optimize service and sustainability. Health care companies must prioritize patient care and profit. All companies must harmonize their values and their revenue.

This is where integrative thinking can make all the difference. It encourages you to see individual decisions within the broad context of the business enterprise and its ecosystem. It allows you to take decisive action without disrupting a delicate equilibrium and reconcile opposing views by strengthening both sides.

An integrative thinker would ask the following questions when making a decision, whether big or small:

  • How does this decision affect other units, not just my silo?
  • How does this fit in with the enterprise's overall strategy and purpose?
  • What are the broad implications of doing this?
  • What could we lose by not taking a different course of action?
  • Where might this take us over the longer term?

These questions help ensure a leader considers multiple scenarios.

Refuse to accept a tidy solution

When faced with opposing views, traditional thinkers may aim to find solutions that involve a trade-off or reach a middle ground, hesitating to look any further. While these types of thinkers may be good at choosing the best solution for the situation at hand, it often stops there.

Integrative thinkers don't view contradictions with hesitation or fear but with curiosity and acceptance. They won't settle for finding a middle ground because they're able to imagine and look for a creative solution that optimizes all sides. They think outside the box to see what can blossom from contradictions.

Then they question and listen without bias. This is crucial. This type of thinking depends on understanding everything in context and seeing the big picture—which is always far bigger than what's visible from one person's perspective.

"Throughout their career, executives are generally rewarded for seeing connections quickly and making good decisions," says Stu Crandell, Senior Client Partner at Korn Ferry. "But in this new environment, it's not just about making decisions within your area and being the smartest person in the room."

When these moments occur, Crandell says, inclusive decision-making – listening to others, integrating multiple perspectives and seeing the big picture – can help leaders get the information they need to make the best decision for the whole organization. Through collaborative problem solving, they can begin to connect the dots.

With a fresh take on the relationship between all the components involved, an integrative solution will begin to form. It will allow opposites to coexist, embrace the tension or conflict between them, and harness this as a positive force.

3 steps to becoming an integrative thinker

While this mindset may come easier to some people than others, anyone can benefit from these steps for engaging in integrative thinking:

1 Train yourself to see through multiple lenses

Many people build their career success on a particular specialty. You have likely been brought into projects for your unique viewpoint and a singular lens that allows you to offer a detailed take on a specific area of the business.

Perhaps you're a marketing or advertising expert who excels at spotting how one line in an ad or a 30-second commercial can help to influence and connect with the customer. Or you might be a financial expert whose first response is to question what spending and budget reports mean for overall performance.

When we are repeatedly asked for insight on the one area that allows us to use our strongest lens, we can lose the ability to use others. You can be guilty of this without ever seeing it as a problem. You may still be succeeding at finding innovations in your own area, but you may not realize there are many other innovations you are missing.

To become an integrative thinker, you must train yourself to use these other lenses.

"[If you work in marketing] and you see everything through the lens of 'how is this impacting the customer,' broaden that to say, 'What does this mean for innovation, what does this mean for financial performance and what does this mean for culture and engagement?'" says Crandell.

2 Consider all the possible business implications

If there is money available for investment in one business unit, most executive leaders will identify the opportunity within their unit that has the highest likelihood of return and will make a case for it—without necessarily considering the implications for other areas throughout the business.

Enterprise Leaders, in contrast, will consider which unit could best use that money to benefit the entire organization, not just the teams within their own unit. You must consider not only what the company can gain by investing in your opportunity, but what it might lose by not investing in other areas.

You also need to consider more than just the present-day implications. You must consider the short-, medium- and long-term repercussions a business decision may have.

Meeting a short-term goal might compete with creating long-term financial sustainability for your organization, for instance. But Enterprise Leaders are able to look farther in every direction—across the enterprise and over time—to manage competing priorities and timelines and ultimately make the most informed decision for the entire business.

3 Approach situations with curiosity

The ability to make connections quickly and act decisively is a strength that executives are rewarded for throughout their careers. So, when faced with a challenge, your instinct may be to resolve it immediately.

But as you take on bigger and more complex challenges, your first answer may not be the best one. "No matter how smart you are, there is no way you can have all of the information," Crandell advises. You need to bring in other perspectives.

The key to this kind of inclusive decision-making is curiosity, listening and questioning. You can't assume that you have the answer or that there is an easy answer because then you will only find views that reinforce your own.

"Your goal in those situations isn't to convince others of your argument; it's to understand the broader situation," says Crandell. "It's divergent thinking first and then converge."

When facing multiple perspectives, it's important to support all opposing forces, recognizing that the tension between them can lead to creative, dynamic solutions. By broadening your scope of reference and approaching situations with curiosity, you can lead your teams to find harmony among conflicting views and needs.

Leadership Development

Leaders who can tap into the power of all

Learn more about the five leadership mindsets

It's no surprise that integrative thinking is one of the five essential mindsets of an Enterprise Leader. It's a new form of leadership for a new world, where change is swift, the future is uncertain and business challenges are more complex than ever before.

Integrative thinking not only helps Enterprise Leaders better understand these complexities but enables leaders to take action for the betterment of the whole organization.

If you're ready to grow and develop your leadership style, get in touch with Korn Ferry to find out more about our Enterprise Leadership Framework and the other mindsets and capabilities it can help you develop.