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Resiliency Habit #6: Integrative Thinking

Posted Dec 21st, 2018

9 Habits of Resilience for Highly Effective Leaders:

  1. Building Commitment to Ourselves
  2. Physical Fitness
  3. Brain Fitness: Stilling the mind, developing patience
  4. Brain Fitness: Focusing the mind
  5. Knowing Our Purpose
  6. Integrative thinking
  7. Daily Reflection
  8. Personal Operating Principles
  9. Building and Maintaining Networks | Coming Soon!

Habit #6: Integrative Thinking

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s there are few.” - Suzuki Roshi
  • How well do you perform under pressure in a first-time challenging situation?
  • What do you do when you don’t know what to do?
  • Are you limiting yourself to logical and analytical thinking?
  • Do you find it difficult to escape binary or formulaic thinking?
  • Can your colleagues predict what position you will adopt on a given subject?

These are some of the questions which form the basis for our evaluation of ourselves on one of the leadership competencies considered most important for success in today’s organizations: Learning Agility. Research done by Lominger and Korn Ferry International has been collated into a 360 instrument called Choices Architect, and they have dedicated an entire FYI book to the development of this competency. It requires getting comfortable with complexity, using foresight to detect changing trends and patterns in the market, sensing problems before they are perceived; taking lessons from the past and fitting them into the new and different challenges which are emerging; examining problems carefully and making fresh connections; and a willingness to take the heat when things fail.

Many of us are not naturally this agile in our thinking. Most of us are products of a less-than-imaginative educational system which taught us to learn by rote and to make mental maps which then serve as established templates for researching, problem solving and decision making. This means that not only do we not have experience in thinking big picture or integratively, we lack awareness of the ways in which these same mind maps handicap us. Therefore we rely primarily on a linear sequential way of thinking through a situation (left brain) and do not know how to access, or do not trust the intuitive, imaginative powers of the right brain. We perceive only the sensations we are programmed to receive and our awareness is further restricted by the fact that we recognize only those stimuli for which we have pre-existing mind maps or categories. We do not appreciate the value of learning new patterns of attention until perhaps we experience the failure to be agile in a significant business or life situation.

In thinking about how to present Integrative Thinking techniques, I myself utilized an integrative thinking process as I revisited the writings of specialists in the field including Daniel Pink, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Lominger, Benjamin Zander and Michael Michalko.

The result is the following 4 practices:

  • Curiosity
  • Complexity
  • Creative Thinking
  • Connecting


Curiosity consists of fresh eyes, beginner’s mind and open heart. This means entering a situation, novel or routine, with full sensory attention, a mind that is free of any previous predispositions, models or maps, and a heart that is open and registering information at an emotional level. Learn new patterns of attention. Approach the banal with awe and wonder as children do. Look at different things and look at them differently. Question the obvious. Be surprised. Ask an unexpected question. Look for the novel. Do not rush to define the nature of the problem. Follow up on anything that captures your attention. Broaden your vision. Dig channels to help the psychic energy that is curiosity to flow freely within you. And then, and only then, apply the analytical mind to critiquing the options you have created and apply discipline to action.

Try this. Take a simple task you need to complete such as writing a report on a project you are leading. State the intention. Now go for a walk, look out the window, or do some deep breathing and let your mind roam freely. Notice any images, physical sensations, thought or feelings that come up. Jot down words and images and then string them together into a story. What’s different about the final product?


Complexity is part of our DNA and is a kind of boundary crossing. Evolution favors organisms that are complex. Creativity requires complexity. This means a way of thinking that has many differentiated parts, and several parts that are working together smoothly. It provides us with the ability to move from one trait to its opposite easily. Instead of binary thinking, it incorporates the differences and steeps them into something novel. Thinking that is integrated and not differentiated produces predictable, one-dimensional outcomes. Thinking that is differentiated and not integrated is complicated, confusing and chaotic.

Boundary crossing is a practice in which you catch yourself in either/or thinking and interrupt this pattern, moving instead into both/and thinking. Studies show that girls who are most creative are also tough-minded and critical, and boys who are most creative are compassionate and receptive. Androgyny is an example of boundary crossing.

Try this. Notice how often you land in a place which then eliminates what you think of as its opposite. For example, you may catch yourself thinking “ I am either driving for results or putting people at ease” or “My boss is so critical; she’s making me rewrite this whole report.” Now convert how you are thinking about those same situations into both/and thinking. “I am focused on results and bringing people along with me” and “My boss endorses the content of this report and she is asking me to communicate it in a more concise and high-level style.” If we stay open to both/and thinking and keep increasing the complexity, we become part of the energy that creates the future.

Creative Thinking

Creative Thinking, according to Csikszentmihalyi, consists of fluency ( producing as many ideas as possible ie brainstorming), flexibility (producing ideas which are very different from each other) and originality (producing novel, rare ideas). The latter is most difficult to achieve and perhaps can be learned by studying the biographies of inventors and artists.
They show us that invention is usually the creation of something new by simply combining elements of existing products or processes that no-one else thought to pair. The inventor of Velcro, got the idea from watching his dog come home from the ravine with burs stuck to his coat. It sounds simple but he was the first to put two such disparate situations together. And we shortchange fluency by interrupting the flow of a brainstorming session with edits and evaluations. Very few teams I know are consciously practicing flexibility; there is no incentive to stay in creative and generative mode and purposefully percolate radically different ideas.

Try this. Order Michalko’s Thinkpak, a deck of cards which promotes brainstorming (amazon.com). Or next time you are a contributing member of a meeting defined as a discussion not a decider, jot down brief bullets of what others at the table have said. Then generate a very different opinion and express it and a little later express a very diverse opinion from the one you originally stated. Play with this flexibility. Invite others to do the same. Or drop your mind and move your body (run, swim, chop wood) and original thinking may result.

Connecting is a process of pattern recognition which allows us to see relationships between diverse and seemingly unrelated fields and to detect broad patterns rather than to collect data in a logical, sequential way as we do in an analytic kind of thinking process. Recognizing patterns or themes is the right brain hemisphere in action in a contextual, simultaneous and symphonic way. Daniel Goleman identifies it as the one cognitive ability that defines extraordinary leaders. Intuitive-preference thinkers get there more naturally but anyone can learn how to do it. It is gestalt or systems kind of thinking: seeing the whole which is greater than the parts.

Try this. Study a work of art or a fine example of architecture. Notice the negative space (empty) and the play between light and shadow. Stand close. Stand far away. What is the gestalt?
Or make brief, summary notes on what others at a Round Table have said and then connect the dots, drawing a pattern for all participants.
Or examine business solutions and look for what was always present in a success and never in a failure.

With fresh eyes, beginner’s mind and an open heart, we can respond to the unpredictable and difficult challenges we face with curiosity, creativity, composure and confidence. We can perform well in the midst of complexity and ambiguity, examining problems thoughtfully and making new connections. We can be outstanding leaders in what is being called The Conceptual Age.

Please send me your creative comments and let’s keep the conversation going.

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