Whether facing project planning, problem solving or decision making, our approach will make a significant difference in the outcome. Do you normally use a linear algorithm approach of breaking a situation into smaller pieces, focusing on critical variables, driving to either/or solutions? Or, do you find yourself synthesizing opposing ideas, discordant information, accepting complexity, and maintaining a holistic perspective?
The former approach is works fine for simpler and straight forward projects, but for large complex projects it can be very limiting because it will result in missed opportunities, ignored risks, overlooked interrelationships, discounted non-linearity, dismissed discontinuities. On the other hand, the latter approach of keeping a holistic perspective, allows us to remain open to all aspects of the situation while working toward a solution; integrative thinking.
Integrative thinking is an art form. It embraces complexity and its causal relationships; has a high tolerance for change, openness, flexibility, and disequilibrium; welcomes surprises and disconfirming data. It involves an iterative, heuristic process, expanding the number of salient variables, exploring their causal relationships, examining the problem in a sequential fashion while maintaining a overall perspective of all variables and their causal relationships, developing an integrative solution.
Some skills of an integrative thinker:
- Search for non-obvious factors and causes of problems – connecting the dots
- Don’t assume linear cause-effect relationship – look for non-linearity and discontinuities
- See problems as a whole while examining the parts – organization and complex projects are systems with integrated parts
- Create whole new options by recombining existing options or synthesizing new options – avoid either/or choices of options
- Asking the right questions – Seeking out discordant and enigmatic information and individuals
Are you still with me? Good.
How does this all fit into the business of project management? Well for one, it is the differences between what I will call “the competent project manager” and a novice. In the days gone by, we called them senior PMs; the grizzled veteran, decades of experience, proficient leader, intuitive, gifted problem solver, accomplished decision maker. (Inflation appears to have hit Silicon Valley. I’ve seen job opportunities for senior PMs requiring a minimum of 5-years experience.) The competent PM understands we live and work in a complex world full of ambiguities and has developed the skills to not only deal with it but to excel, like integrative thinking.
A linear view of the business of corporate projects; the strategy is cemented by the executive council, the programs/projects are chartered, the PMs are engaged, the projects are (eventually) completed successfully. In reality however, the business process is ambiguous; the strategy is not cemented because of the constantly changing business environment, the internal politics of the rank and file cause an ebb and flow of projects within the portfolio, the over allocation of resources cause discontinuities between the plans and the work. In other words, the situation most project management professionals are constantly complaining about and the environment they are expected to execute within.
Let’s take a step outside of project management and the corporate world to view a continuum extreme. As I’m writing this, the US government, specifically the President and his advisors, have been hunkered down on the issue of how to move forward in Afghanistan. The much publicized military solution (backed by some Senators) is to throw more troops at the situation; a very linear approach. However, all indications are the President has established a decision process that is taking an integrative approach by addressing a more comprehensive set issues related to stabilizing the region, as a whole. Talk about a situation built for integrative thinking, this certainly qualifies. Think about the competing opinions on his advisor team, dealing with other nation states both within and outside the region, dealing religious interest, dealing with specific individuals, dealing with US priorities. It makes most projects within the corporate environment look easy. How complex was your last project compared to what the President is attempting? Talk about ambiguities, non-linearities, discontinuities, interrelationships, risks and opportunities, discordant and enigmatic information, this effort has all of them in spades.
I realize I’m leaving you without a, say, 5-step how-to solution; however as I stated, integrative thinking is an art form involving a heuristic process — and this is a blog.