Empathy, Integrative Thinking and Innovation

Empathy, Integrative Thinking and Innovation

I write and play music as a creative hobby. It doesn’t pay terribly well, but it is fun, and can also occasionally trigger insights into the creative process that translate into the broader innovation space.

Most recently, it caused me to revisit integrative thinking, a concept I was first introduced to by Roger Martin in his excellent book The Opposable Mind. Whether we are creating art, innovating in a business context, or simply trying to survive the political discourse at the looming family Thanksgiving dinner, it is all too easy to allow our passion for an idea to obliterate our empathy for other people’s alternate viewpoints.  But for innovation at least, a lot of the best creativity occurs when we challenge our beliefs or ‘givens’, or at interfaces between existing disciplines and concepts.  That’s easily said, but harder to do.  The ever increasing weight of data we have to sift through every day, combined with increasingly sophisticated tools to customize our information feeds creates an escalating risk of creating echo chambers in both our work and social lives, where we start to see only the information that we agree with.  Thinking models like integrative thinking, and a couple of others I’ll explore in this article, are useful tools for breaking out of these echo chambers, listening more empathically to conflicting ideas, and so potentially creating solutions to problems that transcend trade offs, in favor of emergent, sometimes surprising innovations that deliver ‘and’ solutions instead of ‘either/or‘ compromises.

The Pros and Cons of Echo Chambers. Echo chambers are generally bad for innovation.  Big ideas thrive where diverse perspectives meet, and at interfaces between disciplines and philosophies.   Hearing an opposing view can help us think more broadly, and smart leaders surround themselves with people who think a little (or a lot) differently to them, and who will challenge their ideas from time to time.  Overly focused thinking can also limit empathy, and hence the scope of appeal of a new idea.  They can also focus us too early on a substandard idea, or blind us to issues that run counter to our goal, but that may trip us up at some time in the future.  Furthermore, they can reduce our ability to find answers that lie outside of our immediate expert domain, or close our minds to the serendipity of discovery, by blinding us to the unexpected, but surprisingly obvious.

But of course, balance is everything, and some degree of tunnel vision can also be beneficial. There is simply too much data available today for us to process everything, so the ability to focus on high quality data that is relevant to us has some obvious benefits. Narrow focus can also help us to dive deep and become expert in a specific field.  It can also reduce procrastination, increase passion, and help us push a good idea through roadblocks. And at some levels, limiting information we disagree can also have some emotional benefits – as much as we may want to be open minded, constant bombardment with negative or conflicting information is rarely pleasant.  We all need to find a path that somehow integrates openness, empathy and sanity!

I believe integrative thinking can be a useful tool to address this, and act was a bridge bridge between focus and openness.  I personally have a bias for action, and integrative thinking gives me a somewhat structured way of keeping options open and considering alternate perspectives, but without abandoning my passion for an idea, which can play an import role in driving it from concept to tangible innovation.

What is Integrative Thinking:  To paraphrase Roger Martin, it is the ability to hold two conflicting ideas or models in constructive tension.  Then use that tension to generate a creative resolution in the form of a new idea that contains elements of the opposing ideas but is superior to each.  I think of it as a very close cousin to the scientific method, where we develop a hypothesis, and then actively challenge it.  But it’s a bit more specific, in that we deliberately hold and compare a diametrically conflicting idea up against our original concept. Hopefully nobody reading this thinks it’s a bad idea to challenge our hypothesis, or consider alternate viewpoints.  But in time-pressured reality, this can be quite hard to do.  There are a lot of internal and external pressures that fight this kind of cognitive openness. For starters, as successful innovators we have a tendency to fall in love with, and become champions for our ideas. Without this passion, many innovations would never make it to market.  Secondly, it’s cognitively costly, as it takes considerable mental resources and discipline to authentically challenge our own mental models.  Finally, it’s a tough sell to take time to do this within a business.  It is hard to persuade a business leader or venture capitalist to spend time and money to prove that the innovation we’ve just sold to them is flawed, or could be significantly improved.  Instead there is usually enormous pressure to ‘qualify’ an innovation, and take it to market quickly.

So how do we do it? For me, there are two parallel, two-step processes.  One is largely personal, the other more team based.  Both start by clearly defining our core idea. We then need to do everything we can to empathically map out a counter position to that concept.  Sometimes this has been largely done for us, as many innovations have obvious competitors, or sets of competitors.  Sometimes it’s more complex, and requires us to zoom in or zoom out from the problem.   If we are just doing this as a personal exercise, then this can simply take the form of thought experiment, although personally, I like to map out concepts visually, and sometime write down problem statement, to sharpen my ideas.  Obviously, if doing this in a team based format, use whatever concept maps or problem/opportunity mapping tools you are familiar with.  No need to add the cognitive cost of learning new models, use what you are comfortable with.

Once we’ve defined our core idea and its counter position, the fun starts.  Are there similarities between conflicting vectors that would allow us to blend them?  For example, if we have two medicines that interfere with each other, can we combine them in a time-release pill that ensures patients cannot take them at the same time?  Or is there a benefit to stepping back and taking in the bigger picture.  For example, if we are working on sustainability, can we find alternate uses for waste products, or conversely, are we sure that in solving one problem, we are not unintentionally creating another? As an illustration, banning plastic grocery bags sounds like a no brainer from both a landfill and ocean pollution perspective.  But it’s not quite that simple if we step back and look at the bigger picture.  Grocery bags are already used in a lot of ‘off-label’ recycling, for example as trash or ‘doggy’ waste bags.  If alternate heavier duty bags now need to be purchased for those tasks, is there still a net benefit?  What is the environmental cost of manufacturing and disposing of alternate paper or reusable plastic bags?  I don’t know the definitive answer to this particular question, it is quite complex, but hopefully it illustrates how it’s easy to run with what seems like a great idea, but that it is also important to look at the bigger picture for unintended consequences.  But getting to these deeper truths is difficult.  Perhaps the hardest part is quieting our inner, dissenting voice, and genuinely holding a conflicting idea in our mind long enough to look for both challenges and opportunities.  I used the plastic bag example deliberately, as so many of us are passionate about sustainability, and that passion can make it harder to step back and look at the bigger picture.  Of course, there are also always going to be genuine ‘no-brainers’, but keep in mind that nearly everything looks like a no-brainer to the passionate advocate.  This all means that we have to be very purposeful in searching for conflicting ideas.  And even if a conflicting idea is clearly wrong, don’t automatically abandon it!!  Holding even a bad idea in constructive tension can still improve and evolve our initial one.   Take vaccination as an example.  The science that supports it could not be clearer, and yet significant and growing numbers of people still resist it, to the point where previously extinct diseases such as measles are now making a comeback. In this case the value of holding an opposing view may not necessarily result in a product innovation, but it may still lead to a much needed communication breakthrough.  Simply dismissing anti-vexers, or quoting science and statistics to them won’t solve the problem.  Only by empathically understanding why people so passionately oppose vaccination, including understanding both emotional and logical frames, will we be able to provide the reassurance needed to get participation back to the critical mass needed to eliminate disease transmission.   I believe integrative thinking could be a useful tool in achieving this.

Why should we bother with Integrative Thinking?  As mentioned above, sometimes it’s not enough to simply ‘build it and they will come’.  We not only have to create viable innovations, but also persuade sometimes reluctant or cynical people to use them.  Integrative thinking provides a way to empathically address conceptual and communication barriers to adoption.  But the potential value goes well beyond that.  It can also be a powerful tool to indentify challenges early, or blend superficially opposing ideas in ways that, as Roger originally pointed out, result in outcomes that are superior to either ingoing concept. But perhaps most importantly, it’s a great way to ensure we are focused on the truly big idea, are not developing a better horse shoe whilst someone else is inventing the automobile, and have identified ‘ands’ instead of ‘ors’ whenever possible.

‘Ands’ versus ‘Ors’ – Integration and Conceptual Blending:  Early phones like the Blackberry had both a tiny screen and a tiny physical keyboard.  One way to look at this was as a competition, where we had to trade off the relative size of the two components.  The breakthrough solution was the touch screen, which combined them into a single element, thus virtually eliminating any trade off. The ability to eliminate trade offs by combining two different, potentially competing factors into a single solution is a powerful innovation tool.  Integrative thinking is a great way to initiate this process, as it allows us to hold two competing concepts, such as big screen and big keyboard, in mind at the same time.

Of course, holding the concepts together is only the start. Sometimes this will highlight obvious opportunities, but often we need help to blend competing ideas if we want to hit a home run of eliminating a trade off.  One of my favorite models for this kind of integration is conceptual blending, as described by Gilles Faucconier and Mark Turner in their terrific book The Way We Think.  This explores ways to take two superficially different concepts, and combine them to create emergent new ideas.  Conceptual blending lies behind some amazing innovations. Picasso integrated multiple viewpoints inspired by traditional African sculpture and the deconstructionalism of Paul Cezanne to create cubism.  The Beatles blended rock and roll, skiffle, jazz, country, reggae, and world music to create almost endless emergent masterpieces that transcended any need to choose between musical styles simply by creating new ones! Paul Simon integrating South African township music with Cajun and rock and roll to create his masterpiece Graceland, while Steve Jobs integrated a keyboard and a screen to create the iPhone. I very much doubt that Simon, Picasso, The Beatles or Jobs formally used integrative thinking models or blended concept maps to come up with these ideas, but for those of us not as intuitively brilliant as them, these models provide templates we can use to at least partially emulate them.

Turning an enemy into a friend.   This related strategy is one of my favorites problem solving strategies.  It again starts with a variation on integrative thinking, and is nuanced by reframing a conflict as a potential resource.  For example, early in my career, I designed cleaning products that incorporated fats and oils in situ into cleaning formulas, thus repurposing dirt as a cleaning agent. Instead of dirt being the ‘enemy’, it became a complicit accomplice in its own removal, and this helped get away from a model of simply adding more ingredients to deal with difficult cleaning tasks.  There are many ways to leverage this kind of thinking.  As another example, one of the challenges facing electric cars is power drain for things like electronics and AC.  So why don’t we build solar panels onto their roofs, or transparent panels into the windows?  Use the solar power that heats the car up to cool it down.   Or can we learn from nature, and copy the chemistry of shellfish to turn CO2 emissions into carbonate building materials that can be used to insulate or protect from weather, floods and harsh temperatures?  This kind of reversal is not always an option, but when it exists, it is elegant.

Facing a Challenge Head On.  There is no better way than holding two conflicting ideas together in our mind to identify trade offs or contradictions.  And solving contradictions is a critical step in a lot, if not all innovation.  In the iPhone example mentioned earlier, there was an ‘or’ problem.  Do we increase screen size at the expense of the keyboard or vice versa?  But the winning innovation was an ‘and’, making both screen and keyboard bigger, by integrating them both conceptually and physically.  Integrative thinking is a great first step in identifying and reframing trade offs and contradiction like these.  I’m not suggesting this is easy, or always possible, but empathy for an opposing view is often a great start point.

Level the Playing Field:  Mere Exposure tells us we have a cognitive bias for familiar things and ideas.  One issue that new perspectives face is simply that they are new.  But by taking an integrative thinking approach, and holding a conflicting idea in our mind, we start to erode at least some of this bias.  And by leveling the familiarity playing field, we make it easier to see benefits for new, integrative solutions to problems, or perhaps even open our minds to see the benefits of an opposing viewpoint.

Einstein versus Occam:  Win-lose solutions to problems are often tantalizingly simple. I used to like this simplicity, and was a fan of Occam’s razor, the idea that the simplest answer is usually the correct one.  While that may hold true in pure mathematics and in some areas of physics, when it comes to human behavior, I now seriously doubt it. Too many catastrophic failures do not have a single cause, but instead are the result of multiple issues lining up at the same time.  Virtually every aircraft crash falls into this unfortunate model, as do market crashes, and a significant number of medical errors and innovation failures. I’d now argue that a desire to isolate a single root cause is in fact usually counter productive, and the confirmation bias means it often blinds us to other potential issues and opportunities. As an illustration, it is all too easy for the radiologist who finds the first tumor to miss the second, smaller one that will ultimately kill us.  Like most things, this is a balance, at some point we need to make a decision and move to action, but I now prefer Einstein’s suggestion, that we should make everything as simple as possible, but no simpler.  Integrative thinking provides us with a mental tool and check step that helps us to take a productive pause, make sure we have not become simplistic, or entrenched in a particular mental model, and then simplify without becoming overly simplistic.

Back to Music.  How did rock and roll start me on this topic of integrated thinking?  Last night I was working on recording a song with a collaborator whom I respect and greatly enjoy working with.  He was making several suggestions around how the song might be improved, and I was struggling with how to let go of enough of my idea to give his ideas room to grow, and thus blend with my own.  A good song contains raw and deeply felt parts of ourselves. Analogous to many innovations, it is our ‘baby’, we are passionate about it, and that makes changing it hard. But I was also with someone I knew was smart, had more knowledge than I did, and who had thought deeply about some changes.  So I was searching for a way to listen to those ideas, but without giving up on my passion for the song we were working on.  That reminded me of Roger Martin, Integrative Thinking, and ultimately led to this article.

As for the song, we’re still recording it, but it now has some modified lyrics, a better end, and some new drum parts, all of which are an improvement on the original, and all of which came directly from integrated thinking.

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A twenty-five year Procter & Gamble veteran, Pete Foley has spent the last 8+ years applying insights from psychology and behavioral science to innovation, product design, and brand communication. He spent 17 years as a serial innovator, creating novel products, perfume delivery systems, cleaning technologies, devices and many other consumer-centric innovations, resulting in well over 100 granted or published patents. Follow him @foley_pete

Pete Foley




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  1. Richard Haasnoot on September 15, 2019 at 6:09 am

    Pete, one of the best postings on this site in a long time….thanks. I will probably highlight your posting in my Innovation Best Practices podcast early next year.
    I worked 16 years at 6th and Sycamore. I see that we both had a passion for innovation from the early days. Doug Hall/Eureka Ranch is a long time good friend and former fellow brand manager. You may want to check out my innovation company: Innovate2Grow Experts/i2ge.com and LinkedIn profile for more of my journey. You can reach me at richard@i2ge.com

    • Pete Foley on September 15, 2019 at 8:24 am

      Thanks Richard, much appreciated, and I will certainly take a look, and look forward to learning more about your journey, and reading a few more of your articles. I sent you a LinkedIn request as well. My email is pete.mindmatters@gmail.com I look forward to connecting.

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