Integrative Thinking (Mental Models for Business Analysts, Part II)


Integrative Thinking (Mental Models for Business Analysts, Part II)

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Learning about mental models and how to apply them to their work is one of the best investments for business analysts interested in achieving the level of deep thinking that leads to better outcomes for their projects and organizations. The first article in this series described what mental models are and talked about the first mental model covered, second order thinking. In this second installment we discuss another mental model that that can help business analysts become better problem solvers: integrative thinking.

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As Steve Roger wrote in The Opposable Mind, the most difficult choices typically come in the form of an unsatisfying either-or choice: a trade-off between existing answers that weren’t good enough to truly solve the problem. Rather than choosing between two subotimal solutions, some people use the tension between ideas to create new answers to challenging problems. Roger calls this practice integrative thinking, arguing that its mastery is what sets highly successful leaders apart from the masses.

While integrative thinking is not the only path to becoming a successful leader, the benefits of adopting this mental model when thinking about challenging problems can’t be overemphasized.

Even in more mundane aspects of our lives, integrative thinking can help us find a superior solution to a problem we’re trying to solve. Let’s say you love eating steaks and burgers but have become aware of the serious consequences of a carnivorous diet not only for your health but also for the planet and global health. You’re now trying to decide between adopting a plant-based meat or sticking to your regular diet of steaks and burgers.

When you look at this problem through the lenses of integrative thinking, it’s easy to stop seeing it as an either/or proposition. What if instead of choosing between vegan vs. carnivore you decided to try Meatless Mondays, or adopt Graham Hill’s TED Talk suggestion and became a weekday vegetarian, eating no meat from Monday to Friday and going back to being a carnivore during the weekends? By reducing your consumption of meat you’d be able to help improve both your health and the environment without eliminating the joys of having a double cheeseburger now and then.

Likewise, in our professional lives we often face a choice between two opposing alternatives that aren’t ideal. Through integrative thinking, we might be able to produce a synthesis that is superior to both choices.

For example, imagine that you’re working on the requirements for roles and permissions for a new online marketing management system. The requirements state that some users may need to be granted special permissions that don’t fit the standard roles of content creator, manager, etc. The software developer wants to know whether special permissions should be granted by assigning secondary role(s) to users (option 1) or keeping the status quo of one role per user, with the special permissions individually added at user level (option 2).

As you go through the discovery process, you might realize that there are two distinct scenarios related to special permissions:

  1. Temporary permission upgrade. For example, a member of the marketing team needs to temporarily have managerial permissions on top of their regular permissions to be able to act as a substitute for a manager who is on vacation or leave of absence.
  2. Permanent special privileges. Some senior team members with unique skill sets may be granted special permissions to, say, approve video and audio content, while others may need special permissions to review editorial rules and perform copyediting. Unlike the previous scenario, there could be endless permutations for the permanent special privileges of individual users.

Based on the two real-life scenarios to be supported, you may come to the conclusion that neither option proposed by the developer would be ideal.

For scenario #1, assigning the manager role as a secondary role for the user acting as substitute (option 1) would work best. This way the user can preserve all their permissions from their original role and have the managerial permissions temporarily added on top. Option 2 would have the disadvantage of requiring more work during permission setting, and create security and rework risks due to human errors during the process of manually setting or removing the privileges individually.

For scenario #2, however, option 1 would be detrimental. Given the high variability of the desired permission profiles, having to create roles that contained the special permissions to be assigned to individual users would require a multitude of roles, many of which would end up associated with a single user. Maintaining the list of roles, and finding the right one to use to assign special privileges, would quickly become a nightmare.

And what about implementing both options 1 and 2, so option 1 can be used for scenario 1 and option 2 for scenario 2? While this might be a feasible alternative, not only it would add to the complexity of the system (rather than a model of primary + secondary roles or primary role + special permissions, now the team has to test and maintain the two models), but it would also be a suboptimal solution for scenario 2, for reasons that will become clear below.

If none of the proposed alternatives represent the ideal solution, what to do?

Using integrative thinking, you could decide to work toward a creative solution rather than meekly accept the undesirable trade-offs.

During your analysis, you might realize that for scenario #2 (permanent special privileges), while different individuals are likely to have different needs for special permissions, those needs always follow the same patterns of bundled permissions. For example, anyone with prior experience as a copyeditor is always given permissions to perform both copyediting and proofreading, while someone with video creation experience is always granted permissions to create and edit video and audio. To minimize work, and make the list of roles more manageable, a new solution can be proposed:

  • Go with the option of expanding permissions by assigning secondary roles to the user (option 1).
  • Make it easier to bundle permissions based on skill set (e.g., all text editing/proofreading permissions go into the same reusable secondary role, all video/audio permissions into another, and so forth).

With this solution, scenario 1 would be successfully covered by allowing team member Bob who is replacing manager Alice to be temporarily granted the Manager role as his secondary role. Now Bob can perform all of Alice’s duties while she’s away on vacation, and upon Alice’s return, have his additional privileges easily removed with one action.

And scenario 2 would be better served than if each user had to be granted individual permissions at a more granular level, or a special role had to be created for each specific combination of skills individuals had. Jon who has video experience now can get the Video/Audio Special Permissions role that bundles all video- and audio-related special permissions. Jane who has copyediting experience gets the Text Editing Special Permissions that bundles all copyediting and proofreading permissions. And Scott who has both video and copyediting experience can get both Video and Text Editing Special Permissions with the administrator having to set only two secondary roles, rather than 8-10 individual special permissions related to video, audio, and text content.

Integrative thinking is applicable to a very broad set of problems, and it’s a practice that can be cultivated over time. A good way to start to leverage its benefits in your BA practice is to always challenge the notions that there is a single right answer, and that we need to choose between the alternatives already on the table. When facing a tough problem where all of the alternatives seem undesirable, rather than assuming the business has to pick one of the available choices, ask whether a new one can be created.

If you like the idea of leveraging the tension between models to create something new and better, the book Creating Great Choices (a follow-up on The Opposable Mind) offers effective tips on how to use this fresh mental model to make better choices rather than settle for weak compromises.

Author: Adriana Beal, Lead Data Scientist

Since 2004, Adriana Beal has been helping Fortune 100 companies, innovation companies, and startups in the U.S. gain business insight from their data, make better decisions, and build better software that solves the right problem. In 2016 she decided to follow her passion for quantitative analysis and got a certificate in Big Data and Data Analytics from UT. Since then she has been working in data science projects related to healthcare, IoT, and mobility. Adriana has two IT strategy books published in her native country, Brazil, and work internationally published by IEEE and IGI Global. You can find more of her useful advice for business analysts at



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