Leaders as Multidimensional Thinkers

problems - Leaders as Multidimensional Thinkers

It is common knowledge that today’s business, nonprofit, and government professionals need to be situational leaders; that is, possess a portfolio of leadership styles and have the ability to manage situations with the appropriate method. One approach no longer works, if it ever did, for all occasions.

Nor is it breaking news that the world is increasingly becoming more interdependent, that issues are more complex, and that we are often not sure how to comprehend, let alone address, the “messy” organizational and social issues we face.

In 1974’s Systems, Messes and Interactive Planning, Russel Ackoff noted that a “problem interacts with other problems” and are “part of a system of problems.”

Some, like Horst Rittel and Melvin M. Webber, speak of wicked problems, large scale problems that are so unique and complex it is hard to understand what the actual problem is, let alone, what possible viable solutions might be. Paradoxically, the problem itself cannot be clearly identified and mapped out until a potential solution is outline.

Robert Kegan says that we are “in over our heads.” So how does one begin to effectively lead in such a complex world?

To start, leaders are being challenged to expand their analytical capacity. They now need to be systems thinkers who are complex, multi-dimensional thinkers. Today’s economic, environmental, political and business issues require one to critically understand them from many angles, not just one. Solutions to these problems have to be approached and developed in the same manner.

Leaders need to develop the ability to hold and utilize multiple viewpoints as critical lenses instead of striving to devise a singular position that is believed to “capture reality” and is to be clung to at all cost.

Leaders need to be able to dialogue with radically divergent viewpoints, see what they reveal about the situation at hand, critically reflect upon and interpret their findings, and develop a whole picture from which a creative solution can be devised.

Variant perspectives are not seen as competing theories and practices where one is to be deemed as “correct,” but as dimensions of the concept, situation, or problem to be explored. They are multi-faceted windows that when taken together provide a breadth and depth of understanding that can result in innovative and breakthrough thinking. Tensions between perspectives are ardently examined to discover dynamic relationships and characteristics often overlooked.

In 2007’s Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking, Roger Martin explores the above leadership challenge from a related perspective which he calls integrative thinking.

To him, the typical process of thinking and deciding is comprised of four core components:

  1. Salience: Discerning what features are significant.
  2. Causality: Trying to make meaning of what is observed; that is, charting the causal relationships among the features considered salient.
  3. Architecture: Deciding upon the tasks that need to be done and organizing the causal relationships into an architecture that can result in a decision.
  4. Resolution: Formulating a way to know when the problem is solved.

An integrative thinker follows these steps, but moves away from “either-other” approaches by viewing the situation from a “both-and” perspective. So as the thinking and decision-making process is expanded:

  • Salience shifts from a “limited consideration of features” to considering more aspects of the problem valuable to include and critically examine.
  • Causality shifts from a “simplified” view of the causal factors to a more “multidirectional” structure and process.
  • Architecture shifts from a “sequential, independent consideration of piece and parts” to focusing on the whole while examining particular aspects or components
  • Resolution shifts from “ready acceptance of unattractive trade-offs” to “the search for creative resolutions of tensions.”

Integrative thinkers understand that every mental model is limited, must be continuously revised, and at times discarded. They are open and invite the opportunity to try something new and create new experiences for themselves. Such experiences aid them to generate new mental models that result in new skills and approaches to seeing and innovatively problem solving.

For integrative thinker, Martin explained: “Existing models are just the best anyone has come up with to date and relish opposing models. Not only do they think that a better model is waiting to be found, they think they will find it, by wading into the complexity and staying patient. They will use generative reasoning, causal modeling, and assertive inquiry. The experience they gain building new models will reinforce their initial stance, and the skill and sensitivity with which they deploy integrative thinking tools will increase.”

To conclude this post while furthering the conversation, an even bolder statement can be made. Leaders merely understanding the bigger picture is no longer enough. Today’s complex global situations and their potential resolutions require critically understanding and exploring them from divergent multiple angles through dialogue. The whole picture, then, is not a single lens understanding supported data, but a dynamic multifaceted lens perspective that is rooted in an ongoing dialogue among divergent thinkers.

Read other posts by Chuck Piazza

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