10 questions with Jennifer Riel

I recently had the privilege to interview Jennifer Riel. She teaches at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto and is the co-author of “Creating Great Choices: A Leader’s Guide to Integrative Thinking.”

Jennifer Riel, Photo provided by Jennifer Riel

Kurt Manwaring: Welcome! Before we begin, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and your focus at the Rotman School of Management and the Martin Prosperity Institute?

Jennifer Riel: I teach at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto in Canada. My classes are on the subject of creative problem solving – how we can use integrative thinking and design thinking to create new solutions to our toughest problems. I spend about half of my time teaching undergrads, MBAs and executives at the school and the other half of my time working directly with companies on strategy and innovation.

Part of my time at the Rotman School is spent at the Martin Prosperity Institute, where I am working with my longtime mentor and collaborator, Roger Martin, on a project covering the challenges facing democratic capitalism and exploring how tools like design and integrative thinking might offer some remedies.


Kurt Manwaring: Could you share some details about the logistics of creating the book (e.g., what was the catalyst for the idea, how/when did you approach the publisher, how long did it take from idea to publication, how did you divide up author responsibilities, etc.)?

Jennifer Riel: Over a decade ago, when he was the Dean of the Rotman School, Roger Martin laid out a theory of how successful leaders think, focusing explicitly on how they find ways to overcome trade-offs that others accept as inevitable. Roger wrote a book on the subject, called The Opposable Mind, in which he shared examples of this way of thinking from highly successful leaders, like Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, A.G. Lafley, then CEO of Procter & Gamble and Isadore Sharp, founder of Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts.

“The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking,” by Roger Martin.

The book was widely popular, but it definitely focused more on what these successful leaders did than on how they did it (or, more to the point, how you could do it). So, I came to work with Roger with the aim of teasing out the methodology: how might anyone, regardless of role or background, think in ways that could produce better, more integrative solutions to vexing problems?

We built up a process via trial and error, working with our students, with business leaders and with teachers all the way down to kindergarten. Once we felt we had a clear, shareable practice, we approached Harvard Business Review Press with the idea of guidebook for integrative thinking – a how-to handbook for tackling problems and overcoming untenable trade-offs. Jeff Kehoe, the editor of The Opposable Mind, was enthusiastic, so we set about writing the book. It took us a decade to build the methodology, and a few months to write the book.

“Creating Great Choices: A Leader’s Guide to Integrative Thinking,” by Roger Martin and Jennifer Riel.

When Roger and I write together, we spend time collaborating, in person, on a high-level structure and overview. We decide which stories we want to tell and how they fit in to an overall structure. Then, we divvy up the writing between us. One person will write a first draft of a given section and flip it to the other for editing. We tend to go back and forth a few times before submitting the manuscript to the publisher. We follow a similar process on the rewriting and editing that comes back from the publisher.


Kurt Manwaring: What is design thinking?

Jennifer Riel: Design thinking is an approach to innovation that uses a designer’s tools and processes to solve a given challenge. It is a way of bridging between analytics and intuition, data and imagination, to generate solutions. At a high level, it begins with seeking to deeply understand the user – a customer, a patient, a student – and their unmet needs. Using those needs as a jumping off point, we explore how we might better meet those meets – generating a set of possibilities and then prototyping them, testing and learning to improve the possibilities along the way.

Design thinking offers many great innovation principles, but we’re particular inspired by two of them – the idea of building empathy for others as a core tool for innovation and the use of rapid, iterative prototyping of rough ideas to learn and improve.


Kurt Manwaring: What is integrative thinking?

Jennifer Riel: Integrative thinking is a process for generating creative solutions to wicked problems. It uses the tension of opposing ideas to spur thinking and imagination, producing a third and better answer that overcomes the tradeoff between the opposing ideas.

For instance, in the book, we write about Jorgen Vig Knudstrop and the team at LEGO Group. When they were exploring the idea of making a LEGO-branded movie, they struggled with the tension between maintaining strict creative control to ensure that the brand was protected and giving enough freedom to the filmmakers to make a truly great movie. For some leaders, this would be an optimization problem – how much control do I have to give up to ensure a good-enough film? For the team at LEGO, the goal was to make a truly outstanding films that was also great for the LEGO brand.

So, they had to think differently about what it would take to get there.

In the end, they gave total control to the filmmakers, but only if those filmmakers would first spend substantial time with the people who love LEGO’s products the most – little kids. By engaging directly with these tiny superfans, the film’s creators fell in love with the kids and with the brand, ensuring that they would take good care of both.

The result was the massively successful, and Oscar-nominated, LEGO Movie.


Kurt Manwaring: Could you share a few thoughts on why it was important to find a balance between storytelling and application in “Creating Great Choices”? Have you received any feedback on whether you struck a helpful balance?

Jennifer Riel: Stories are how we learn. No matter how well a theory is articulated, it will feel abstract until it is made concrete via an example. So, we wanted to weave in stories of integrative thinking in use, by CEOs and by schoolkids, to help make the practice as clear as possible. But the majority of the book is about application – going step-by-step through the methodology itself, with tips and tricks for using it most effectively.

We hope we struck the right balance. So far, the feedback we’ve gotten suggests that the book is both fun to read and clear about how to take action – which is what we hoped to achieve.


Kurt Manwaring: In Chapter 3, you reference interviews you conducted as part of your work with the Martin Prosperity Institute to learn what it is like to live in America. What was one of the more challenging aspects of collecting and analyzing data via lengthy Skype interviews?

Jennifer Riel: In 2015, we conducted a series of interviews with middle-class Americans, to help us understand the “user” of democratic capitalism. The American middle class makes us the majority of workers but also the majority of the electorate – so it really is the nexus of democratic capitalism. If the system stops working for them, we run the risk of it breaking down entirely.

We set-up the interviews using Skype rather than by telephone, so we could see each other. Ideally, the interviews would have been in person, but the travel costs and logistics would have been more than we could take on. So, we set aside a few hours with each person and asked them for their stories – about how the economy and government affect their lives, their experience of living in America today and their reflections on the American Dream.

The challenging aspect was making sense of it all. The stories are individual and specific – so you need to dig deep into them but also look across all of the interviews for common themes and ideas. These long, ethnographic interviews can be emotional and highly personal. We heard a great deal about personal finances, about health care, about family, about football, about deep discomfort with what goes on in Washington. In many ways, when we look back at the interviews, you can see the seeds of the outcome of the 2016 election.

In some cases, the hardest part was hearing the stories from the interviewees. We spoke with one school teacher who was struggling badly to make ends meet. She felt utterly at a loss – she had done everything she was supposed to do, she said, and she felt like she was losing. She couldn’t understand what she was doing wrong. It was hard to hear, but it also made us want to find solutions than might help her.


Kurt Manwaring: Could you walk us through a personal example in which you exercised integrative thinking? Similarly, could you share an example in which you made a less-than-ideal decision because you lacked the skills associated with integrative thinking?

Jennifer Riel: For me, integrative thinking is both a process and a way of being in the world. So, I use it most often in real time, in interactions with other people. When someone says something I don’t understand, or that feels just plain wrong to me, I remind myself that we each hold models of the world that are incomplete.

There is no single, right answer, no perfectly correct perspective. So, rather than leaping to advocate my perspective, I try to listen, to ask questions, to prompt them to share their thinking with something as simple as “Say more…”. My goal is to understand their thinking and to find an answer than bridges across our perspectives, if at all possible.

But I am far from perfect. I am pretty progressive in my politics, so am sometimes tempted to leap into advocacy-heavy arguments with those who are more conservative. And in those moments, I can forget that we each have a model – and that I don’t have proprietary access to the truth. The result tends to be that we wind up further apart, with less interest in ever speaking again. It raises the temperature and produces rancor rather than resolution.


Kurt Manwaring: Which market sector (private, nonprofit, government) do you think has the most proficiency with integrative thinking and why? The least?

Jennifer Riel: So far, the place we’ve seen the greatest proficiency with integrative thinking is with school kids, working on real problems in the social sector. Kids just have less to unlearn; they are more willing to believe that a better answer is possible. The rest of us have to overcome years of schooling and experience based on the idea that we’re looking for the right answer, that trade-offs are inevitable and that it is our job to make the hard choices.

For the rest of us, I don’t see any particular advantage to one sector or another; it really is about making the effort to resolve the tension between opposing ideas. I have seen students and leaders across industries and organizations use integrative thinking effectively. It isn’t an algorithm; we can’t guarantee a brilliant outcome every time you try it, but the process does give you a chance to see the problem differently and look for new insights to a solution.


Kurt Manwaring: At the end of the book, you share the example of a student who shifted from using a pen to a pencil after taking a class on integrative thinking. In what ways does his choice symbolize the essence and potential of integrative thinking?

Jennifer Riel: Jabril, the student in book, recounts that before learning integrative thinking, he always wanted to be “done” with his answers. Once he came to an answer, he was finished. The switch from writing his exams in pen, to writing them in pencil, he said, was because it reminds him that he’s never done, that every answer can get better. For me, that is the essence of integrative thinking. In one way, it is a tiny change. But it symbolizes something much bigger – a belief that a better answer may be possible, and that I can, with effort, find it.


Kurt Manwaring: How could principles in your book be more fully adapted in the way decision making is taught in business schools?

Jennifer Riel: In business school, we tend to teach the disciplines in silos – you learn marketing, accounting, finance and so on. And often, in those classes, you learn the dominant models as the correct way to think about the world. In finance, you learn that the only purpose of business is to drive shareholder value. In marketing, you learn that it is to create and serve a customer. In corporate social responsibility, you learn that it is to create a sustainable model that leaves the world better off. And so on.

Typically, we leave it to the student to make sense of the tension between these models. We rarely engage in a discussion of the role of the leader in navigating these tensions within the organization. So, lots of business school grads graduate with the sense that it is their job to pick the perspective that matches their new job and to embrace that point of view.

I would love to see more business schools grapple with the complexity of leading across differences and truly leveraging a diversity of perspectives.


Kurt Manwaring: If you could go back in time and observe all of the conversations behind any key business decision, what would you want to observe and why?

Jennifer Riel: I love this question. I think there is a lot to learn from failure. So, I tend to gravitate to choices that did not turn out well – Kodak shelving the digital camera, Blockbuster deciding not to get into the mail-order game, Coca-Cola launching new Coke.

But, I think the conversation I would most want to witness is any of the series of discussions between the White House, the Fed and business leaders in September 2008, after the failure of Lehman Brothers. The economy was in freefall and there was obvious solution to prevent a global depression.

It would be fascinating to see how the players navigated all that uncertainty to keep the economy from utter catastrophe.

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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