Steve Jobs introducing the iPod

Book interview: Jennifer Riel, ‘Creating great choices’

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Design engineers are often cornered into compromise decisions based on trade-offs. Author Jennifer Riel believes ‘integrative thinking’ offers a better, more holistic way of approaching design.

“There are very few problems in this world that have a single right answer. But in particular, we struggle for answers when faced with ‘either/or’ trade-offs.” Author Jennifer Riel is discussing a set of problem-solving tools she has devised called ‘integrative thinking’ that form an alternative method of making decisions in areas such as product design, prototyping and taking products to market.

In her book ‘Creating Great Choices’ (co-written with Roger Martin), Riel examines how holding opposing positions in tension can lead to outcomes that go beyond compromise in order to “create a better answer”.

Conventional wisdom has it that when developing products there are two basic options: you can make small improvements to an existing idea or rip up the programme and start again. At first glance, what the book appears to recommend is large doses of the latter tempered by small measures of the former. But the argument is more subtle than that.

“Traditionally, when we talk about how innovation is done, there’s classical incremental innovation. This is where we take a product that’s already pretty good and we improve it in some way. So you have, for example, the iPhone 7 versus the 6S. There’s an advance. It’s better and so our lives are a tiny bit better too. But that’s not breakthrough innovation. To do that, the tool most organisations use is ‘design thinking’, where we go back to what the user needs and match that with what the organisation can create.”

Integrative thinking, says Riel, finds ways of challenging what has gone before while creating a new and better way of designing a product or process that is “meaningfully transformative. Just concentrating on the user needs – which design thinking does – probably cuts you off from the best solution. This is because, just as the user has needs, so does the product manufacturer. So you need to integrate this approach to end up with products that are right for the consumer, but are also great for the producer. Most good products ultimately fail because while they are amazing for the user, they aren’t supported by a business case to make money for the organisation. Or, there are cases where a product will make money for an organisation without meeting a user need.”

Truly great products, says Riel referring to “the iPhones of this world”, find a way to “integrate between what the user needs and what the designer needs, while creating value for both”.

Integrative thinking breaks down into four key sequential processes. The first, Riel explains, is to abandon the idea of a blank sheet of paper and “turn the problem you are facing into an ‘either/or’ proposition that creates two distinct ways of thinking about how you might solve the problem. Lay out these models, question them and seek a deeper understanding of them.” 

Phase two is to question your understanding of these models: “think about the assumptions you are making, and try to challenge and reframe your thinking”. Then we move onto actively seeking to bring the two models together “into an integration in order to ‘generate possibilities’ for the product”.

By Riel’s own admission, phase four “steals blatantly from the world of design thinking, in that this is where we prototype, test, learn, experiment, rather than just launching the product onto the world”.

Rightly or wrongly, we live in a world where consumer electronic product innovation is benchmarked against Apple, a company that clearly fascinates Riel. “To understand what’s going on at Apple in terms of innovation, I think you’ve got to go beyond the product, because that is just one piece of what made that company so successful. The products in themselves are probably not particularly innovative or cool.”

The real genius behind the brand, says Riel, is strategic. “It was Steve Jobs saying that the company could make something so elegantly beautiful that he could create a sticky ecosystem around that. The iPod wasn’t just a product. It was something that was extremely easy to use. You didn’t have to be a technologist to get the best from it.”

By comparison, the failure of Microsoft’s Zune was down to the fact that the manufacturer had concentrated solely on the technology to push the brand, while omitting to take “that step back in order to look at the issue holistically and ask what the true user experience of the product would be”.

In looking at the “sticky ecosystem” that could be generated around the iPod – something that was to get stickier once the management application iTunes came on stream – Steve Jobs was effectively mastering phase three of integrative thinking. He had generated possibilities by repackaging mature technology in such a way that it looked better than it really was. “What Jobs did better than virtually everyone was to question assumptions brilliantly, which is vital to the success of phase two of integrative thinking,” says Riel. The assumption that he kept hold of was that it didn’t necessarily follow that the best technology would win. “That’s because there is so much else going on that eventually dictates whether the technology is adopted or not. He was aware of this, which set him up to answer the question about what else mattered, and then integrate that into his thinking.” 

Riel, who is a professor at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, spent a decade developing the theories behind integrative thinking with her co-author. She says that while conducting her research with “group after group after group” a key theme to emerge was that “one of the most dominant tools for tackling ‘either/or’ choices is actually massively unhelpful to us”. She says that most of us will default to taking out a pad and writing a list of pros and cons. But “as soon as you dive into the negatives of a scenario, you run the risk of losing your ability to be creative. Your ability to imagine a better answer becomes short-circuited. This is because when you focus on what’s not working, you start to believe that there is no good answer to be reached.” 

‘Creating Great Choices: A Leader’s Guide to Integrative Thinking’ by Jennifer Riel and Roger L Martin is from Harvard Business Review Press, £25

‘Creating Great Choices’

We read it for you

Subtitled ‘A Leader’s Guide to Integrative Thinking’, this useful management guide to decision taking starts with the governing assumption that the way we make choices is fundamentally at odds with making good choices.

What we do when faced with a difficult problem, say authors Jennifer Riel and Roger Martin, is go for the trade-off, which means that the likelihood of solving an issue in its entirety is not particularly high. What we need to do, they contend, is adopt a problem-solving tool called ‘integrative thinking’, which focuses on creating opportunities (rather than ‘right answers’) by combining opposing factors.

‘Creating Great Choices’ states that integrative thinking is counter-intuitive and as such isn’t innate, and needs to be learned. There are four steps to the methodology that will ultimately lead us to be able to analyse prototype viability.
Assessing the prototypes


In 2001 when Apple launched the iPod the reviews were mixed. Said one tech analyst, “clearly Apple is following Sony’s lead by integrating consumer electronics devices into its marketing strategy. But Apple lacks the richness of Sony’s product offering. And introducing new consumer products right now is risky, especially if they cannot be priced attractively.”

In 2007 similar grumblings greeted the iPhone. Said one Endgadget commenter, “apparently none of you guys realise how bad an idea a touchscreen is on a phone. I foresee some pretty obvious and major problems here.” And the iPad in 2010? It was called a glorified and overgrown iPod Touch with no serious market potential.

For the record, Apple has sold an estimated 100 million iPods, 500 million iPhones and 300 million iPads since these early withering reviews.

Those that doubted Apple’s Steve Jobs may look a little foolish now, but their reactions were natural. New ideas are unproven and risky. In most companies, when presented with a new idea, leaders tend to shift to risk-mitigation mode with a single, devastating demand: “prove it!” These two words are deadly when it comes to innovation because new ideas aren’t provable in advance.

Sticking with what works kills any hope of real innovation. It leaves the organisation stultified and exposed to disruption from organisations with different risk assumptions. Moreover, it rests on a massive and flawed assumption: that what we do now will continue to produce the same outcomes in future. This assumption only works if the future looks exactly the same as the past ­­– a rarely seen state of affairs.

Edited extract from ‘Creating Great Choices: A Leader’s Guide to Integrative Thinking’ by Jennifer Riel and Roger L Martin, reproduced with permission.

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