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Integrative thinking – in which executives synthesize two seemingly opposing ideas into a new business approach – is much lauded these days. But how exactly do we apply integrative thinking when faced with a business dilemma?

Jennifer Riel, associate director of the Desautels Centre for Integrative Thinking at the Rotman School of Management, and Roger Martin, dean of the school, have examined stories of integration from various sectors, looking at similarities and difference. In Rotman Magazine , they distill those into three different types of integration:

Double down integration

As in Blackjack, when a player doubles his or her bet on strong set of cards, the thinker embraces one of the two opposing ideas and pushes it to the extreme. This so magnifies the attributes of that approach it begins to confer the benefits of the opposing approach.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is an example, when the company thought it had to choose between protecting the environment or protecting the bottom line. Under attack from sustainability critics, the retailer doubled down, using its strong influence on its supply chain to push suppliers into greater sustainability without raising its overall costs.

Double down integration typically occurs when a leader is faced with one approach with many positives but one huge drawback and another approach which has one vital positive but many drawbacks. The integration takes the benefits of the first approach to confer the one significant benefit of the alternative approach.

Integration by decomposition

Sometimes a decision maker is faced with two approaches that are attractive or two approaches he or she wishes could be implemented at the same time, but that doesn't seem possible. An example might be the desire for the organizing benefits of centralization and the agility flowing from decentralization.

The solution, the authors say, is to think more deeply about the problem itself, breaking it down into its component parts. The idea is to then create more value by combining the discrete elements into a new approach.

Dr. Victoria Hale, of biotechnology firm Genentech, did that when she pondered treating diseases and disorders in the developing world. The Big Pharma approach is to put vast resources into developing treatments for people who can pay. The public health approach is that we have an obligation to provide care to everyone, regardless of ability to pay.

Dr. Hale developed the Institute For One World Health, which takes drugs developed and tested by the pharmaceutical company that never went to market and, as a non-profit, delivers them through a public health approach where ability to pay doesn't matter.

Hidden gem integration

When you have two opposing models that have a balance of good and bad but don't fit together, the solution is to take a core element of each approach that speaks to the heart of what you truly want to achieve. You build a new model around these hidden gems.

In South Africa, Taddy Blecher used that to create a new type of university, which combined gems from the traditional physical campus approach and distance learning. Students pay the equivalent of about $50 and come to the central campus for one year to create a community that will sustain them in later years of distance learning. They donate their time to run the university and keep costs low, and faculty is drawn from the corporate community, again reducing expenses as well as helping students to get jobs afterward.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter