Book Review: 'Creating Great Choices' by Jennifer Riel and Roger L. Martin
Creating Great Choices: A Leader’s Guide to Integrative Thinking Jennifer Riel and Roger L. Martin Harvard Business Review Press (September 2017)
The alchemy of making great decisions
If you did not buy your copy of this book from Amazon (mine was a gift), don’t bother to review it because — with rare exception — Amazon only features reviews of verified purchases. That policy may be legal but it is certainly contemptible.
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Note: Although the title of this book refers to “leaders,” I presume to suggest that “decision-makers” is more appropriate because the abundance of information, insights, and counsel provided by Jennifer Riel and Roger Martin can be of substantial value to almost anyone who must make an especially difficult decision, whatever the nature and extent of the potential impact may be.
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In their book Judgment Calls, Thomas Davenport and Brook Manville explain how and why decisions made by a Great Organization tend to be much better than those made by a Great Leader. Why? While conducting rigorous and extensive research over a period of many years, they discovered – as Laurence Prusak notes in the Foreword — “that no one was looking into the workings of what we term organizational judgment – the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.”
Presumably they agree with Riel and Martin who assert that decision-makers must understand how they see the world and also see themselves in it in order to make great decisions. Great decisions require having great options to consider. A specific mindset and a specific methodology are involved when engaged in that process as is a mastery of specific skills.
In the Preface, Riel and Martin call their reader’s attention to “that most useful of tools, the opposable thumb. Shared by humans and most primates, the opposable thumb is what we use to create tension against our fingers to grasp and manipulate objects. Similarly, the opposable (the eponymous title of one of Martin’s previously published books) is one that can create tension between ideas, using that tension to develop new answers to challenging problems.” This practice is what Martin characterizes as “integrative thinking.”
I think there are significant correlations between the medieval process of alchemy — using a crucible of thermal pressure to convert raw materials into precious metals — and the modern process of converting raw but promising ideas into great options that become – during and within a methodology of rigorous scrutiny and contention — the best possible decision within in the given context.
These are among the several dozen passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Riel and Martin’s coverage:
o Making Choices or Creating Choices (Pages 10-15) o Our Models Are Easily Manipulated (23-26) o Making Choices in Organizations (34-40) o Metacognition: Thinking About Our Own Thinking (43-48) o Empathy: Appreciating the Thoughts and Feelings of Others (48-52)
o Sequence of the Integrative Thinking Process (63-74) o Three Reasons Why the Focus Should Be on the Positive Effects of a Model (95-96) o “Steps of Examining the Models (119-124) o Three Pathways to Resolve Tension (142-143 and 143-162) o The “Hidden Gem” Pathway (143-161)
o Three Principles of the Creative Process (166-168) o Prototyping (173-197) o Storytelling: Possibility to Narrative (178-180) o A Different Mindset (190-191) o Exploring Stance (205-211)
I commend Riel and Martin on their brilliant use of several reader-friendly devices. They include dozens of “Figures” (e.g. 9-1-4, “Odes of Learning”), “Try This” interactions with key material, checklists of key points and sequence steps, mini-commentaries, and 14 “Templates.” These devices and exercises will facilitate, indeed expedite reviews of key material later. I highly recommend highlighting key passages; also, having a lined-page notebook near at hand in which to record notes, questions, and page references.
Obviously, some great decisions are made by an individual; most are made in collaboration by members of a group. The key point is that the best decisions are based on the best options under thorough consideration.
I wholly agree with Jennifer Riel and Roger Martin: “Integrative thinking “is not a silver bullet. It is not the single thinking tool for all circumstances. But when you find that your conventional thinking tools are not helping you to truly solve a problem, integrative thinking can be a tool that shifts the conversation, defuses the interpersonal conflicts, and helps you move forward.”
Moreover, The process may not provide brilliant answers every time, but will always help make your thinking clearer, boost your curiosity about other peoples models [e.g. organizational or career competitors’], and give you room to create. And that, after all, is the goal: not to choose between [or among] mediocre options, but to create great choices.”
Obviously, decisions that produce a solution should address the right problem and decisions that produce an answer should address the right question. Here is great advice from Peter Drucker that I urge all decision-makers (including leaders) to keep in mind: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”
Editor's note: This review was written by Robert Morris and has been published with his permission.Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.