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Developing personal integrated thinking in the age of crisis

Posted 16 June, 2020

Developing personal integrated thinking in the age of crisis

COVID 19 has seen widespread global disruption at levels unprecedented in human history. And yet, humans have never been as connected as they are now – a result of rapid advances in technology, and a global connection coming in the form of one economy.

Even if this global economy is not necessarily tangible to all of us as we go about our every day, its tangibility comes home to roost in times of crisis.

The world is increasing its pressure on us all to reconsider past socially-constructed models, and search for new solutions to human organizing, measuring and valuing that account for the realities we now face: crisis, uncertainty, paradox.

Integrated thinking in business

This requires a different way of viewing business. By incorporating broader more holistic perspectives in businesses, professional bodies and business education – we can achieve this.

An integrated approach means that organisational capitals are viewed holistically as a system, where an impact on one capital will affect another, with this being managed accordingly. There are going to be conflicting priorities between the different capitals we are using and compromises to be made, and these will need to be carefully thought through and designed in a way that creates successful outcomes.

Developing your personal integrated thinking

Integrated thinking plays a crucial role in this. However, integrated thinking is currently thought of mostly at an organisational level, with very little attention paid to the integrative thought processes individuals should go through.

I am interested in exploring how we can begin to facilitate the development of this way of thinking in business leaders of the future. It is about developing our ability to deal with complexity, adapt to change and carry with us an openness to new ways of thinking, interpretations and perspectives (Miller, 1981).

In part, this requires accountants and other business professionals tasked with conscious leadership and integrated reporting to develop new attributes. Accountants will need to learn to understand and be comfortable with complexity, recognising complex relationships, visualizing them and appreciating ambiguous, contradictory and incomplete information. This is a stark difference to thinking solely in numbers and losing sight of the big picture.

A sense of adaptability and a comfortableness with change is always a challenge, especially where individuals may need to approach problems in new and previously unexplored ways, recognising when such approaches are needed and valid.

This requires a level of openness where professionals are willing to see another viewpoint, and are open to interpretations, perspectives and ideas different from their own.

So, when you start to analyse this integrative approach to thinking, you find that professionals who show high degrees of empathy, are autonomous and guided by a sense of purpose in themselves, are the strongest and most developed thinkers.

Learning experiences outside of the norm

I am interested in how these attributes can be facilitated in the professional development of future business professionals. I work with inquiring pedagogies that cross-over disciplines and with artistic methodologies that explore perspectives to expand the focus of students’ development, so that they are able to see complexity in business, adapt to different perspectives and assess their own openness to new experiences.

In February 2020, we worked in collaboration with Osnabrück University, Germany, and in partnership with the German Academic Exchange Services (DAAD), to bring together German and Australian students to investigate business models in the context of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This two-week intensive learning program aimed to develop these individual integrated thinking capabilities by investigating key themes of technological change, sustainability, accountability, and future-orientation within a cross-cultural context.

SAP brought to life the complexities and adaptability businesses face when managing their capitals, introducing students to their Digital Boardroom – making data visualization and holistic analysis possible on screen. Deputy Secretary General, Yvonne Zwick of the Sustainable Development Council of Germany was able to place business reporting into a systems perspective discussing the complexities of the United Nations SDGs and what this means for good governance practice.

And in a theatre workshop, students experienced a performative process, reflecting on business communication and how closed off this can be, where in a growing world of automation there is a very real need to connect to humanistic forms of communication. With one student commenting:

“The most intriguing experience for me was the theatre in Lingen as they had us open up and interact with each other in forms of body language and communicating when each person has to take action. These sessions are used for business professionals that are often very closed off. These individuals would ignore the other when acting and could not work in synergy. These sessions would improve their ability to look at the other individual and form an understanding when they are not able to talk using other forms of communication”.

We could not have predicted back in February just how quickly individuals would need to action capabilities around complexities, adaptivity and an openness – COVID 19 has indeed opened up some paradoxical learning opportunities that require this new way of thinking.


Miller, A. (1981). Integrative Thinking as a Goal of Environmental Education. The Journal of Environmental Education, 12(4), 3-8.


Nick is an award-winning educator who works as an innovator, instigator and disruptor to create future-oriented business education programs that focus on innovation, creativity and design thinking. He has a passion for accountability, co-founding The Accountability Institute – a progressive platform with an aim of fostering collaborations between art, science, technology and economics, bringing these fields into conversation to create a new language of business – a language of accountability