"All real-world problems are interdisciplinary, interprofessional, and international. … A committee of narrow thinkers doesn’t produce integrative outcomes. The best interdisciplinary instrument is still the individual human mind.”

     Harlan Cleveland, The Knowledge Executive, 1985

Integrative thought & action


Synthesis and analysis are both essential in public policy work and complement each other. Synthesis (integrative or "lateral" thinking) is needed to break out of old thought patterns and generate new ideas. Analysis (sequential or "vertical" thinking) is needed to choose the best course of action and carry it out. For various reasons, however, skills in analysis are more common and much more widely applied than skills in synthesis.

This has important implications for policy planning and implementation. A new understanding of the nature of politics has emerged over the past 45 years, drawing on advances in psychology and systems theory. In this view, the common conception of decision-making as a rational, linear process is erroneous. As the political scientist Kai Lee writes in Compass and Gyroscope (1993),  "The policy process is not a process at all in the usual sense; rather than being a sequence in which information is assembled and debated and decisions reached, government is better understood as an organized anarchy ...  instead of conveyor belts on an assembly line, there is a ‘policy primeval soup.’"

Step-by-step strategic planning, long the cornerstone of policy-making, is now widely questioned, even by those who have been its strong supporters. They include Henry Mintzberg, who concludes in The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning (1994) that the term "strategic planning" is an oxymoron: the key to planning and problem solving is synthesis, not analysis. Such ideas have strongly influenced management thinking in the private sector, but have been slow to penetrate the public policy community.

InterEnvironment Institute has emphasized the latter since its founding in 1969 and started giving explicit attention to integrative methodologies in the mid-1980s. This has included:

-- Editing and publishing resource guides that "map" organizations and place issues in broad context. These include The California Handbook, the standard guide to sources of information about the state, and volumes on a wide spectrum of California topics and global problems.

-- Convening, experimenting with, studying, and promoting high-level policy dialogues; this has included organizing an international workshop on methodology that resulted in The Power of Convening; and research on collaborative decision-making on hazardous waste in California that resulted in Breaking Political Gridlock.

-- Research and convening on an integrative ecosystem approach to natural resource planning that contributed to launching the interagency California Biodiversity Council.

-- Research and convening on defining the integrative concept of sustainability in a global context (resulting in a book, A Sustainable World) and building it into decision-making.

-- Leading an international environmental strategy commission that included working groups on such integrative policy tools as landscape approaches to natural resource management, national and regional strategies for sustainability, and linking population and environment.

– Leading an international task force on the complex interconnections among urban places, urban people, cities as governments, and nature and natural resources.

These activities are described elsewhere on this Web site. They have been supported by, among others, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Hewlett Foundation, the Haynes Foundation, IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), and California state and United States government agencies.