There are many forms of integral thinking and at their deepest level, these cognitive frames allow us to explore the development of human consciousness. I was introduced to Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory when I was studying strategic foresight, and its use has changed how I approach my work and my life. Largely though, I have used integral in stealth mode in my work.
Honestly, most people I encounter in my work aren’t ready for integral. They want the single right answer and they want it now so they can solve the problem and get on with their work. If you are reading this post then I hope you are reading because you realise that this sort of approach to problem solving and to preparing for the future is both ineffective and waste of energy and resources. Doing strategy has taken over how we think about the future, keeping that thinking trapped in today. This I call conventional strategic planning.
A gap between doing and thinking strategy
Wanting the right answer immediately is all about the doing of strategy – ticking a box, following a process, getting an outcome that can be measured, moving on to dealing with the next problem, living in the short term. These sorts of responses to change generate thinking about the future as a project. We package it up with much focus on getting the change process agreed, identifying the specific changes needed (usually a restructure), implemented and measured to see if the strategy has been implemented effectively. Or the executive group comes up with a strategy and presents it to the organisation.
This is what I increasingly call strategy in a box, contained, seemingly controlled, with measurable outcomes that are supposed to inform everyone’s work. This is about doing strategy. It’s about doing something, rather than having a framework for decision making and problem solving.
Doing strategy ignores the human factor in change if a new strategy is to get the required outcomes. It ignores the reality that unless each person understands both the rationale for change from their perspective and is involved in the thinking around how to respond to that change, it matters very little how perfect your change management process is or how good your strategy looks on paper. Jeanne Leidtka (Strategy as Experienced, Rotman Magazine, Winter 2011, pages 29-38) talks about this as both knowing and feeling strategy, to experience strategy both cognitively and emotionally.
Human focused strategy is strategy that has escaped the box, that has people and collaborative processes at its core. This is about thinking strategy. It is this thinking about strategy that creates a framework for decision making and problem solving that remains valid over time.
Using Integral to connect doing and thinking
An integral mindset connects the doing and thinking in the ways we craft strategy. Integral Theory is complex, multifaceted, well researched and contentious. Like any model or framework, it’s useful if it helps to understand something better. A primary organising concept in Integral Theory is the four quadrant framework with which to view human consciousness and action. These four quadrants each represent a particular area of existence and a particular perspective on the world that are structured around interior/exterior and individual/collective domains.
This graphic shows my interpretation of the Wilber’s integral four quadrants to highlight what we need to pay attention to when we are crafting strategy.
The right hand quadrants are where we do strategy, where we identify change that matters, where we create change management and strategic planning processes, write strategic plans, where we have annual workshops, produce KPI reports and create new goods and services. We need this but doing strategy alone will not result in the changes organisations are seeking when they invest time and energy in this space. In Leidtka’s terms, we know strategy here in the rational sense.
The left hand quadrants are the realm of human consciousness and organisational culture. Intangible, non-empirical and tacit in nature, this is where we think strategy.
This is what happens in our minds when we are asked to change what we do and how we do it. It’s where we as individuals either accept or resist this change, usually based on unquestioned assumptions.
It’s where we draw on our understandings of the organisation’s culture and its impact on what we do everyday to make these decisions about our responses to change. In Leidtka’s terms here, we feel strategy, we have an emotional reaction to it.
It’s not hard to see why conventional strategic planning approaches are contained in the strategy box in the right hand quadrants. The left hand quadrants are messy, can’t be measured, require that we have processes to engage people in authentic ways, to involve them from the beginning to the end of the strategy development process. Developing KPIs for this space is quite difficult. To engage with people and culture here is of course akin to opening Pandora’s box.
Integral in my work
I have kept integral on the back burner in my work, using it in stealth mode except occasionally with audiences that I knew were open enough and ready enough to understand the framework. People who understood that dealing with complex change, wicked problems, whatever we call the environment we operate in today, required more than a good change management process to ensure strategy is implemented in meaningful ways. They understood the value of thinking about what goes on in our minds and the influence of culture on the actions we take every day. They understood that their people underpinned and would shape the success of their organisation’s future.
As a result, I have focused my business mainly in the right hand quadrants on the doing of strategy, on helping people scan and identify change that matters for their organisations. Helping them write strategy documents that avoid the formulaic approach of conventional planning approaches. Listening to their exhaustion and frustration at dealing with this sort of strategy that they just can’t accept in their hearts and minds. I have been working in this strategy box while trying to push its boundaries as far as I could.
It is, however, now time to get strategy out of the box to move my work from, as Richard Slaughter says, the pragmatic to the progressive futures space. To make visible in my work how I reframe strategy development using the integral four quadrants. To value people and culture and surface diversity of views about the future to create possible futures as much as we value data and forecasts to create one certain future.
To integrate thinking and doing strategy to perhaps create a field first where we gather to think strategy, to feel it, to acknowledge our emotional responses to what our bosses what us to do, to work to understand collectively what needs to happen next. Where our thinking is expansive and divergent.
The outcomes of that thinking need to be written down as strategy and that does need a box of sorts. We need to make our thinking convergent to focus on doing, to getting things done, to enacting the strategy. This is a new strategy box however, because it’s not the fixed box of conventional strategic planning; instead its sides are permeable, letting new thinking in as it emerges, adjusting processes as needed, focusing as much on KPIs and on making sure the strategic questions are right rather than on getting the right answer.
The thinking field of the left hand quadrants scaffolds the doing box in the right hand quadrants, integrating the thinking with the doing.
This integrated space connecting thinking and doing is where I need to position my work in an overt way, doing away with stealth mode. That might mean less conventional jobs like one day introductory workshops on foresight and it means working with people on projects, establishing a relationship, working out how to bring my now isolated clients into a new collaborative space where we can have a continuing conversation about using foresight in practice.
A few personal reflections
I have a lot of things to reframe to position my doing work – which has what is visible to others – in this integrated space. My website, my presentations, my workshops, my courses, my resources all need to change. What matters most to me is that I work with people who want to be in the room, who are ready for change, who aren’t trapped in conventional strategic planning, who can see beyond data to the value of thinking first, doing next second. Who want to shape their futures not end up with someone else’s used future. I need to use how I interpret the right hand quadrants to make them visible in my work.
I realise now too that I recognised the need for integral to escape stealth mode while struggling with my PhD.
I am using integral as a methodological approach to explore contested ideas of the university, and I struggled to find the space where I really believed using integral was helping me do something that mattered. It’s only when I finally found that space that I had that PhD moment where everything clicked, where I sighed with relief. I could meet the PhD requirements of new knowledge in a way that drew on right hand quadrants to produce a artifact that lived in the left hand quadrants.
I also came to this recognition because of my work this year with LH Martin Institute ELamp student cohorts where I help people in universities to understand the value of strategic thinking and how they can use it in their work.
This is where their struggles of the doing is connected with the missing link, the thinking to frame the doing. I can see the foresight switch go on here, new thinking emerging, hope coming back. I feel rewarded professionally here and energised to keep going.
It’s also derived from the work I’m doing now with the Graduate Certificate in Collective Entrepreneurship at Torrens University.
Here I am blown away by the entrepreneurs in the course who are struggling to get their value propositions into that spot that matters, to understand how to ensure it stays relevant into the future and where I’m helping them understand their lived experience of that thinking over the year they spend in the course. This is a new course that focuses on connecting the people and us, the helpers, to create a collaborative space for the learning and beyond. It’s personally exciting for me and my thinking has been challenged and stretched here.
A lot of work behind the scenes as I make my aha moment a reality. Watch this space as they say.