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 how I think. Like any framework or model, it won't suit everyone (they usually call it flawed) and it's only useful if it's useful in the context in which it's applied.
Until now, I have used integral mostly in stealth mode in my work. Honestly, a lot of people 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. Conventional strategic planning gives us this process where we focus on the plan rather than how we think about the future the plan is intended to move us towards. The glossy plan becomes the holy grail, and our thinking is trapped in today. If you are reading this post then I am hoping you agree that this sort of approach to problem solving and preparing for the future is both ineffective and waste of our collective energy and resources.
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 observe the future as disconnected from today, we package it up by following the strategic planning process, writing words that sound like change is happening (usually in the form of a restructure), then measure it to see if the strategy has been executed effectively. Or the executive group comes up with a strategy and presents it to the organisation and says go forth and implement my plan.
This is what I increasingly call strategy in a box, contained, seemingly controlled, with seemingly measurable outcomes that are supposed to inform everyone's work. This is about doing strategy. It's about doing something, using a process that keeps our thinking trapped in today.
Doing strategy ignores the human factor in strategy. It ignores the reality that unless each person understands the rationale for change from their perspective and wants to be involved in the thinking around how to respond to change shaping their organisation’s future, to co-create our future, it matters very little how perfect your strategic planning 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.
Putting the human back into strategy development is strategy that has closed the gap, escaped the box, that has people and collaborative processes at its core. This is about thinking strategy, moving beyond the conventional. It is this thinking about strategy that strengthens decision making and problem solving because it starts from the future not only the past and the present.
Using Integral to connect doing and thinking strategy
An integral mindset connects the doing and thinking in strategy development. Integral Theory is complex, multifaceted, well researched and contentious. Like any model or framework, it's use is context bound and helpful 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 dimension of reality 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 exterior 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 work but doing strategy in this space alone will not result in the changes organisations are seeking to help them respond proactively to change. In Leidtka’s terms, we know strategy here in the rational, cognitive sense here.
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. We feel it, understand it emotionally. This language alone is enough to send strategic planning aficionados running in the opposite direction. You can’t develop a KPI for someone’s ideas about or images of the future.
The left hand quadrants are where we hold beliefs and images of the future of our organisations, and where our responses to change when we are asked to do new things are generated. It’s where we as individuals either accept or resist change or buy into a strategy put in front of us. These decisions are usually informed by our unquestioned assumptions and cognitive biases. Here we also draw on our understandings of our organisation’s culture and the unwritten rules about ‘how we do things around here’. The impact of our thinking in this space is generally sub-conscious. In Leidtka’s terms here, we feel strategy, we have an emotional reaction to it.
This left hand quadrant space requires that we have processes to engage people in authentic ways, to involve them from the beginning to the end of the strategy development process. To make the decision to engage with people and culture in the strategy process is of course akin to opening Pandora’s box — it will bring all the elephants into the room. If we are to be futures ready however, we must re-connect people and process.
Integral in my work
I have kept integral on the back burner in my work since I learned about it in 2002-2003. I occasionally used it with audiences that I knew were open enough and ready enough to understand and not dismiss the framework. People who understood that dealing with complex change, wicked problems, a VUCA world - 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 focused my business mainly in the right hand quadrants on the doing of strategy, on helping people scan and identify change that mattered for their organisations. Using scenario thinking helped me inject the future into the strategy process to help them shift their thinking and to identify future facing options. We worked together to write strategy documents that avoided the formulaic approach of conventional planning approaches.
In this work, I often felt and listened to their exhaustion and frustration at dealing with the conventional planning approach that they just couldn’t accept in their hearts and minds. I was grateful when they said scanning and scenario thinking had opened their minds to the future. I was working in this conventional 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 re-frame strategy development using the integral four quadrants. To challenge the formulaic strategic planning approach we now might tweak and change, but still use. To value people and culture as much as process. To surface diversity of views about the future to create possible futures and value what’s possible as much as we value data and forecasts to create the one certain future.
To integrate thinking and doing strategy to perhaps create a space 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 collectively them 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 convergent thinking in this box 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 as on making sure the strategic questions are right — rather aiming for the right answer.
This integrated space connecting thinking and doing is where I need to position my work in an overt way from now on, doing away with integral in stealth mode. That might mean less conventional jobs like one day introductory workshops on foresight that others can do better than I can anyway. I hope 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 collaborative conversation about using foresight in practice, facing the future to be proactive in our responses to change today.
A few personal reflections
I have a lot of things to do to re-frame my doing work - which has what is visible to others - in this new 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 second. Who want to shape their futures to not end up with someone else's used future. I need to use how I interpret the left hand quadrants to make them visible in my work.
I am using integral to frame my literature review around 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 an artifact that was derived from the left hand quadrants.
I also came to understand that integral needed to be visible because of my work over the past few years with LH Martin Institute for Higher Education Leadership and Management 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 thinking of strategy and they can see the difference.
It also emerges from work I did last year with students in the Graduate Certificate in Collective Entrepreneurship at Torrens University. Here I was 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 been 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.