An Integral Frame


An integral approach to the future integrates people, culture, process and context. It recognises that people create the future in their daily conversations, decisions and actions that are in turn, shaped by their mindsets, assumptions and biases.

Integral Futures, based on Ken Wilber's Integral Theory, allows an organisation to consider its future in a holistic way, focusing on both process and people. Like all frameworks, it is contested and dismissed by some - which is not surprising since all models are wrong, but some are useful in some contexts.

Integral's value for me comes from recognising that our fixation on strategic planning as the way to generate futures readiness is misguided. Planning processes all but ignore people and culture, the two things will ensure successful implementation of any plan. Bringing people and process together is essential to become futures ready, individually or in organisations

An integral frame connects process and people - it values people and their beliefs as relevant and valid data to use to inform thinking about the future.

Briefly: Integral Theory and the Four Quadrants

Integral Theory is multilayered, complex and still emerging. It's not the only integral approach but it is the one that makes sense for me, no doubt because it is the one I know most about. Wilber developed his theory to draw together what he determined were useful insights from all major areas of human knowledge, recognising that there are different ways of knowing across those fields.

For my work, the top-level integral concept of the four quadrants is the most useful. Each of the four quadrants provides a different lens on our experience of the world, our perspectives on reality, our ways of knowing, how we make sense of the world and how we approach the future (Figure 1). Wilber makes the point that each 'moment of being' has these four quadrants, these four dimensions.

We can become stuck in one quadrant and deny the reality or value of another quadrant. That made me think about how we accept strategic planning and its variants as valid (Upper Right Quadrant) while people and culture (Left Hand Quadrants) are less important the strategy process - not because they aren't valid ways of understanding change but because the planning mindset values data over people.

This video below is Ken Wilber explaining the origins and his understanding of the four quadrants - all of it is useful, but the main explanation starts is in the first six minutes.

Figure 1: The Four Quadrants

The Upper Left Quadrant is the individual’s interior, my sense of self, my consciousness, my way of making sense of the world – it is described using subjective ‘I’ language. The Upper Right Quadrant is the physical manifestation of the individual – our brains, physical bodies and behaviour as individuals and collectively come together in organisations – described using the objective ‘it’.

The Lower Left Quadrant is our culture and worldviews that inform how me make sense of the world, that provide the rules of the game – the collective and intersubjective ‘we’. The Lower Right Quadrant is the social systems and environment in which we and our organisations exist – described using the interobjective ‘its’.

The left hand quadrants have a people orientation. They cannot be seen, observed or measured without direct interaction with people - they represent the invisible organisation. The right hand quadrants have a process orientation. They can be observed, are empirical and measurable - they are the visible organisation.

An Example: Strategy development


There's an industry about the doing of strategy that we call strategic planning and it's located in the right hand quadrants. It's a tangible process, creates data and can be measured. It produces a plan. We write about strategic intent, mission, goals, actions and KPIs. We feel comfortable in the right hand quadrants. There is certainty. We know what we know. We do things. We tick boxes. We know strategy cognitively* here. This is strategy in a box, the doing of strategy.

The doing of strategy is essential, but on its own, it won't generate the holy grail of staff ownership and engagement. The strategy is usually based on premises that worked in the past and the present but haven't been tested for futures relevance. It is strategy without a future that is likely to fail when change arrives on the organisation's doorstep. We will wonder why the strategy presented in a glossy document fails in the execution stage, is resisted or ignored. 

It's because the doing of strategy is disconnected from the left hand quadrants where the thinking of strategy occurs. It is in the Upper Left Quadrant where people hold images and ideas about the future of their organisations minds that shape how we respond to strategy as individuals. When we are not treated as individuals in strategy processes, those beliefs push back.

If the future described in plans and presentations by leaders and managers in the Upper Right Quadrant don't match their organisation's behaviour and reward system, the power of organisational culture in the Lower Left Quadrant means only superficial change occurs in the guise of implementing a plan. Doing strategy is no longer enough.


An integral frame asks us to also address the left hand quadrants in strategy development. 

What happens in these quadrants is not tangible or easily measured though - it's not a space we are used to exploring in overt ways. It's messy and complex and few organisations collect information routinely about what people think about the future of their organisation as a result. To access these quadrants requires us to ask people what they think about the future, not assume that everyone in the organisation will accept what's written in the plan without question and that strategic alignment will then be automatic.

Conversations about the future are a way to engage people and explore the left hand quadrants in a strategy process. Conversations create a dedicated space for people to come together to collaboratively think strategically, to have conversations where imagining possible futures is the first step to co-creating a shared future, which is then documented in a plan.

It's a space that invites uncertainty and complexity into the room - to dive into what we know we don't know and explore what we don't know we don't know with an open mind, to build collective understanding and solutions, to experience strategy emotionally, as felt*. This is the thinking of strategy.

If we are seeking to be futures ready today, we need people and processes. An integral frame for strategy development closes the doing-thinking gap, and puts the human back into strategy development.

*Jeanne Leidtka talks about the doing and thinking of strategy as both knowing and feeling strategy, to experience strategy both cognitively and emotionally.
— Strategy as Experienced, Rotman Magazine, Winter 2011, pages 29-38