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 in the strategy context 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. Bringing people and process together is essential to become futures ready.
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've been trained to use!). 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 organisations 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’.
Integral strategy: Bringing process and people together
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 drawn 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 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 requires 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. 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 strategic alignment will result
Conversations about the future are the way to engage people, to explore the left hand quadrants in a strategy process. Conversations create a 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 conversations - to dive into what we know we don't know, 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.
In practice: The Quadrants Applied to Strategy and Conversations
I have adapted the quadrant framework to use in organisational strategy by identifying strategic conversations spaces (Figure 2). The quadrants provide the frame needed to create people focused, collaborative conversations and inclusive processes to generate futures ready strategy and organisations. Since all four quadrants provide a dimension of reality that cannot be ignored, different types of conversations about the future in each quadrant provide the holistic scaffolding needed to (i) surface our collective ideas about possible futures and (ii) identify multiple pathways to those futures.
Figure 2: Futures Ready Conversations
The Upper Left is where we as individuals hold our own ideas about the future of our organisations. Its where our deeply held assumptions that help us make sense of working and interacting in those organisations today live - here we need conversations with ourselves, re-framing our internal strategic thinking.
The Upper Right is the space where we individuals come together in organisations, the observable behaviour of people and organisations as a whole - here we need conversations about processes to use the future today, seeking to create collaboration across the organisation.
The Lower Left is the domain of organisational culture, the space where the organisational DNA that shapes what we do and how we do it emerges; this is tacit, unquestioned and often fiercely protected; it shapes how we respond to change and create strategy - here we need conversations about the power of this culture, and
The Lower Right, where changes in the external social system emerge to which organisations must respond, and in which organisations have to ensure strategic 'fit' - here we need conversations about change that matters and identifying strategic options.