An integral approach to organising

13/11/2013 § 5 Comments

– organise – “form into an organic whole” (Oxford Dictionary).

For many years I have been interested in, nay fascinated by, organising and organisations. I feel I have something in common with Sisyphus who, in the Greek legend, was fated to spend eternity rolling a large rock up a mountain, only to watch it roll down again every time he approached the top. Likewise, just when I think I am on the verge of making a profound breakthrough in my understanding, I learn something that humbles me, that makes me realise how little I really know.

I am in good company. Great management writers including Peter Drucker and Charles Handy have acknowledged the awesome complexity of the subject. In the words of Handy: “The meeting of self and others, of individual, or individual institution, and the community, is probably the most complex issue of our time.”

So with that in mind, in all humility, I want to offer up here my integral model of organisational regulation. I call it integral because it draws together multiple ways of looking at organisations, and because it draws on the work of Ken Wilbur, who developed an “integral model” which he shared in his book “A Theory of Everything.” Without further ado, here is my model (click on it to see an expanded view):

Picture 2

The idea is that you can use this model if you want to make sense of, or seek to influence the behaviour of, a group of people. By looking at each quadrant in turn, you can form a picture of the organisation that is multi-dimensional. So for example if you want to understand why the UK banks have been behaving in the way they have, you can start by looking at the top left quadrant. This will lead you to enquire into the values, the inner drivers, of the individuals in the bank and particularly those at the top. Many people never get beyond this enquiry. But we have only just started.

Moving down to the bottom left, you might then enquire into the culture of the bank. What are the shared values, the shared norms? What world view predominates? What does the organisation as a whole consider most important?

In the top right I have placed governance (it is externally visible and it is about relationships between individuals). What rules, procedures and structures are in place? How does the bank make decisions, and how are they implemented? Who is involved? What checks and balances are in place? Who is accountable to whom? How does communication flow within the organisation?

Finally there is the bottom right: relationships with stakeholders, such as its investors, customers, suppliers, society and the planet. What systems does the bank have to engage with stakeholders, to listen to them, to understand their needs, to account to them for its behaviour?

The model can be quite revealing. One of the first things that is apparent is how people tend to get drawn into just one quadrant and disregard the others. People will insist that the banking crisis in 2008 was because of poor leadership. Others will talk only about the prevailing culture in the banks at the time, or about the need for better corporate governance. Our model is a reminder that life is more complex than that, and that we need to pay attention to all the quadrants. There are consultants who build entire careers specialising in leadership, or governance, or stakeholder engagement, or cultural work, and never understand where their part fits in, or even that they are only looking at part.

Using the model, it is possible to make general observations about different types of firms and where they tend to be more developed. Professional practice firms, for example, tend to be well-developed in the top part (the “I) and particularly the top left, leadership, while paying insufficient attention to the culture they create or their relations with their stakeholders, including their junior staff. Cooperatives are strong on “We” – culture and relations with stakeholders. They are much less well-developed in leadership and governance.

In small companies, the left hand side, the “softer” stuff of values, tends to be more significant than the right hand side. Key individuals can make a huge difference to the way the organisation behaves. By contrast in a large plc, the right hand side becomes very significant, particularly the bottom right where the power dynamics between the board, investors, customers, government regulation and wider society come into play.

For those of us with more than an academic interest in the behaviour of organisations, this model can be powerful tool. It can help us to make informed choices about where to intervene in the system. If we want to influence an organisation, should we seek to introduce leadership training? Or is cultural work more pressing, or perhaps some tweaks to the governance? Perhaps all of this is required, plus some attention to stakeholder engagement.

Using a variant of the model, we can even map the state of evolution of the organisation, and chart a course of development:

Picture 7

You don’t have to agree with my labels. You can adopt your own preferred model of what an evolved organisation might look like, drawing on Maslow’s hiearcarchy of needs, or spiral dynamics, or whatever.

Finally, there is one more overlay, a spiral (I won’t attempt that here – it is beyond my modest design skills). spiral

I want to add a spiral partly because I like spirals but mainly because it reminds us that each quadrant is closely related to, and interdependent with, the others. Improve the quality of leadership and you are likely to get better governance. Work on the culture and you will enhance stakeholder relations and raise the standard of leadership. And so on.

I will leave you with a couple of beautiful thoughts. Firstly, it doesn’t matter where you are on the spiral, life is about working with what you have and where you are. Secondly, the spiral has no end…


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§ 5 Responses to An integral approach to organising

  • Finn Jackson says:

    This is the Escher Cycle 🙂

  • thanks Finn. I am really pleased you recognise something in this. I will have to read your book again!.

  • donsalmon says:

    Wow, we finally disagree on something. I probably won’t have the time or space in this letter to go into much detail, but i think that Wilber’s quadrants are a terribly misleading tool. His view of development is at least 40 years outdated (and he never got a really good grasp of Piaget – one of my dissertation advisors was a developmental psychologist with a specialty in Piaget who just tsk tsk’d whenever Wilber’s name was mentioned).

    I imagine that you, being a deeply intuitive as well as generally all round intelligent person are simply using Wilber’s schema to help organize your own already rich and nuanced thoughts. So to some extent, it doesnt’ matter what model you use; Wilber’s can’t be too harmful.

    But just take the upper right – his original intent for that was to represent the outer individual – meaning the “physical” correlate of the mind-body relationship. Virtually every attempt to insert something into the upper right quadrant I’ve ever seen shows absolutely no logical relationship from one application to another.

    The upper right is, in Wilber’s writing, a dazzling array of confusion, contradiction and incoherence as he tries to fit a large number of contradictory categories into that quadrant.

    There are similar critiques about the lower quadrants, but even worse, there’s never been any clear guidance to how they relate. Wilber had developed something a fixation about proving that his model is superior to others, and he wanted to specially take on the perennial philosophers who prioritized the “inner”, so he has insisted that inner and outer quadrants are of equal value.

    This is of course wildly against the prevailing scientific paradigm, which is actually ok with me. But it also makes no sense in terms of virtually any spiritual tradition the world over.

    But it gets still worse – I met with a Wilber group here in Asheville for 6 months. I had one question, which nobody – including one person who is an organizational specialist (!!) and consults regular with various corporations and small businesses – could answer. What is the integrating principle in Wilber’s model?

    Well, they could say it’s “the nondual” – if you can tell me what that means I’d be interested; when you ask a Wilberian they get very vague and almost incoherent sounding; ultimately, nobody in the group had the answer. I think the reason is because there is none. With Wilber, every year you get another division – 4 quadrants, 8 zones of methodological pluraism, 9 levels of development, etc until you get thousands of mini-divisions and most dis-integral model imaginable.

    So what is the alternative, you might ask?

    Well, I’ve been studying the integral psychology of Sri Aurobindo for 37 years, and spent 5 years writing a book on it. But I’ll be the first to admit it’s WAY too esoteric for general consumption.

    But there is an extraordinary model that is ripe for use, that of Dan Siegel’s interpersonal neurobiology. In fact, you can look at the Spiral Dynamics model that Wilber uses and find a much much better translation using the neuroscience language that Siegel uses.

    And I’m working on an integration of interpersonal neurobiology and indian psychology in general (using some of Sri Aurobindo’s language as well) over at

    Science is radically changing. I suspect it may now be only 10 or 20 years before parapsychology is widely accepted. Once this happens, it will require a rethinking of virtually every scientific discipline. Along with that, we will have to rethink everything we know about ecology, economics, history, governance, etc.

    I don’t know anywhere outside the Indian tradition (Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, what have you) where you can find such powerful, profound answers to the knowledge problems that will certainly emerge in the next few decades.

    Well, enough for now! It’s rather remarkable to me that I’ve been reading your blog for so long and never found anything to disagree with before. But i’ve been reading and studying Wilber since his first book came out in the 1970s. It was cute what he was trying to do for awhile, throwing everything including the kitchen sink into a big pile and trying to sort it out. But since people started taking him seriously in the late 1990s, he’s been causing a tremendous amount of trouble, and ultimately, I think, keeping other, much better models from gaining the attention they so richly deserve.

  • Thanks Don.
    Well I certainly wouldn’t call myself a “Wilberian”. I suppose I found his quadrant quite “cute” (as you put it) – I was quite pleased with what came out when I played with it, and the four different boxes came up with four different things I feel are pretty important when looking at regulation of an organisation. There are plenty of other ways to slice and dice an organisation – millions of ways…..

    Anyway, I am happy to have your comments, whether or not you agree with me.

    Do you think you have an allergic reaction to Wilber? Because your comment was much more about Wilber than about what I put in the four boxes.

    Some of my friends found it quite helpful. A bit simplistic it may be, far from perfect too, but if it helps people see an organisation from a different perspective then it has done the job. Thank you Ken 🙂

    I would love to read, once it is ready, your neurobiology according to Sri Aurobindo – I think! I hope it will be designed to be digestible by simple lawyer’s brains…

    As for me, the way forward to a more holistic approach may be to seek to get to grips with Alan Rayner’s inclusionality – some of his language really grabs me. Have you come across it – you might like it.

    All the best


  • donsalmon says:

    Hey Patrick: As usual, you are remarkably non-reactive – and perceptive. Yes, I definitely have a “wilber” thing – nuff said about that for now (is that an expression across the pond? “nuff said”?

    Yes, practically speaking, if it helps, great! And I will check out Alan Rayner as well. Thanks for the recommendation.

    No time now to spell out an alternative, and I’m not sure we’ll have that much helpful stuff for the organizational level on our site.

    But hopefully our next site (which won’t be up until at least mid to late 2015) will address these issues.

    Meanwhile, always enjoy your posts. Now I”m off to look up Mr. Rayner:>))

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