An integral approach to organising

– 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):

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:

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 the overlay here – it is beyond my modest design skills).


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…