Countless workshops with people since 1999, exploring: - what ‘the’ future means, - how to accept concept of possible futures as useful, and - how to shift assumptions beyond the ‘status-quo’.
Consistent challenge has always been to stop people talking in groups and return to the room to continue the process.
Energy generated with these conversations in the workshop dissipates afterwards unless there is organisational commitment to integrate thinking about the future.
I used to give people their task and let them go – now I’m trying to be more intentional with how I design conversations about the future.
For me, integral futures, developed from Ken Wilber’s integral theory, was that frame.
I don’t have the time today to do justice to the vertical and nested multilayered theory that is integral or the Integral Operating System, but I’ll provide a quick overview of the Four Quadrants which is the part of the theory that I use most.
I make no claim to using the full ‘Integral Operating System’ (IOS) in my work.
I use the Four Quadrants as a way to map whatever context in which I am working to gain a holistic view – of both that context’s intangible and tangible sides.
Two parts – left is intangible, invisible, tacitly constructed and maintained – where thinking about the future happens, where meaning emerges. Right is visible, observable, measurable, where we spend most time when ‘planning for the future’, where we make decisions based on shared meanings (or so we think).
Upper Left is the individual, my consciousness, my thinking habits, my hopes, beliefs, desires for the future as I interpret it. Lower Left is the collective culture – maybe our social culture or organisational culture. The rules of the game, what we take for granted in how the organisation operates. Upper Right is the behaviour of the individual – it’s visible and for organisations, it’s how we come together in processes and conversations about the future. Lower Right is the social systems in which we exist – the individual, the collective.
All four quadrants are equally important, all have equally valid ways of knowing about an issue, and all need to change to the same degree if we what desired change to be effective.
For me, integral futures provides a framework that brings together the inner world of people and organisations and their outer, observable worlds.
And since people create the future, not an organisational structure, it made immediate sense to me to connect the left and right hand quadrants, to overtly value imagination, images, beliefs, hopes and fears and unquestioned assumptions about the future as much as we need to value quantitative data.
It is a frame that makes it clear that anticipating the future starts in your brain and my brain and takes shape, is articulated in ways that allows us to make sense of the present when we design and run foresight processes.
Learned about IF at Swinburne in Masters course there.
Did a minor research assignment in Year 2 on an integral analysis of Swinburne’s then strategy, looking at what the rhetoric was and how the strategy was being received within the university – I surveyed staff and analysed outcomes using the integral frame. This is the graphic I drew as part of my research report. The detail doesn’t matter as much as providing me with ‘proof’ that the data that we can observe and measure is never the whole story when it comes to anticipating the future. The tacit and explicit need to be integrated in some way. And integral provides that way for me.
At Swinburne I kept hearing ‘data driven decision making’ and ‘evidence based decision making’ and while I have nothing against the value of data per se, I do have a problem when we rely on data as our sole source of information about the future. I can tell you a couple of stories about what happens when we think data is all we need.
My lecturer thought it was good
So now I interpret the four quadrants like this for my work in organisations. I map every organisation I go into like this, bringing both sides together to create a more holistic picture of what’s going on.
And I’m in the process of developing this framework – conversations about the future to frame my work. Now I’m not sure I’ve got this right yet so any comments you have are very welcome.
First, The left hand quadrants are about anticipating the future – because people anticipate the future – it’s tacit until made explicit. The right hand quadrants are about making that anticipation real in terms not of planning and control, but of readiness, openness and flexibility of thinking.
Second, the left hand quadrants are about developing futures agency as individuals and collectives while the right hand quadrants are about developing pathways to the future. I borrowed agency and pathways from Snyder’s version of hope theory – which posits that to achieve goals you set, you need both agency and an ability to create pathways to move towards that goal. It’s the same with anticipating the future. You can run scenario workshops, have great conversations, develop a vision and a plan – all on the right hand side – but if people feel powerless and that the vision is being imposed from on high, if the culture and the rhetoric don’t match, the pathways developed won’t achieve the goal. And for me, this is why strategic planning in its conventional, formulaic form, is no longer useful and indeed flawed given the environment we have now compared to the one that existed when SP was developed.
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.
Futures Literacy – ability to know what methods/approaches to use in what contexts to use the future today.
Cultural agency is understanding how the organisation’s culture is either open, arrested or closed to the future. Again, you have to ask people, listen to people about their stories or lived experience of working in the organisation. There is often dissonance between the rhetoric of the Upper Right and the felt experience of the Lower Left.
Usually interviewing selected people across the organisation and offering all staff the opportunity to complete a survey to identify their beliefs about how open the organisation is to the future, and what enables and constrains that openness.
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
Creating organisational pathways to the future is, for me, what foresight work is all about. Post workshop, those pathways need to be as clear as they can be – and challenged for validity with the people who weren’t in the workshop. To created pathways that are accepted requires more than just logic and rationality. JEANNE LIEDTKA HERE
Designing processes to create multiple views of possible futures using scenario thinking, and multiple pathways to the future using backcasting and options identifcation. This space brings individual and cultural agency together to co-create the future.
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 right quadrant – where we seek to understand that the organisation has multiple futures because the world has mulitiple social pathways. Most integral work on organisations makes this the organisation’s systems and I could do this to – environmental scanning, strategic thinking processes, strategy development. But ultimately, in foresight work in organisations, the organisation is seeking to make sense of the social system in which it is located.
Using environmental or horizon scanning, we create a map of your social environment to deepen your understanding of the range of factors shaping your organisation's future.
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.
More than strategic conversations, or strategic thinking.
Conversations about the Future
about the Future
Thinking about the future is
not a ‘thing’ – it happens in
The ‘future’ as idea, image,
Becomes ‘real’ when we talk
about it – language as social
construction (Fuller and
(Haiven & Khasnabish 2014)
• “… an analytical category of
sociological process … that
creates a shared landscape of
possibility and contestation.”
• “… emerges from and guides
IntegralTheory (Wilber 2000)
Integral Theory is complex, multi-
faceted, well researched (Esbjorn-
Hargens 2010) and contentious
(Meyerhoff, 2010; Gidley 2010).
Draws together what Wilber
determined were useful insights
from all major areas of human
knowledge and to “honour all truths
and acknowledge the value of many
different ways of knowing across all
significant fields” (Slaughter 2004).
Developed by Richard Slaughter
based on Ken Wilber’s work on
Integral Theory (2000 and many
“The entire external world is
constantly held together by interior
structures of meaning and value”
Social Systems &
Conversation Prerequisite What I do Desired Outcomes
Willingness to commit time and
space to think – regular and
Deeper understanding of
futures literacy and
agency, reframe ‘my’
Willingness to be open to the
outcomes, willing to make the
‘elephant in the room’ visible
Interviews, observation of
mapping (Enthesos -
Looking for organisational
DNA, ideas about what
the organisation is and
what it does – both
constraining and enabling
openness to the future
Willingness to move beyond
conventional strategic planning
and the certainty it provides
Co-design processes with
people to match context
– and push the
boundaries a little
process with all staff
having opportunity to be
involved - no information
Willingness to move beyond
‘what we know we know’ and
‘what we know we don’t know’
– always varies depending on
Futures focused scan, at
least 10 years into the
future, designed to
provoke thinking not to
Work in progress
developed earlier this year.
A work in progress.
• Sean Esbjorn-Hargens (2010) Integral Theory in Action, State University of New York.
• Jenny Gidley (2010) An other view of integral futures: De/reconstructing the IF Brand, Futures
• Ted Fuller & Krista Loogma, Constructing Futures: A Social Constructionist Perspective on
Foresight Methodology, Futures, 41 71-79.
• Max Haiven & Alex Khasnabish (2014) The Radical Imagination: Social Movement Research in the
Age of Austerity, Zed Books.
• Jeanne Liedtka (2011) Beyond Business Strategy: Strategy as Experienced, Rotman Magazine,
• Jeff Meyerhoff (2010) Bald Ambition: A Critique for Wilber’s Theory of Everything, Inside the
• Martin Rhisiart, Riel Miller & Simon Brooks, Learning to Use the Future: Developing Foresight
Capabilities Through Scenario Processes, Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 101(1) 124-
• Richard Slaughter (2004) Futures Beyond Dystopia, Routledge.
• Ken Wilber (2000) A Theory of Everything, Shambhala.
Get in touch
• Maree Conway
• Thinking Futures, Melbourne Australia
• Web: http://thinkingfutures.net
• Email: email@example.com