Not Even Wrong – Wheelan, Integral Theory and the evolution of organizations

October 2014
Stockholm – Papas Deli

Perhaps you have, quite like me, felt the frustration of observing group behavior through the lens of the IMGD model of Susan Wheelan. How does one go about establishing which phase a group is in, when the group does not have a voice, but consist rather of a multitude of voices, which can with varying degree of sophistication express their own understanding of where the group is at in terms of “stages” of group development. Sure, you can assess this from the outside, looking at actual behavior and listen in to how the group interact and solve problems, but the challenge remains.

So then perhaps you have, as I have, come to terms with the fact that the answer to the question “which stage is the group at when the separate individuals behave in ways that are congruent with different stages” is that the group can be at several levels simultaneously and that individuals and the whole group can move between the stages depending on time, situation and context.

This is fine, the model is still very useful. It is actually the tension between individuals at different stages that create the conflicts that need to be resolved in an amicable manner in order for the whole group to evolve.

The tricky part here is that people at different stages have different ways of dealing with conflict and tension. This then, is the challenge of group development. And this is what makes it so hard, yet so rewarding when it finally falls into place.

With this background established, we move on to Integral Theory, which – as Frederic Laloux demonstrated rather convincingly in his wonderful achievement “Reinventing Organizations” – is a rather useful model to explain the evolution of organizations.

When we talk about evolutionary stages of organizations, we can make a similar observation to the one we did when discussing IMGD. Different individuals, or even whole departments, can be at different evolutionary stages at the same time, within the same organization. This too creates tension and conflict, and this too needs to be resolved in an intelligent way. Anyone who has ever tried to promote Agile/Lean values and thinking beyond the “software department” understands how challenging this can be.

Even though this is a rather banal realization, as any model that proposes defined stages of evolution or development will have these issues hard coded within the very structure of the model, I have found it a valuable thinking tool.

If we turn now to John Hagels “Passionate Explorers”, the wonderful “Rebels at Work”, or any other description of progressive change agents, we know that the frustrations that these pioneers experience are very real. Many of us have felt or feel that we bang our head hopelessly against the unmoving concrete walls of “the old ways”. The fact that the departments or people in the organization that belong to a “lower” evolutionary stage still pay lip service to the ways and values of the “higher” evolutionary level (because it’s fashionable, you see) well that just makes it even more difficult.

The only way I know how to make people aware of when they’re not living their own espoused theory is to expose them to this reality, and this might not be pleasant conversations to have. Or even more troublesome, these conversation are often hindered by they way organizations are structured. This is precisely why successful change initiatives are almost always initiated at “the bottom”, but most certainly need the involvement of “the top” in order to succeed. We must not underestimate the cultural influence of an executive whose ideas and values belong to a “lower” evolutionary stage of organizational development.

In my experience, getting people used to the idea that there can be no action without theory, is a good start. You DO behave certain ways because you DO have theories about the nature of things, be it people (theory X / theory Y) or Organizations, leadership, management, purpose of organizations and businesses. These theories might not be known to even yourself – which is why reflection,  introspection and self-leadership must be promoted.

As always,the journey starts with someone taking the leap, and kickstarts the spiral of openness and trust.

Earlier post on Not even Wrong

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