Integral Theory: Understanding Your Business from a Truly Holistic Perspective

I recently finished reading the book A Brief History of Everything, by Ken Wilber, who I first wrote about last year in a post entitled “An Integral Approach to Marketing.” I have wanted to read this book for some time to better get a grasp of Ken Wilber’s ideas, who has influenced everyone from Bill Clinton and Deepak Chopra, to writer Michael Crichton and the Wachowski Brothers (directors of The Matrix). According to the web site

What makes Ken Wilber especially relevant in today’s world is that he is the originator of arguably the first truly comprehensive or integrative philosophy, aptly named “Integral Theory”.  As Wilber himself puts it: “I’d like to think of it as one of the first believable world philosophies …” Incorporating cultural studies, anthropology, systems theory, developmental psychology, biology, and spirituality, it has been applied in fields as diverse as ecology, sustainability, psychotherapy, psychiatry, education, business, medicine, politics, sports, and art.

To be a little more clear, Integral Theory aims to piece together a framework for better understanding the issues of the world through a lens that takes into account at least four different dimensions including the interior-individual (intentional), the exterior-individual (behavior), the interior-collective (culture), and the exterior-collective (social systems). A map of that overview is below:


In the book specifically, he chronologically synthesizes the seemingly unrelateable categories of human psychological development and human behavioral development from the perspective of natural science, together with social and cultural development in this map:


Practical Application to Business & Marketing

To give a practical example, in A Brief History of Everything, Wilber talks about some of the ways this model can be practically applied to such fields as law, education, and business. He writes:

Q: People can start to build this integral vision themselves by applying the four quadrants to whatever field they’re in.

A: That’s true. In medicine, for example, you can see that any effective care would have to take into account, not just the objective medicine or physical treatment that you give a person (UR), but also the person’s subjective beliefs and expectations (UL), the cultural attitudes, hopes and fears about sickness (LL), and the social institutions, economic factors, and access to health care (LR), all of which have a causal effect on the course of a person’s illness (because all four quadrants cause, and are caused by, the others). You can also do the same analysis with law, education, business, politics, environmental ethics, schools of feminism, prison reform, philosophical systems,and so on.

And this will pay off in the most concrete ways. If the four quadrants are real, then any health care system that includes all of them will be more effective (and therefore more cost efficient). Any business that takes them into account will be more efficient and thus more profitable … the general idea is simply that we need to exercise body, mind, soul and spirit—and to do so in self, culture, and nature.

In short, an “all quadrants, all levels” approach to business is one that takes into account various angles of understanding to best arrive at a solution. It’s a novel way of approaching business from a “holistic” perspective in the highest sense.

Current Trends in Business

I absolutely loved A Brief History of Everything from a “holistic business” perspective because not only does it provide a foundation for new ways of looking at your business and its place in the world, but it really lays down a foundation for understanding the various ways of thinking about a business today. For example:

  1. It frames such megatrends as conscious capitalism (which is quickly reaching becoming a part of mainstream business thought with such recent publications as Whole Foods CEO John Mackey’s new book Conscious Capitalism, now being prominently displayed in the front of Whole Foods stores across America) and how they fit into the overall picture.
  2. It also sheds light on systems theory, in that looking at the organizational system of a culture is just one aspect of understanding it (namely, from the exterior-collective view).
  3. Finally, it helps to explain movements such as green movement (more background via my post “The Greening of Global Brands”), which at its core is really just another partial response to a larger issue, or another exterior-collective approach.

Needless to say, Wilber’s approach to understanding Integral Theory is about as large-scaled and macro an approach to understanding where we are in the world today as anyone has ever attempted to piece together before. His ability to stream together an integral vision fascinating. His research, understanding, and interpretation of historical figures, epochs, and philosophical thought is quite intriguing. Despite whether or not you agree with the central message, I felt there were many takeaways based on the lovely language coupled with the book’s level of complexity.

The Integral Institute

In addition to having over 20 books published in 30 languages, Wilber is the founder of The Integral Institute. According to the website, Wilber was approached by philanthropists in the late 1990s who recognized the Integral framework’s potential to transform people and institutions. In the following years, the Institute built the structure, community and vehicles for incubating formal Integral study: book, video and audio publishing; accredited education; scholar advisors; and programs that reached out to teachers and learners alike.

In closing, given the fact that marketing’s role within the organization has shifted from something ancillary to more fundamental, it’s important for CMOs and marketing managers alike to understand their respective  businesses form such a high level so that they can make better informed decisions that are more in tune to the needs of the various audiences they represent.

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