Integral Theory and Project Management

After doing some soul-searching in order to find a new job that would be better suited to my background, my abilities, and my temperament, I decided to go into project management.    One of the reasons why the idea of coordinating people from several functional areas of an organization to work together on a project attracted me was because of my interest in Integral Theory.   Integral Theory, which has been developed by the philosopher Ken Wilber, tries to synthesize various philosophical perspectives into an interrelated network of approaches that are mutually enriching.

I started to do a blog post on Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, Ken Wilber’s magnum opus on Integral Theory, but I soon realized it was like a graduate-level text and required a LOT of familiarity with Integral Theory in order to be able to get a lot of benefit from reading it.   I recently got the book A Brief Theory of Everything, which is Ken Wilber’s attempt to create an “undergraduate” or beginner’s introduction to the Theory.    I intend to write posts on the various chapters of the book, but I wanted to use this post to give a thumbnail description of Integral Theory for those who may be interested in pursuing it further.


The development of philosophy which started among the Greeks had a dialectic between the One and the Many.   The tension between these two poles of philosophical thought is bridged by the concept of a holon, which is a concept introduced by Arthur Koestler and expanded upon by Ken Wilber in his twenty tenets of holons.    Simply put, every entity, concept, or even process is at once both a) an autonomous, self-reliant unit (whole entity) unto itself, and b) also a part of one (or more) other wholes, that form a set of nested “holarchies” like Russian matryoshka dolls.    These holons have horizontal relationships with other holons at the same “level”, and vertical relationships with wholes of which the holons are a part, or in the other direction, or wholes of which the holons are comprised.


a.   Quadrants

Each holon can be seen from its interior perspective, i.e., from the point of view of what each holon perceives of other holons, or from its exterior perspective, i.e., from the point of view of what other holons perceive of it.    Another dimension of seeing the holon is from its individual perspective, its sense as an autonomous, self-reliant unit, or from its collective perspective, its sense of connectedness to other holons on the same level.     These two dimensions of perspective, interior vs. exterior and individual vs. collective can be combined to form four quadrants:

  • interior individual or “I” perspective (intentional)
  • interior collective or “we” perspective (cultural)
  • exterior individual or “it” perspective (behavioral)
  • exterior individual or “its” perspective (social)

Different quadrants have different ways of perceiving the truth.   For example, in a trial the lawyer has to make inferences about the intentions of his or her client based on that client’s behavior.    On a project, the “truth test” or way of validating information will differ based on the type of person you are dealing with.    An engineer will want to draw a graph, an accountant will want to create a spreadsheet, and a lawyer will want logical arguments, and the marketing people will want to create a narrative.    As a project manager, you have to use skillful means in being able to communicate to any or all of these groups and tailor your message accordingly.

b.  Lines

Holons have different lines of development; these are referred to as intelligences.    Howard Gardner has pioneered the study of multiple intelligences in people,

  • musical – rhythmic
  • visual – spatial
  • verbal – linguistic
  • logical – mathematical
  • bodily – kinesthetic
  • interpersonal – emotional

There has been an increasing recognition that interpersonal or emotional intelligence is important in the workplace, in addition to the verbal – linguistic and logical – mathematical intelligences that our educational system emphasize.   The important thing to note is that just because you are highly developed in one intelligence, does not mean you that you will be highly developed in the other intelligences.    This is one of the reasons why creating diversity on your project team is important, because in that way you will likely “cover all the bases” when it comes to the various intelligences you will need to draw upon to successfully complete the project.

c.   Levels

Each of the lines of development has several levels, and people normally develop from one level to another sequentially.   In general, the lines of development can be summarized as having three broad levels:

  • egocentric (one’s concern is focused primarily on one’s self)
  • ethnocentric or sociocentric (one’s concern is primarily with one’s ethnic group or with one’s nation)
  • worldcentric (one’s concern covers the entire world)

The point here is that one can be at different levels in different lines of development.   You can read the paper every day to see news of the world, and thus have a cognitive line of development at the worldcentric level, while your emotional line of development is at the egocentric level.

d.  States

A holon’s consciousness can have several stages of development in the long term, but in the short term, there are variations called states of consciousness.    Every once awhile you can have a glimpse of a higher stage in what is called a peak experience, but this is usually just a glimpse.    To enter that stage permanently takes work!

e.  Types

Certain holons have a different consciousness than others because they are of different types, the most common pattern being male vs. female.    Understanding the interactions of the different types of holons is extremely important.

3.   SPIRITUALITY–Ascending vs. Descending

Dealing with spirituality is difficult because, for example, if you say the word “God”, it will have different meanings for different people.    These meanings are shaped by a person’s brain, experience, society and culture, to cover the four quadrants mentioned above.    In general, one line of spiritual inquiry sees “God” as separate from the world, and thus the goal is try to transcend the world and reach “God”–this is the “ascending” current of spirituality.

The other line of spiritual inquiry sees “God” as part of the world, and thus the goal is try to investigate God by investigating the various phenomena that exist in the world–this is the “descending” current of spirituality.

These two lines of spiritual inquiry not only exist in different places (the Western religions belong to the ascending current, and the Eastern religions to the descending current), but at different times in history (premodern belongs to the ascending current, modern belongs to the descending current, and postmodern belongs to both).    Understanding the language of these two currents helps in interfaith dialogue, something which I consider vital in our “global village.”

These are the main outlines of integral theory, and I intend to write summaries of some of the details of the theory as they occur in the book Brief History of Everything.   All of this may seem technical, arcane, or irrelevant to the practicalities of everyday life by some people, but I beg to differ:   the understanding of various perspectives of reality, and their interaction, is a vital philosophical training towards being able to combine the various perspectives of the people on a project team, which in turn is necessary for a project manager to do in order to get them working not as autonomous, self-reliant units but rather as a part of a whole, namely, the project.




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