Designing Wisdom Economies: A Trans-disciplinary Meta Toolkit for Generative Leaders

March 4, 2018



In October of 2016, I was invited by regional business advocacy NFP, Sourdough Business Pathways (SBP), to join an all women brains trust that could strategically respond to the specific needs of women in business in our region. SBP is a joint initiative of the Sourdough Group and the Byron Community College. Its purpose is to help grow businesses and jobs throughout Northern Rivers, NSW.


A group of women entrepreneurs began meeting regularly to develop a strategic plan in response to the following brief:


Given the pace, scope and scale of technology’s impact on the future of work, what are the specific needs of women in business in our region and how might we work together skillfully to fulfill them? (Sourdough Business Women 2016).


Ten powerful, experienced and highly skilled thinker/doers joined together to address this question. In the beginning, we had no structures, processes, roles, services, shared set of principles or clear vision to guide us forward. In essence, our first move was to build relationship internally; we needed to learn how to work together as an auteopetic, self organising system within which our collective intelligence could be fully harvested in service to our community (Maturana & Varela 1987). A meta-frame toolkit was needed to both build a shared language and to chart the course forward.



High impact leaders with agency and influence are in over their heads (Kegan 1994). The gap between their own capacities and what the world demands of them are growing by the minute. Many are struggling to meet the challenges and complexities of 21st century economic and social conditions. Some are working within the parameters of current systems to dynamically steer change, while others are seeking entirely new patterns of thinking and action in response to our world’s most complex challenges. Climate change, social inequity and economic consumption models combine with global interdependency at

a scope and scale to vex the most sophisticated leadership (Petrie 2014).


The research of Theo Dawson PhD, Founder of Lectica, Inc., identifies a gap between complexity demands of leadership positions and a leader’s ability to meet those demands. She calls this, ‘the complexity gap’ (Lectica 2016). At Lectica, research conducted with the U.S. Federal government substantiates the finding that on average, ‘leadership positions that entail greater complexity perform well below the task demands of their job. This means that the average leader is likely to need help to close the gap’ (Lectica 2016).


PhD candidate and Lectica associate, Aiden Thornton, has also been researching leadership science in the context of the complexity gap. His findings suggest the following as levers for closing this gap:


(i) ‘Artificial intelligence – to process information in ways that our brains simply can't’ (AMA Thornton 2017, email, 14 August).


(ii) ‘Genetic engineering - natural selection will probably take another 700,000 years to produce the kind of biological and psychological modifications that we need, but there might be other ways to speed it up’ (AMA Thornton 2017, email,14 August).


(iii) ‘Collaborative technologies - the broader sense of technologies that allow collectives to operate more successfully on a problem; this is likely to include: (i) collective practices and processes; (ii) use of ICT; (iii) selection of people with the right capabilities’ (AMA Thornton 2017, email, 14 August).


Thornton goes on to list a fit-for-purpose criteria that could be used to construct new collaborative technologies, allowing collectives to work successfully on complex problem solving. Of the six criteria mentioned, the need for and use of a meta-framework to organise a plurality of information, knowledge and perspectives is highlighted. (AMA Thornton 2017, email, 14 August).


Consequently, this paper is a response to Thornton’s call for a pluralistic meta-framework. However, rather than a single meta-framework, the following case study suggests that a trans-disciplinary meta-frame toolkit is required to meet the task of supporting generative leadership, and the collectives they are a part of, to meet the complexity challenges they face. The tool kit suggested in these pages includes some of the meta-frames employed by MetaIntegral, a trans-disciplinary design firm in the U.S. that draws on the traditions of Design Theory, Adult Developmental Theory and Integral Theory, and features the



(i) Min Basadur’s How Might We – an ontological approach to defusing and/or solving intractable problems

(ii) Robert Kegan’s Stages of Social Maturity – a theory of cognitive development

(iii) Sean Esbjorn-Hargens’ MetaImpact Framework – a method that makes

explicit tacit value exchange and currency flow

(iv) Dan Nessler’s Double Diamond – principles and process of design


As a student, colleague and practitioner associated with MetaIntegral, I outline the application of this meta-frame toolkit on a community-building project with social and economic implications via a case study. The project was led by myself in commons with a collective of leaders for the purpose of co-designing a holistic response to the needs of entrepreneurial women living and working in Northern Rivers, NSW Australia. The method of research is project-based and includes my own first person subjective insights and reflections on an Action Research approach to applying the meta-frame tool kit in this context. Insights and learnings are incorporated within the case study.


Case Study

How Might We (HMW)

Divergent perspectives called forth skillful design leadership. In particular, the frequent use of How Might We questions (a technique used by Min Basadur at Proctor and Gamble in the 1970s and more recently featured in the Human Centred Design [HCD] process), were employed to transform intractable polarities into generative inquiries and innovative solutions (Basadur 2017). Without a framework for resolving conflict amongst group members, we were at risk of the team dissolving. However, HMW became our practice for

turning tension into dynamic and creative Eros (Bradbury & Torbert, 2016). By the time we mastered HMW, our team of ten downsized to a workable unit of six, BUT had achieved total alignment on the following design principles:


1. Respond to the needs of women

2. Create something holistic

3. Ensure impact

4. Integrate with the wider ecosystem of services

(Sourdough Business Women 2016)


Our next step was to choose a methodology so that we could address the brief in accordance with these design principles. We needed meta-frames that would provide us with: (i) a shared language and understanding of the system, (ii) a data capture, mapping and synthesis tool, and (iii) a design process.


Stages of Social Maturity - A Shared Language and Understanding Of The System

We understood that to enact the design principle of, ‘create something holistic’, we needed to upshift our own mindsets toward a more transformative, systems thinking level (Write & Meadows 2008). This included cultivating a shared capacity to zoom out far enough to see the fullest complexity possible, to recognize our role as ‘attractor’ within a larger network of resources, people and ideas, and to capture, sense-make and reframe a multiplicity of

perspectives in ways that would genuinely respond to the needs of the system (Goldstein,Hazy & Lichtenstein 2010, Hill 2012). This also meant that our assessment of the archetypal, collective level of thinking in our community would directly inform the language and framing of all communication, mechanisms for engagement and the design of initiatives. More importantly, the pace, scope and scale of disruption required, at minimum, a collective, ‘self authoring mind’ level of thinking. That is, women needed to step out in front of change rather than operate in response to it, ‘we must be the disruptors rather than the disrupted’ (M Cairnes 2017, pers. conv., 16 February). Therefore, our leadership team understood that a strategic response had to include a developmental learning component in order to facilitate an upshift in levels of thinking amongst the women we were serving (Kegan, 1994).


 Figure 1: Levels of Thinking by Robert Kegan, 1994.


MetaImpact Framework - Data Capture, Mapping and Synthesis

The MetaImpact Framework (MIF) is the brainchild of Dr. Sean Esbjorn-Hargens and is an extension of Ken Wilber’s Integral Methodological Pluralism (IMP). IMP was designed to be a, ‘map of everything,’ and includes both ‘looking at’ and ‘looking from’ four perspectives in any system (Esbjorn-Hargens 2010). In essence, it is a meta-frame that maps eight synchronous perspectives to provide a heuristic whole (Esbjorn-Hargens, 2014).

 Figure 2: The Four Quadrants of An Individual by Sean Esbjorn-Hargens, 2010.


Esbjorn-Hargens designed the MIF to make seeing, talking about and designing holistic systems using this methodology more accessible for stakeholders within social and economic contexts (S Esjborn-Hargens 2016, pers. conv., 23 Wednesday).


The MIF is grounded in a commitment to impact in four domains:


Deep Impact: transforming individual subjective hearts and minds

Clear Impact: transforming individual objective behaviors

High Impact: transforming collective inter-objective systems

Wide Impact: transforming collective inter-subjective relationships

( 2016)


Esbjorn-Hargens goes on to describe impact as:


‘The positive transformation of any of these four dimensions (hearts/minds),

behaviours, systems, and relationships) that can be cultivated and measured with first-person, second person, or third-person formal and informal methods and practices.’ (S Esjborn-Hargens 2016, pers. conv., 23 Wednesday).


Figure 3: Four Impacts by Sean Esbjorn-Hargens, 2016.


Before we could apply this tool to the broader project’s design process, we first needed to apply it on ourselves as a methodology for self-organising.

Figure 4: Adapted from Four Impacts by Sean Esbjorn-Hargens, 2016.


Time was spent establishing ‘who’ we were as a leadership team based on a set of shared principles, or patterns of commoning, which would inform our own self-regulated behaviours (Bollier & Helfrich 2015). These patterns included:


• Respecting one another’s time and opinions

• Engaging in active listening and inquiry practices

• Making space for the quiet people

• Letting the creativity flow

• Communicating concisely and jargon-free where possible

• Following a consent based, strategic decision-making process

• Challenging with questions rather than criticism

• Committing to decisions made

(Sourdough Business Women 2017)


We followed with structures, processes and ITC platforms that would facilitate ‘how’ we worked together, including the way we ran meetings, made strategic decisions, engaged in asynchronous communication, collaborated on convergent ideas, drafted marketing collateral and designed/delivered community engagement events. This process was quite extensive, took several months and required our most active HMW thinking to action.


Double Diamond - Design Process

Once we established the ‘who’ and ‘how’ for ourselves, then we were able to pivot from an inward to outward facing orientation. I chose to introduce Dan Nessler’s Double Diamond diagram to deepen the group’s understanding of a Human Centred Design (HCD) approach, and to make sure we were designing the right thing before investing too heavily in designing it right; we needed both a process and a collective understanding of the divergence/convergence dynamic of HCD ( 2015). It was particularly challenging to manage the polarity between outcome AND process, as some team members wanted

to make things happen straight away, while others favored more strategic 

consideration (Johnson 1998). We did lose some members early on for whom the ‘go slow to go fast’ approach didn’t gel with their own personal pace.

Figure 5: The Revamped Double Diamond by Dan Nessler, 2016.


With the original brief in hand and our internal relationships well established, we ran a process that included:


• Community wide perspective seeking and empathy building events

• Mapping and synthesizing perspectives

• Aligning on a vision that reflected the community

• Ideating and converging on a set of initiatives

• Building a communication strategy & infrastructure

• Prototyping initiatives

• Measuring impact of initiatives

(Sourdough Business Women 2017)


We continued to use the MIF as a meta-frame for capturing diverse

perspectives from across the community. We then mapped these perspectives onto the four quadrants (mindsets, behaviours, relationships and systems) and chunked them into themes for further synthesis until we converged on the real brief:


How might we support women to build successful businesses for themselves, so

that in community we can create a new and sustainable economy? (Sourdough

Business Women 2017)


From there we explored possible responses via a set of initiatives that met our design principles, directly responded to emergent themes, leveraged services already available across the region and made best use of the combined SBP, SBW and Byron Community College resource mix (see appendix for images that reflect the process we followed).


MIF A Deeper Cut - Measuring Impact and Efficacy

We are currently testing the set of initiatives and in process using a more comprehensive iteration of the MIF to design an integral metrics strategy that measures their impact.

Figure 6: The MetaImpact Framework by Sean Esbjorn-Hargens, 2016.


Within each impact domain of the MIF there exist multiple forms of capital, or stores of value, that can be grown, diminished, measured or traded across a system. Dr. Esbjorn-Hargens identifies 10 capitals, five interior and five exterior, in the MIF. The interior capitals include an individual’s knowledge, psychological and spiritual stores of value, as well as a collective’s social and cultural ones. The exterior capitals include the health and human capital of individuals and the manufactured, financial and natural capitals of whole

systems. MIF also acknowledges 1st, 2nd and 3rd person metrics to measure the stores of value in each impact area ( 2016).


If our leadership team was going to provide a holistic response to the needs of

entrepreneurial women in our region, then we needed a way to recognize, acknowledge and value what mattered most to them. We also needed a strategic approach to measuring the efficacy of our initiatives to determine if they did, in fact, grow value within those capitals that women in our community cared about.


From our earlier research, we discovered that upshifting levels of thinking (knowledge capital), improving business management capabilities (human capital), enhancing social connections (social capital) and generating top line financial growth (financial capital) were the things that mattered most to the women we canvased. This knowledge enabled us to design initiatives with clear objectives in mind, as well as begin the process of honing in on

the most appropriate metric instruments for measuring impact. Our leadership team is currently in the final phase of combining a logic model with the MIF to design an integral metrics strategy based on this information.



The world is growing increasingly complex. Based on Dawson and Thornton's research, this complexity far exceeds the current level of thinking required for intelligent decision-making. In particular, Thornton's research highlights that individual leaders who are in over their head can't go it alone. Rather, closing the complexity gap requires the embedding of collaborative social technologies into the intelligent design of organisational systems, cultures and incentives. He also adds that a critical component of this approach is a fit-for-purpose meta-frame that can zoom far enough out and close enough in to hold multiplicity in ways that provide strategic pathways for grounded action (AMA Thornton 2017, email, 14 August.


MetaIntegral is a trans-disciplinary design studio that recognized and responded to this need. Borrowing from the traditions of design, Integral Theory and Adult Developmental Theory, MetaIntegral has been testing their meta-frame toolkit on complex global issues. I selected a set of meta-frames from this kit, combined them with others and introduced them to a female leadership team, which formed in respond to the needs of entrepreneurial women living in Northern Rivers, NSW. 


It became obvious that impact was directly dependent on our own collaborative leadership capacities. The meta-frames introduced bound our self-organising team together before serving as an instrument for intelligent design. As a result, something unexpected happened to this collective of independently powerful, generative, women leaders. The women on the team were themselves feeling empowered to take different risks, make new connections, grow their levels of thinking and reach out for support in ways they hadn’t before.


I believe the meta-frame toolkit played a major role in facilitating this transformation, allowing us to practice seeking, expressing and synthesing our own divergent perspectives whilst cultivating a mutually aligned view of the larger system. With hindsight, one could say we were the first iteration.


Today, our success as a leadership team empowers us to pilot a series of initiatives across the wider community. In fact, we are about to start one of our core initiatives, which is to facilitate the first Australian Women In Business hub with MIT’s U-lab. The process starts September 21st and we have close to 30 women registered to participate. We will be applying our integral metrics strategy to measure the impact of this initiative. I look forward to reporting on the results in 2018.



Figure 7: Community Wide Perspective Seeking by SBW, 2016.


 Figure 8: Perspective-taking: Looking AS Individuals From Within The System by SBW, 2016.


Figure 9: Capturing Leadership Team Perspectives by SBW, 2016.


       Figure 10: Four Quadrant Mapping of Perspectives by SBW, 2016.

                  Figure 11: Synthesising Perspectives by SBW, 2016.

                   Figure 12: Strategic Convergence by SBW, 2016.



Basadur Applied Creativity 2017, The basadur story, viewed 4 September 2017,


Bollier, D & Helfrich, S (eds) 2015, The patterning of commons, The Commons Strategies Group in cooperation with Off the Commons Books, Amherst, MA.


Bradbury, H & Torbert, W 2016, Eros/Power: love in the spirit of inquiry, Integral Publishers, Tuscan, AZ.


Fischer, K, Steward J & Yan Z 2003, Adult cognitive development: dynamics in the developmental web, in Connolly, KJ & Valsiner, J (eds), Handbook of developmental psychology, Sage Publications, London, UK, pp 491-513.


Esbjorn-Hargens, S (ed.) 2010, Integral theory in action: applied, theoretical and constructive perspectives on the aqal model, State University of New York Press, Albany, NY.


Esbjorn-Hargens, S 2014, Tetradynamics: quadrants in action, 2nd edn, MetaIntegral Publishers, Sebastopol, CA.


Esbjorn-Hargens, S 2016, MetaIntegral 2.0, MetaIntegral Publishers, Sebastopol, CA. Goldstein, J, Hazy KJ & Lichtenstein, BB 2010, Complexity and the nexus of leadership: leveraging nonlinear science to create ecologies of innovation, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, NY.


Hill, D 2012, Dark matter and trojan horses: a strategic design vocabulary, Strelka Press, Moscow. 2015, The field guide to human centered design, viewed 28 February 2016,


Johnson, B 1998, Polarity management: a summary introduction, Polarity Management Associates, viewed 10 February 2014,



Kegan, R 1994, In over our heads: the mental demands of modern life, 4th edn, Harvard University Press, London, UK.


Lectica 2016, Complexity, lectica and your business, YouTube, 24 April, Lectica, Massachusetts, viewed March 2 2016,


Maturana, HR & Varela, FJ 1998, The tree of knowledge: the biological roots of human understanding, Shambala, London, UK.


Meadows, D & H Write, D 2008, Thinking in systems: a primer, Chelsea Green Publishing Company, White River Junction, VT. 2016, 10 Capitals, MetaIntegral Associates, viewed 10 October 2016,


Nessler, D 2016, How to apply design thinking, HCD, UX or any creative process from scratch, viewed September 7 2016,



Petrie, N 2014, Future trends in leadership, Center For Creative Leadership, viewed 5 September 2015,


Sourdough Business Women 2016, SBW strategic architecture document, SBP

Leadership Committee, Byron Bay, NSW.


Please reload

Recent Posts

September 24, 2019

June 19, 2019

Please reload

+61 (0) 423 838 228

© Susanna Carman 2020

  • Black LinkedIn Icon
  • Twitter Basic Black