Integral Design: 5 Steps, 4 Principles, 3 Mindsets, 2 Practices, 1 Meta Toolkit for Generative Leaders

June 14, 2018

In today’s world disruption is rife, influencing everything from global trade to rural health care. Ensuing volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity can have disturbing consequences in terms of our relationships, systems, behaviours and mindsets. Poorly managed, rapid cycles of disruption are particularly disorientating; manic swings from stability to change ignite fear driven reactions and overly simplistic solutions to complex challenges, often resulting in chaotic, unintended consequences.


I believe when design principles, processes, tools and mindsets are used holistically, people, organisations and large-scale systems have a better chance of courageously ‘leaning in’ to disruption AND thriving amidst the robust opportunities it presents.


From both my design research and practical fieldwork experience, I’ve been developing a trans-disciplinary meta-design toolkit for leaders and their teams to navigate disruption AND design intelligent responses to complex problems. The toolkit borrows from a variety of praxis in the fields of Human Centred Design, Integral Theory and Adult Developmental Theory, and is itself Integral; that is, it integrates tacit mindsets and culture with explicit behaviour and processes to inform the design of a mutually interdependent toolkit. This article is the first in a series to introduce the 5 steps, 4 principles, 3 mindsets and 2 practices included in 1 meta-toolkit for generative leaders.


5 Steps

There is a running debate within and without the design community; is design a mindset, a practice, a culture or a method? From my perspective, it’s all of these things AND leaders can use it in it’s simplest form - a process or method to help navigate the ‘stability to change’ journey with confidence.


The following is a simplified, linear map of how the design world often talks about itself as a process:

In reality, the journey is everything but linear. Looping back to previous stages is consistent with best practice as a means of testing assumptions and validating ideas along the way. Evidence also indicates that those designers who invest more in learning about and defining the problem produce overall higher quality outcomes than those who jump straight into solutions. Better still are designers who actively serve as ‘bridge’ between both problem AND solution, prototyping for the purpose of zooming into a more accurate framing of the problem. In fact, a designer’s capacity to problem seek rather than problem solve through human interaction with artefacts of the built world is what differentiates her from the engineer.


In either case, both linear and synchronous mapping of any kind can build ease into a system. It also provides a framing that enables expressive and receptive capacity so that stakeholders have shared language and perspective about the process they are participating in.


4 Principles

Design is a team sport; you need to keep passing the ball back and forth across the field AND between players in order to identify the right problem AND generate a coherent path forward. With this in mind, I’ve identified a shared set of guiding principles that generate greater alignment, effectiveness, collaborative engagement and quality outcomes for leadership teams steering ‘stability to change’ journeys:

  1. Curiosity – genuinely place your attention on sincere exploration, play and discovery with awareness of, but non-attachment to, personal agenda or expected outcome.

  2. Empathy – willingly stand in the shoes of another; look as they do at the system they are a part of; every perspective, however partial, significantly informs design, whether it’s public policy or a toilet bowl.

  3. Ease with ambiguity – make inexactness your very best friend; allow yourself to hang 10 over the rail of multiplicity and let the wave propel you forward before jumping into singular solutions; agree to hold tension between the drag of uncertainty and the pull of directive action.

  4. Humility – always start a project, decision-making process or inquiry from a genuine posture of, I don’t know, it could be?


These 4 principles ground the culture of any leadership team so that fresh thinking can emerge and innovation follow.


3 Mindsets

Harvard professors and developmental psychologists, Robert Kegan and Kurt Fischer, are known for their work in the fields of educational philosophy and neo-piagetian theory. Both have progressed Piaget’s hierarchical understanding of cognitive skill development from childhood into adult lifespan. Kegan in particular has contextualised adult developmental theory into three stages or mindsets of meaning making, as described in the following diagram:


According to Kegan’s model, each new level of thinking embraces higher orders of complexity in how people make meaning of the world around them. The ‘app versus operating system’ metaphor illustrates the point; each stage is like an updated operating system with increased capacity to run more complex software applications. In the case of adult development, later stage mindsets can run mental models that include and transcend those that came before.


In Kegan’s model, a transition from one operating system to the next facilitates a cognitive capacity to increasingly embrace and operate within more ambiguous, contradictory contexts. In the third of the three stages depicted above, adults develop the capacity to hold multiple, even contradictory perspectives with greater ease. This is a particularly useful capacity when problem seeking and problem solving.


Generative leaders managing the ‘stability to change’ journey who can recognise these three mindsets within themselves, within individuals and across their collective teams have an opportunity to recruit talent, frame communication and work cooperatively to design the conditions for creative, intelligent problem solving amidst complex, disruptive environments.


2 Practices

There are certainly more than two practices associated with design. However, there is a particular polarity that, when well managed, serves as two pillars of design.


A polarity is a paradoxical dynamic, different from a problem, for which there is no single, independent, right answer. Just like inhaling and exhaling in a breath cycle, polarities hold two, interdependent, neutral poles as equally valid and partially true. Both poles have up sides and down sides; inhale for too long and your lungs can’t release carbon dioxide, exhale for too long and your lungs can’t access oxygen. When the interdependence of two poles is well managed, then the potential to benefit from the upsides of both increases (release carbon dioxide + access oxygen = healthy respiration).


Design as a practice includes a unique polarity called, divergence AND convergence, otherwise known as ‘creating choices’ AND ‘making choices.’ Both neutral poles are absolutely necessary for the purpose of intelligent decision making amidst complex problem solving scenarios.

The practice goes something like this:


Go out and glean as much information as possible. This includes both qualitative and quantitative data. Interview, co-sense into the collective, observe, talk with people and most importantly, LISTEN. This is an opportunity to enact the principles of genuine curiosity and empathy. Assume you don’t know the answer and instead, be willing to test all assumptions, even what you think the problem is. Stay open and pay attention to everything. This is all about exploration, discovery and creating choices.


Of course, if you spend too much time in this space nothing will ever get done. This is the down side of over divergence. When you think you’ve discovered everything there is to know about the situation, that’s a sure sign you’ve stayed in the pole of divergence for too long and it’s time to start making choices. On the flip side, if you start making choices and converging on action before you are sufficiently informed, the risk of missing critical information and/or opportunities for invaluable collective input increases exponentially. As is the case in respiration, the trick is to stay in divergence for long enough to capture 'enough' information, and pivot to convergence to make choices in a timely manner based on intelligently captured and synthesised data. 


SC Design offers leaders and their teams the Integral Design Co-lab, an 

opportunity to embark on a comprehensive, project based learning journey

into the 5 steps, 4 principles, 3 mindsets and 2 practices that facilitate innovation amidst disruptive environments.

Program participants can expect to:


  • Design quality workforce and user experiences within their sphere of influence 

  • Embed Design Thinking mindsets, skills, processes and principles into how they tackle complex problems, drive innovation and build collaborative networks 

  • Apply Design Thinking to live projects in an incubator environment with the support of ongoing feedback and resources that ensure sustainable impact


For more information about SC Design services, the Integral Design Co-Lab program, or Integral Design, contact








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