In my last post, I mentioned something called “the quadrants.” This is a reference to a model developed by Ken Wilber, a model we have found useful in our approach to business. (In a recent survey, 86% of our members reported that “when doing my job, I take into account all four quadrants.”)
Wilber’s quadrants capture a simple but powerful idea. It is that anything we might want to think about, talk about, or act upon can be viewed as having an interior and an exterior (or an inner and outer aspect) and as being singular or plural. Combining these two dimensions gives four possibilities: inner/individual (Upper-Left Quadrant), outer/individual (Upper-Right Quadrant), inner/collective (Lower-Left Quadrant), and outer/collective (Lower-Right Quadrant).
To see how the quadrants apply, consider the field of medicine. Most of Western medicine concerns itself with the upper-right quadrant: doctors run tests, take measurements, and apply surgery, drugs, or other interventions to individuals’ bodies. All of this goes on in the upper-right quadrant because it applies to individuals and involves things that are easily measured or observed. At the same time, we know that the speed of an individual’s recovery is often determined in part by his or her attitude: this is an upper-left quadrant issue. And a person’s health is affected by more than the actions or attitudes of that person alone. Consider the treatment someone suffering from AIDS receives today versus what he would have received when the disease first emerged. Societal attitudes have changed considerably, and so as a result has the quality of care. This is a lower-left quadrant issue. The lower left is concerned with collective attitudes, values, world views, and culture. And the lower right concerns the visible corollaries of collective attitudes, namely infrastructures, processes, and systems. So if a person is dying of a disease for which he does not have health insurance, we could say it is the lower right (or lack of infrastructure) that kills him.
At Decurion, we use the quadrants mainly to talk about developing more effective leaders and managers and to seek robust solutions to common problems. So we talk about developing skills and competencies (upper right); systems, processes, and infrastructures (lower right); values, culture, and shared mental models (lower left); and individual maturity or the ability to tolerate ambiguity and learning anxiety (upper left).
To take an example from our field operations, many theaters found that popcorn poppers were breaking down frequently. In order to address the issue, managers and talent members met to “spiral the quadrants,” that is, to move from one quadrant to another to develop a robust solution. First, they asked whether there were individual skills or competencies that could be enhanced (upper right). Then they asked whether there were systems or processes that could be implemented to forestall the breakdowns, such as periodic cleaning or checking (lower right). Next they examined whether there were cultural barriers to keeping the poppers operating, collective assumptions about who was responsible or about how to handle stressful situations (lower left). And finally, they asked whether they, as individuals, needed to improve their ability to remain calm in the face of anxiety (upper left).
Finally, we have a simplified way of thinking about our work, using the framework of the quadrants. When we work on any task or activity, the quadrants are all arising, and so it can help to think explicitly about each of them. This version captures not just the simplicity but also the robustness of being aware of all four:
We can ask at any time whether our activities are contributing to advancing each of the quadrants.