Integral Should Be More Like Apple

Integralists that have been following the blogosphere are noticing a growing current of conversations on the theme, or question, of “Why isn’t Integral more popular?”  There are many variations on the theme, including “Why isn’t Integral more relevant?” and “What does Integral need to do to make more of a difference in the world?”

Many of my friends and colleagues have weighed in on this important question in recent weeks. Jason Digges just published a thoughtful, nuanced article on this very question in Beams and Struts. He suggests, “In short we need to take personal responsibility for formulating integral philosophy in a way that exemplifies simplicity beyond complexity.” I couldn’t agree more. In fact, simplicity beyond complexity is a theme I wrote about in my recently published online Integral Leadership Manifesto.

Robb Smith has suggested some possible reasons why Integral isn’t more popular in the Facebook discussion group Integral Institute Global Design. Not entirely satisfied with Robb’s answers, Joe Perez offers a point-counterpoint analysis, and some reflections of his own, on his excellent blog Awake, Alive & Aware.

I’d like to take this opportunity to offer another point of view on this question. In this case, I will offer a metaphor for what we might be doing wrong (and how we might think differently). The metaphor I will use is the popularization (and market domination) Apple’s iPod. (Some readers familiar with my writings about Integral Leadership will recognize this perspective, as I am excerpting text from my manifesto.)

What is Integral anyway?

For those not familiar with it, we should first clarify what we mean when we use the term integral. The dictionary definition of integral is “possessing everything essential or significant; complete; whole.”

Integral approaches (whether to medicine, education, psychology, ecology, politics, etc.) seek to incorporate all of the essential perspectives, approaches, and schools of thought into a unified, comprehensive, inclusive, and empirically accurate framework.1

There are many books and publications on Integral Theory but only a few on its application (Applied Integral Theory). While these are all excellent resources for our friends and colleagues who are involved in integral theory and methodology, these publications are generally less accessible, and less useful, for the general public due to their perceived “complexity.”  The field of Integral Theory is often experienced by newcomers as highly technical, at times difficult to understand, and frequently difficult to apply.

Simplicity on the Other Side of Complexity

Apple’s ubiquitous iPod provides a useful analogy to help explain the expression simplicity on the other side of complexity.

As you may recall, back in 2001 the late Steve Jobs led Apple into the crowded portable digital music (mp3) player market by introducing the iPod and iTunes. Within a few years, Apple dominated the portable music player market, decimating more than 50 competitors, and achieved a 74% market share for his iPod player. Even more significantly, he transformed the way music was distributed and used by consumers. He went on to leverage his success with the iPod to create a halo effect for the entire Apple product line, spurring unprecedented traffic into Apple’s retail locations, and ultimately leading to the dominance of the iPhone and more recently the iPad.2 Prior to its release, experts, pundits and manufacturers of portable music player technology emphasized the technical capabilities of these remarkable little devices. They would speak of transfer rates in megabits per second, IDE hardware breakthroughs, mp3 vs. mp4 audio compression schemes, and remarkable miniaturization manufacturing innovations. And they believed that consumers cared about these things.

We recognize a very similar phenomenon with our friends and colleagues who are experts, pundits and providers of Integral Theory and Methodology in and around our Integral community.

Those of us who are enthusiastic advocates for applied Integral Theory can be a lot like the early mp3 player manufacturers.

We often speak of the technical capabilities of this new “technology.” But rather than talk about transfer rates, megabits per second, and miniaturization, we speak of quadrants, lines, levels, states and types. We rave about remarkable innovations such as integral methodological pluralism. We are enthusiastic advocates for second-order adaptive change methodologies that move sentient holons out of gamma traps, through flex states into new alpha configurations.

As integral enthusiasts, like the early mp3 manufacturers, we sometimes naively believe that consumers care about those things.

Its not that Steve Jobs didn’t care about the technology as much as his peers. Clearly, he possessed a deep and nuanced understanding of the technology that he intended to use to transform his industry (and other industries, as we have now seen).

What set Jobs apart was his understanding of what consumers cared about.

The people who would really benefit from an iPod didn’t care about file compression, transfer rates, or IDE miniaturization. They cared about music.

What Jobs understood was that if you give people something they can use, something easy and enjoyable to use, something they can begin using immediately, then they will use it!

As anyone who owns one can tell you, the design of the iPod is elegant: form meets function at the next level. For me, the iPod is a good illustration of simplicity on the other side of complexity.

It is my goal in my work popularizing Integral Leadership (and Integral approaches in general) is to provide something useful, something easy and enjoyable to use…. something people can begin using immediately.

I think that us integralists should focus less on Integral Theory and more on solving real-world problems. I’m not very interested in teaching Integral Theory. I’m interested in offering solutions and tools that help people address their concerns and achieve their goals.

I hope the iPod metaphor is helpful as we continue to figure out how we can all contribute to bringing more Integral solutions to our world.

Comments are welcome!



  1. Ken Wilber and our colleagues at the Integral Institute have developed integral approaches to medicine, education, psychology, ecology, politics, business, and dozens of other domains building on the All Quadrants, All Lines, All Levels, All States, All Types (AQAL) framework.
  2. In 2005, in an effort to explain what the Stagen Leadership Institute was doing in our pioneering Integral Leadership Program, my partner Rand Stagen and I authored a white paper entitled “Next-Level Leadership” which details Steve Jobs’ leadership of Apple during this transition. It is available at
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Brett Thomas About Brett Thomas

Brett is a veteran CEO and change agent coach with over 10,000 hours of experience. As co-founder of Stagen Leadership Institute, and architect/author of the world-renowned Integral Leadership Program (which has trained hundreds of CEOs), Brett serves as a leading coach, teacher and co-developer of the relatively new field of "Integral Leadership." Brett served for many years as a faculty member of Integral Institute working closely with Ken Wilber (and team) to design and deliver international conferences and seminars on business, leadership, and integral practice. Brett's writing has been published in the Journal of Integral Theory and Practice and Integral Leadership Review. He is writing a book on Integral Leadership with Dr. Russ Volckmann to be published in 2012 by Integral Publishers. Brett continues to play an active role as instigator and leader in the emerging integral movement.


  1. Love you, Brett! So grateful for your continued leadership in this area.

    I’ve been working, as you know, with applied integral approaches to business and leadership for many years, starting with a very stimulating and productive collaboration with you, which continues to inform my work today. Tom Curren and I continue to practice with new ways of supporting organizations to solve problems more effectively using an integral approach. Like you, we rarely, almost never, talk about the theory… Instead, we show leaders how to be more effective.

    We shared a case study from our client work a couple of years ago at the Integral Leadership in Action conference, and I hope to do something like that again sometime soon… And I would really love to hear from other practitioners, entrepreneurs, professionals, etc., about their applied integral approaches, as well. Perhaps this could be a good forum for sharing what works, and what people are experimenting with…

    Hugs to you, dear friend.

  2. Alexis Neely says:

    Brett, this is absolutely right on. I’ve been drawn to Integral for many years, but never dove in because ultimately I couldn’t see the practical application and the past ten years of my life have been focused on the practicalities of building businesses, raising kids and being in relationships. Perhaps I would have been drawn into Integral earlier if I could have found the point at which it would have helped me practically accomplish my goals or better understand where I was on my own path, but I did not find any part of the work that spoke to me in that way at that time. Now that I have more time and space to explore things I deem less “practical”, such as integral theory and I am in relationship with a man who has been deeply immersed in integral theory (Craig Filek), I understand Integral in such a way that I can begin to see how it could have helped me along my practical path, if only someone had been teaching it in that framework so I could have accessed it more easily.

    I think this is what you are calling for and I don’t think it’s a difficult job in and of itself. I think the most challenging part is that most people I know who are super into integral are so smart/intellectual that they could have a hard time “dumbing down” the theory into practical application that can be easily absorbed experientially, kinesthetically, and practically by people who live more in the feeling space than in the theoretical space. The great news is that we are now opening up the dialogue (thank you!) and we can come together to solve the challenge.

    Will I meet you at ISE? If so, perhaps there is room for a breakout or late night session on the next evolution of integral – practical application in a variety of contexts. If not, perhaps a collaborative work group can be created around the topic virtually.

  3. Scott Lahey says:

    Hi Brett. I’m new to the site; was sent this article by Gary Hawke who I met while participating in the Core Essential and Advanced Integral online courses. I really appreciated what you had to say and resonate a great deal with your thesis. You write: “I’m not very interested in teaching Integral Theory. I’m interested in offering solutions and tools that help people address their concerns and achieve their goals.” Absolutely! My understanding of how to do this (based on your article) is to meet people where they are at, focus less on the jargon-laden theory, and provide solutions or improvements to their problems and concerns. The notion that we naively assume that people care about these things is referred to as “the curse of knowledge” in the book ‘Made to Stick.’ Basically, once we achieve a certain level of knowledge, understand complex concepts, the trick, the ‘curse’ is to ascertain a level of simplicity on the other side of that complexity (as you note). Rather, we want people to see what we see, to understand our perspective, to know where these ideas come from, so we lean on theory in the naive attempt to “educate” others. The challenge I think, is when the proposed solution or new approach is not perceived as an improvement, as something that can be put to use, or even something desired. The iPod metaphor breaks down I think when we start talking about the Interior quadrants and structure stages. It’s true that people don’t need to know why or how the iPod works to appreciate its usefulness, to recognize the utility and the improvement upon previous technologies. However, people do need to be open to the possibility that this product is an improvement, that it is in fact a better way to experience what it is that they already care about: music in this case. But does the metaphor apply to those who don’t care, who don’t perceive themselves to be in need of a solution, a better way, a more integrally informed consciousness? For those looking for new perspectives, new paradigms, new meaning-making maps, AQAL perhaps can be like the iPod. But, many people are just not in the market for integral theory and practice perhaps because it assumes a partiality to their worldview (which is threatening) but more likely, because they can’t hold it, see it, touch it, enact it. In the marketplace of ideas, AQAL and IMP have to find ways to resonate with folks who would ordinarily never reflect on why they believe what they believe or engage the world the way they do. I wonder what you think about this idea of enactment, or what Ken refers to as kosmic address in ‘Integral Spirituality’ and how it relates to the question: why isn’t integral more popular or relevant? My sense is that certain worldviews, certain kosmic addresses, are antithetical to what can be called ‘integral’ kosmic addresses.

  4. Sameer Panjwani says:

    Hi Brett,

    Great article. Simple to understand and grasp. Committed to being an Integral Life Practitioner, I struggle with how to digest the integral buffet in to bite sizer morsels without getting indigestion or food coma. I think as more and more individuals become ILPs this will permeate in to their every action including leadership, health, etc…

    In Gratitude,


  5. Joe Perez says:

    Hi Brett!

    Thanks for the mention. I have a one word answer to your questioni about what people who don’t give a hoot about quadrants levels, lines, states, and types care really about.

    In one word: themselves.

  6. Jason Digges says:

    Thanks for the mention Brett! Im loving all the energy around this conversation.

  7. Neelesh says:

    Just as there is a Leadership Rosetta Stone, there needs to be one for Integral Theory as well? Content virtually same, but contextualization different for different parts of the stone.

  8. Excellent article.

    I would offer the following approach:

    Focus on the customer. Who are the customers for Integral (or Integrally informed) apps? What do they care about? What problems are they trying to solve?

    Instead of starting with Integral theory and then looking for problems to solve with it, start with the problems and what your customers needs and wants are, and work backwards from there, using Integral theory to inform your problem-solving efforts.

    Even Calculus was created to solve a specific problem.



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