Beyond Complexity

March 2013 / Feature Articles

Eric Storm and Beth Meredith

Eric Storm and Beth Meredith

Eric Storm and Beth Meredith

It is common wisdom that leaders today must grapple with increasing amounts of complexity. This seems inevitable given our access to ever more information and our expanding awareness of and the connections between psychological, social, organizational, and technological factors. This is particularly true for integral leaders who are actively developing their mental models and related practices. As our cognitive complexity develops so too does our ability to perceive greater complexity. In other words our complexity is becoming ever more complex.

To address this phenomenon, integral theorists have stretched for increasingly sophisticated meta-frameworks in order to capture additional layers of reality. This approach has led to many insights and contributed to our expanding awareness. However this type of extensive analysis requires significant time and effort to produce, and often requires equally demanding resources to apply. This level of investigation also runs the risk of increasing the complexity such that it is no longer clarifying but is at times overwhelming, inhibiting our ability to perceive, analyze, and act.

What is an integral leader to do when faced with a complicated decision but limited time and resources for thorough study? How does an integral consultant help a client avoid the overwhelm of complex analysis? One common strategy for dealing with complexity is to simplify. We squint our eyes and select what we perceive as the critical factors from the heaps of data. By choosing to emphasize some parts we can then set aside others, prioritizing for manageability. The disadvantages of this type of reduction are obvious: there is a risk of loosing important information and understandings, and reducing the quality of the outcome in the process.

While simplifying is often a practical necessity, ideally we want a way to consider all of the significant information and benefit from the richness of complexity while overcoming the time and resource burdens of detailed analysis. Fortunately it appears there is a third way of grappling with masses of information, a way that goes beyond complexity. This third way comes about through a transcend and include process by which we can incorporate the complexity through both rational and intuitive means and arrive at a new level of understanding without the mental effort of consciously juggling a million data points simultaneously. In this paper we will describe what we see as the precursors and transpersonal foundation for this process, and our own experience working this way.

Many theorists have described transpersonal levels of awareness in their models of consciousness development. Jean Gebser, Jane Loevinger, William Torbert, Robert Kegan, Susanne Cook-Greuter, Clare Graves, Don Beck, Chris Cowan, and Ken Wilber varyingly describe these transpersonal stages as Magician, Alchemist, Synergist, second tier, yellow, teal, and integral. These theorists and others have also identified transrational ways of knowing that are accessible at transpersonal stages of development. These involve a very conscious use of intuitive modalities interwoven with rational thinking and frameworks.

In his thesis on sustainability leaders who hold post-conventional consciousness Barrett Brown identifies fifteen competencies “to help cultivate leaders who can handle complex global issues” (209). One such competency is “ways of knowing other than rational analysis to harvest profound insights and make rapid decisions” (Brown 212). Similarly, in their book on leadership skills for dealing with change, Bill Joiner and Stephen Josephs describe the benefits of developing “synergistic intuitions” to “resolve apparently irreconcilable conflicts” (243).

We can find the precursors to these transrational ways of knowing in things we all do every day. These alternative ways of knowing are familiar to many of us and help us handle complexity more effectively. For example most of us have had the experience of suddenly noticing that we have driven for miles with no memory of having navigated the intricacies of the road. What had once required a lot of conscious effort checking mirrors, speed, and traffic over time has become a largely unconscious process. This ability to relinquish our awareness of some things, like the mechanics of driving, to our unconscious allows us to manage even greater complexity, like listening to the radio or talking with someone – up to a point!

At other times we may choose for our awareness of the complexity to remain conscious and to inform our decision making.  Such is the case when we are in a flow state and are fully present and positively engaged on a deep level with the task at hand. Yet we manage to do this without much effort and our actions feel automatic and appropriate. We are able to enter the zone and feel the ease of being at one with events as they unfold.

Another common experience of functioning outside of rational analysis is the aha experience when we suddenly have an insight or realize the solution to a problem while doing something unrelated such as taking a shower or waking from sleep. These flashes of understanding arise after we have spent time with the complexity of the issue but are currently not making an effort or focused on it. The aha experience arises from and reflects our understanding of the intricacies of an issue, but in a way that offers a newly crystallized comprehension.

Finally, there is what is known as soft focus or soft eyes, when we are able to better perceive the whole by being generally aware and not too keenly focused on any one thing. This enables us to perceive a situation on many levels simultaneously including noticing things that might initially appear as anomalies or insignificant. With a soft focus we are able to perceive the whole in all its complexity, and as necessary shift focus to elements we deem significant.

The examples above are alternative ways of knowing that are commonly, if not frequently, experienced. At transpersonal stages of development we can build upon these capacities along with our rational understandings to arrive at transrational capacities to go beyond complexity. Through this transcend and include process we become able to engage with complexity with the efficiency described in the driving example, the power and consciousness of a flow state, the quick synthesis of the aha experience, and the awareness of the whole of soft focus.

In their respective dissertations, both Barrett Brown and Jonathan Reams posit that it is possible to cultivate these transrational capacities in leaders to go beyond complexity. In fact, one purpose of Reams’ study was “to develop a curriculum to facilitate the development of these qualities and characteristics” (8).

To build the foundation for these transrational capabilities it is important to first become fluent in a number of relevant processes and frameworks. As in the driving example, we first need to know how to change lanes, pass another vehicle, and judge merging speeds. This type of knowledge and skill building expands our ability to perceive and process information. We need this level of fluency in order to comprehend what we perceive through transrational processes and to rationally evaluate and discuss these new understandings with others.

Our foundation is further strengthened as we make the subject-object shift from identifying with our personality to observing it. As we are able to see our selves and to see all of our assumptions, values, shadows, blind spots, etc., we take a significant step into the transpersonal realm. In our position as observer we begin to have more control over our reactions and behavior. When we no longer identify with our mental models, we can shift from our own perspective to comprehending the world from a variety of other lenses. We become capable of stepping outside ourselves and inhabiting a kind of openness that is essential for transrational ways of knowing.

In his book Power vs Force, David Hawkins observes, “A mind which is being watched becomes more humble and begins to relinquish its claims to omniscience … and increasingly [we are] less the victim of the mind and more its master. From thinking that we ‘are’ our minds, we begin to see that we have minds … Eventually we may arrive at the insight that all our thoughts are merely borrowed from the great database of consciousness and were never really our own”(205).

Once we have this foundation of diverse competences and a transpersonal perspective we can open up to reality and engage in transrational ways of knowing that take us beyond complexity.

Lately we, the authors, have been exploring the edges beyond complexity in our work helping our clients address their problems. Increasingly we use transrational methods to search for the underlying sources of the issue, to determine if there is permission and support for change, and to identify the most effective levers for moving forward.

When we consider why our work has evolved in a transrational direction there seem to be several factors. We have worked together for over ten years and now share a wide range of mental models and tools as well as experience applying them. It happens that one of us is more analytical and the other more empathetic by nature. Our differing styles together give us a stereoscopic view of our clients and their issues. We have come to value each other’s perceptions and to trust each other in the moment, not unlike improvisation where we build upon what the other puts forward. In the moment we often feel in touch with something that is beyond either one of us.

The more analytical of us has reached a point of being able to accumulate way more information, perspectives, and processes than he can reasonably apply at any given moment. Out of necessity, and now preference, he has found himself increasingly relying on transrational ways of knowing. A combination of exposure to somatic and intuitive practices and a growing body of personal experiences in which he had to respond to clients in a matter of minutes has led to his growing comfort with his transrational process. While he does at times revisit the issue through the lens of various models to glean additional insights, he now finds using transrational ways of perceiving and knowing easier and more effective in many situations.

The more empathetic of us developed her intuition early in life as a way to navigate complexity and to focus on what is most critical and relevant. She has learned to analyze her perceptions retroactively in order to communicate in information-based contexts and as a way to hone the accuracy of her perceptions. The more she has access to a transpersonal perspective, the clearer her perceptions have become, less clouded by personal agenda or blind spots.

In practice we begin by quieting our minds, becoming present and open to what is happening. Our intent is to be in service to what wants to emerge, and we try to hold no agenda beyond that – even to the point of not needing to fix things or find an answer. We begin by asking the client a general question such as “What’s going on?” or “What’s working and what’s not?”

As the client begins speaking we shift into soft focus. We let the data wash over and we seek to attune with the client and the moment, seeing through their eyes as well as sensing shifts in their body language and emotions.

Almost immediately we are also informed by our mental models including our personal judgments, preferences, etc. We seek to hold all of these as so many lenses of perception. We may temporarily adopt a hypotheses or framework and check to see if it opens up some additional information or thoughts. We shift somewhat effortlessly between our theories, our personal thoughts and reactions, and our observations of what is happening. It is very important that at the center of all this we hold a place of not-knowing. From here we can return to a state of soft focus, blurring the boundaries between subject and object, and staying open to what is, our intuition, and emerging understandings.

Joiner and Josephs describe a similar process of “surrendering to a direct experience of the impasse, the ‘not-knowing,’ where feelings oppose each other and nothing seems possible. Attending to this experience in a conscious, patient, and caring way liberates energy and opens the way for new, synergistic possibilities” (Joiner, Josephs 185).

We have realized that the more we trust our process the better it works. Eventually something begins to take shape out of our conversation with the client. It may emerge as a whole, or it may take shape more slowly revealing itself in bits and pieces. In some cases what emerges is very familiar to us, and in others it is a notion outside our usual understanding. It may arise as a general concept, or as a series of quite specific and detailed thoughts. In any case, we recognize it because it resonates with a solidity and firmness we associate with truth and as something that is relevant, a priority, or a useful entry or leverage point. We test out our perceptions and refine our sense of this truth with one another and the client through a series of questions and statements.

Through out this process the client is a co-creator in the experience, though with varying degrees of awareness about the mechanics of what is happening. For the most part it appears to them as if we are having a conversation, a conversation in which they are initially doing a lot of the talking. Eventually as we get clearer on what is emerging, the conversation begins to turn. Sometimes this occurs as a shift and other times as a leap. What is still surprising to us is how easily this occurs with no overt discussion or agreement by any of us. We may voice an insight or simply allow it to inform what we say. The more we are able to align our comments and actions with what is emerging and where the client is in the moment, the more they are able to share the new insights and understanding. Often it feels like our collective understanding is opening a flow of energy like a tiny acupuncture needle in just the right place.

This is the place we call beyond complexity.

Later if the situation allows, we may engage with our client or ourselves in a more rational and thorough analysis. However we do so from the perspective of knowing what lies beyond the complexity which makes the task much easier as we come from a place of knowing. This after-the-fact checking also helps us to hone our process and reflect on our role in it. What we are finding is that the process works best the more self aware we are of our own assumptions, preferences, and expectations and the more open we are to what emerges.

Learning to work this way has greatly helped us with our clients who are frequently organizational, business, and community leaders facing the typical issues of overwhelm and analysis paralysis. Even though intuitive processes are frequently dismissed in conventional settings as woo-woo, we find the outwardly unremarkable nature of this practice along with its relative speed and effectiveness help to side step most objections. Also while a transpersonal foundation seems to be necessary to consciously use transrational processes, our experience is that the fruits of this process appear to be meaningful and useful when shared with people at varying levels of awareness.

We believe these transrational ways of knowing will become increasingly common as a natural outgrowth of transpersonal consciousness. We can imagine these transrational processes beginning to take their place along side financial statements, organizational charts, and other tools of leadership, decision making, and organizational development. There is much to be explored and documented in terms of how to develop these abilities, how to apply them, and what their limitations are. We are excited by the possibilities and the potential as integral leaders and practioners share their insights and understandings of going beyond complexity.


Brown, Barrett (2011), Conscious Leadership For Sustainability: How Leaders with a Late-Stage Action-Logic Design and Engage in Sustainability Initiatives, Doctoral Dissertation, Fielding Graduate University, Retrieved January 12, 2013,

Hawkins, David (1995), Power vs. Force: The Hidden Determinants of Human Behavior, Sedona: Veritas. Retrieved January 12, 2013,

Joiner, Bill & Josephs, Stephen (2007), Leadership Agility: Five Levels of Mastery for Anticipating and Initiating Change, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Reams, Jonathan (2002), The Consciousness of Transpersonal Leadership, Doctoral Dissertation, Gonzaga University, Retrieved January 12, 2013,

About the Authors

Eric Storm and Beth Meredith run Create The Good Life which promotes personal and organizational change through building awareness, designing for well being, and creating sustainable practices. Eric has a background in fine art, education, sustainability, and green building. He has worked in Japan and in the U.S. leading cross-cultural education programs. Beth’s background is in social psychology, art, architecture and design. She also has an M.A. is Policy Studies from the Monterey Institute of International Studies and has designed and led educational programs internationally and in the U.S. In addition they have trained in Permaculture Design, home energy modeling, mediation, the Enneagram, and Systemic Constellation. Beth and Eric now live slowly in Petaluma, California, where they create the good life for themselves and others. Email: