differentiation and integration — supporting growth and change over sterile stuckness

Benjamin P. Taylor
2 min readJun 4, 2024

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A large abstract sculpture made of metal, resembling an elongated oval or a teardrop shape, stands upright on a grassy area by a lake. The sculpture features a circular hole near its upper portion. Behind the sculpture, a tranquil lake is surrounded by lush trees and vegetation, with a partly cloudy sky overhead.
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What do differentiation and integration mean to you?

I want to talk about these deep flows in human groups:

- differentiation — separating out, dissenting, going in different directions, creating spaces of different norms, marking out of difference, specialisation

- integration — bringing together, merging, setting norms, agreeing direction, compromising, setting aside differences, creating a synthesis

Most people get stuck on mechanistic differentiation (with machinery to try to hold the parts together), or on the need to integrate and squash out differentiation.

Since differentiating creates integration (ingroups and outgroups), and integration creates differentiation (disagreement within groups), that’s a non-stop battle.

We need to learn to support and blend the two:

In facilitation, for more effective commitment (my practice was confirmed and deepened by wisdom from Yvonne Agazarian and Sandra Janoff)

And in organisation, to survive and thrive (Stafford Beer, Barry Oshry, and Lawrence and Lorsch in ‘Differentiation and Integration in Complex Organizations’)

Differentiation and integration processes aren’t analytical, they’re deeply humanistic, requiring empathy and a willingness to engage with the unfamiliar or uncomfortable.

Differentiation births segments — teams, expertise, roles, identities — whilst integration harmonises them in pursuit of shared goals. A cycle of becoming, like the pulse of the universe (if I may).

Authentic selfhood arises from feeling profoundly seen and met by another. To stand apart, we must first blend. A group strengthens through cycles of convergence and divergence, coming together to realign, then spinning out again (similar to divergent and convergent thought, but not the same).

Only when we name and support differences, giving voice to all parts, can we dance with the whole. Life is a game of multiplicities within wholes within multiplicities, forever transcending and including, diverging and converging, articulating and synthesising.

This challenges us to move beyond the sterile space of tolerance of difference or fighting against it, to appreciation of how differences can enhance collective wisdom and decisoin-making.

In a group, positive differentiation and integration reinforces dissenting voices, groups around them to allow deepening for them to come back into the whole.

In organisation, high sub-unit differentiation and high integration allow innovation, agility, and adaptation to complex environments.

A superpower is to sense and manage the flows from differentiation to integration and back again, and again.

When there is too much integration, differentiate — look for and reinforce dissenting, different, divergent voices, consider different aspects of the issue.

When there is too much differentiation, integrate: build blended groups and let them find their own integration, look for commonalities and shared points — the deeper the better.

Does this make sense? Do you have examples?

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