What Is Spiral Dynamics? Spiral Dynamics In A Nutshell

Spiral dynamics is a theory of human evolution based on decades of research by developmental psychologist Clare W. Graves. Spiral dynamics is a theory of human development arguing the human mind adapts more complex thinking when faced with similarly complex life experiences.

Understanding spiral dynamics

Graves created a psychological model describing multiple stages of human development according to various value systems. These values systems he called memes, or sets of world views, preferences, and purposes used to structure societies and integrate the individuals within them.

Graves initially sought to validate the work of contemporary Abraham Maslow, who was developing his hierarchy of needs at the time. In truth, however, the spiral dynamics model became far more detailed and insightful. 

During his time at North Texas State University, he proposed that “the psychology of the mature human being is an unfolding, emergent, oscillating, spiralling process, marked by progressive subordination of older, lower-order behavior systems to newer, higher order systems as man’s existential problems change.

Graves passed away in 1986 before he had a chance to publish his work, but it was picked up by Christopher Cowan and Don Edward Beck and published in their 1996 book Spiral Dynamics. Beck then joined forces with Ken Wilbur, a philosopher who popularised spiral dynamics by integrating it into his “theory of everything” framework.

Fundamentally, spiral dynamics help describe the development of people, organizations, and wider society according to the value systems that motivate them. When encountering external circumstances, people are forced to construct more complex, conceptual models of the environment to help them deal with new problems.

The eight developmental stages of Graves’ model

Graves identified eight development stages, each with its own value system fulfilling its own function in a particular context. 

Every stage is represented by a particular color and is categorized as either a first-tier or second-tier meme. Note that the colors themselves have no literal connection to the value system they represent. Instead, they were introduced by Beck in an attempt to avoid racial tension during Apartheid in South Africa.

Individuals, organizations, societies, and cultures do not operate exclusively on one level. Instead, each embodies multiple value systems to varying degrees. The spiral dynamics model also posits infinite stages of progression and regression over time because of the fluid nature of life experience.

First-tier memes

First-tier memes describe the various worldviews, cultures, and mental attitudes from history until the present moment. Here, new value systems build on adaptions from previous levels by seeking to solve problems associated with living in those older ways.

First-tier memes include:

  1. Beige (archaic, instinctive, automatic) – emerging around 100,000 BC, beige is the most primitive value system. Individuals are primarily concerned with satisfying food, water, safety, shelter, and sex-based needs. They live off the land like other animals and have minimal impact or control over their environment.
  2. Purple (animistic, tribalistic, mystical) – emerging around 50,000 BC, the purple value system describes cultures that show allegiance to elders, customers, or clans. They obey the desires of mystical beings or spirits and preserve sacred places, objects, and rituals. Individuals survive and find safety by coming together.
  3. Red (egocentric, exploitative, impulsive, rebellious) – from around 7000 BC, the red value system began to emerge. The world is now separated by the rich and poor with a need to avoid shame, be respected, and defend one’s reputation. Individuals impulsively seek instant gratification and push the boundaries established by man or nature to overcome challenges.
  4. Blue (obedient, purposeful, authoritarian) – in around 1000 BC, individuals began to find purpose and meaning in life. They believed outcomes were determined by a higher-order power who clarified notions of right and wrong and punished those who strayed. As a result, most religions and religious values are rooted in this stage.
  5. Orange (materialistic, strategic, ambitious, individualistic) – according to Graves, the orange value systems emerged around 600 AD. Early forms of consumerism started to appear around this time as advances in science and technology enhanced the quality of life and shifted the focus to material pleasure and acquisition. As an advancer of civilizations, orange value systems took hold in the industrial age and are just as relevant in the present-day technological and information era.
  6. Green (personalistic, pluralistic, sensitive) – green value systems emerged around 1850 but took hold during the hippy movement of the 1960s. These systems gave rise to movements around animal and human rights, feminism, and racial equality, among other things. Green values are based on promoting a sense of community, consensus-based decision-making, spirituality, and the sharing of society’s resources.

Second-tier memes

Second-tier memes describe more advanced, enlightened, evolved, or aware value systems. 

Graves suggested the leap from the sixth to the seventh system was momentous because it represented a major shift in thinking. Indeed, individuals exhibiting any of the first six systems tend to find it more difficult to relate to the perspectives held by those from other systems. 

The last two systems, as we will see, allow the individual to hold multiple perspectives simultaneously:

  1. Yellow (systemic, ecological, flexible, conceptual) – emerging around 1950, those with a yellow value system can appreciate the whole spiral for its complexity and elegance. Most importantly, they learn and adapt to life by incorporating the lessons learned from each level. This quality helps them accept that life is inherently uncertain with a focus on flexibility, functionality, competence, and spontaneity. Interests are pursued without excess and without harming others.
  2. Turquoise (compassion harmony, peace, receptivity) – the turquoise value system emerged in the 1970s and believes in the interconnectedness of all forms of life as a single, integrated whole. Everything is connected to everything else and nothing happens in isolation. In recent years, this value system has rekindled the intuitive forms of perception found in the blue value system, strengthening the connection to a higher power or the natural world. The turquoise value system has also increased the trust people have in non-material forms of perception, which were made untrustworthy when the orange value system emerged.

Key takeaways:

  • Spiral dynamics is a theory of human development arguing the human mind adapts more complex thinking when faced with similarly complex life experiences.
  • Spiral dynamics creator Clare W. Graves viewed the psychology of a mature human being as an unfolding, emergent, oscillating, and progressive process. Importantly, individuals move from lower-order to higher-order behavioral systems as their existential problems change.
  • Spiral dynamics is comprised of eight value systems, or memes, with each denoted by a specific but unrelated color. Graves suggested the biggest leap occurred between the sixth and seventh systems because it was the first instance where the individual could hold multiple perspectives simultaneously.

Connected Thinking Tools

First-principles thinking – sometimes called reasoning from first principles – is used to reverse-engineer complex problems and encourage creativity. It involves breaking down problems into basic elements and reassembling them from the ground up. Elon Musk is among the strongest proponents of this way of thinking.
The ladder of inference is a conscious or subconscious thinking process where an individual moves from a fact to a decision or action. The ladder of inference was created by academic Chris Argyris to illustrate how people form and then use mental models to make decisions.
The Six Thinking Hats model was created by psychologist Edward de Bono in 1986, who noted that personality type was a key driver of how people approached problem-solving. For example, optimists view situations differently from pessimists. Analytical individuals may generate ideas that a more emotional person would not, and vice versa.
Second-order thinking is a means of assessing the implications of our decisions by considering future consequences. Second-order thinking is a mental model that considers all future possibilities. It encourages individuals to think outside of the box so that they can prepare for every and eventuality. It also discourages the tendency for individuals to default to the most obvious choice.
Lateral thinking is a business strategy that involves approaching a problem from a different direction. The strategy attempts to remove traditionally formulaic and routine approaches to problem-solving by advocating creative thinking, therefore finding unconventional ways to solve a known problem. This sort of non-linear approach to problem-solving, can at times, create a big impact.
Moonshot thinking is an approach to innovation, and it can be applied to business or any other discipline where you target at least 10X goals. That shifts the mindset, and it empowers a team of people to look for unconventional solutions, thus starting from first principles, by leveraging on fast-paced experimentation.
Tim Brown, Executive Chair of IDEO, defined design thinking as “a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.” Therefore, desirability, feasibility, and viability are balanced to solve critical problems.
The CATWOE analysis is a problem-solving strategy that asks businesses to look at an issue from six different perspectives. The CATWOE analysis is an in-depth and holistic approach to problem-solving because it enables businesses to consider all perspectives. This often forces management out of habitual ways of thinking that would otherwise hinder growth and profitability. Most importantly, the CATWOE analysis allows businesses to combine multiple perspectives into a single, unifying solution.

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