More on ‘Dimensions of a Spiral’

This one’s fairly long – quite a bit longer even than my usual over-long posts… Theme here is a framework called Spiral Dynamics (see a previous post on this), which is used to identify value-systems in individuals, groups and organisations. Base-idea is that Spiral’s layered stack of value-systems – all too easily misused as a linear sequence of cultural development – is better understood as a ‘culture-space’ bounded by key dimensions such as distance-from-self, perceived relatedness, and responsibility.

Probably not relevant to IT-architecture, but likely to be of interest to business-architects and others. Click on the ‘Read more…’ link, anyway.

Been having some great conversations over the past few weeks with Michael Smith, a human-context consultant mainly working with government and health organizations in Central America. Main recent topic of discussion has been about rethinking Spiral Dynamics – he’d been at a conference on Spiral in Santa Barbara, CA.

The original work on value-systems that underpins Spiral was done by Clare Graves (no relation) way back in the 1950s, and in the 1990s was extended and rebranded (and, arguably, ‘dumbed-down’ in some ways) by Don Beck and Chris Cowan as ‘Spiral Dynamics. In essence, the framework divides value-systems into a set of eight (and possibly more) main clusters or ‘vMemes’, usually labelled by colour, but which we could also describe in terms of perception of ‘rights’:

  1. Beige (‘SurvivalSense’): there is no society, everything is focused on the individual need to survive
  2. Purple (‘KinSpirits’): we band together as a family to help each other survive – the family/tribe is right (often matriarchal)
  3. Red (‘PowerGods’): there is a Great Leader of the tribe, and the leader alone is right (extreme monarchy, often translated in combat etc as ‘might is right’)
  4. Blue (‘TruthForce’): there is a Law that is greater than any one person, and that Law alone is right (e.g. theocracy, fascism)
  5. Orange (‘StriveDrive’): there is individual ‘freedom’, individual ‘rights’
  6. Green (‘HumanBond’): specific groupings have collective ‘human rights’, freedom must be constrained for the greater need
  7. Yellow (‘FlexFlow’): the individual is responsible – there is no ‘other’, the only choice that works is ‘win/win’
  8. Turquoise (‘GlobalView’): we are collectively responsible for everything

The ‘Spiral’ bit is that these seem to form a kind of linear progression, each value-system building on those before, much like in child-development; and the pattern sort-of repeats, in that ‘Yellow’ is a kind of system-oriented version of self-only ‘Beige’, ‘Turquoise’ a systemic version of familial ‘Purple’, and so on. There’s also a back-and-forth between individual (Beige, Red, Orange, Yellow) and collective (Purple, Blue, Green, Turquoise).

I’ve always been uncomfortable with the ‘linear progression’ concept in Spiral, as it’s wide-open to ‘cultural imperialist’ misuse – as exemplified particularly by the odious Ken Wilber and the followers of his mangled notions of ‘Integral‘-whatever. In that view, ‘higher’ positions on the spiral are deemed to be ‘better’, supposedly leading to some gloriously inevitable future apotheosis of society – a ‘spiritual’ variant of the old Marxist delusion of ‘historical determinism’, with the very worst of US capitalism and materialism portrayed as inherently ‘better’ than anything before. Instead, I’d viewed the Spiral value-systems more as a set of sliders on a mixing-desk, each value-set coming less or more to the fore as personal and societal conditions change, without any specific ‘linearity’ to it as such.

What’s intrigued me for some years now is the idea that the Spiral value-systems could perhaps be even better understood not as a linear spiral or a ‘mixing-desk’ (with each value-system distinct from the others), but as natural nodes within a bounded dimensional space. If the dimensions were primarily binary – a sharply-cut spectrum between two diametrically-opposed extremes – each major shift from one value-system to the next could resemble a Gray Code transition, in which one dimension would be changed whilst the values for the others would remain much the same. One clear example of that kind of dimension is the ‘individual vs collective’ distinction from Beige (individual) to Purple (collective) to Red (individual) to Blue (collective), and so on.

I’ve spent a long time trying to identify the right dimensions, and what the Gray-Code shifts would be, since clearly something like it does happen in early-years child-development – particularly the toddler’s transition into and (one hopes!) out of the dreaded ‘Terrible Twos’. The previous post on ‘Dimensions of a Spiral’, a few months back, summarises where I’d gotten to in that exploration by then.

What came up in the discussions with Michael Smith was the centrality of mutual responsibility, in relation to a kind of dimension of relatedness – in effect, ‘distance from Self’ – that describes where the boundary between ‘I’ and ‘not-I’ (‘Them’, the Other) is drawn. We can then cross-map Spiral with that dimension of ‘distance-from-Self’:

  1. Beige: all is ‘I’, there is no Other – there is only self
  2. Purple: ‘We’ – ‘my family’, typically the family unit or extended-family, close-friends, or, in a work-context, the immediate work-team
  3. Red: ‘my Tribe’, the people I know personally – self-referential ‘people who relate to me’, typically the scale of a village, or, in a work-context, the business-unit
  4. Blue: extended-‘Us’, the people of whom I have some actual or potential personal contact – ‘those who follow the same rules as us’, typically the scale of a town to a small region or city-state, or, in a work-context, the organisation; also religious affiliation
  5. Orange: ‘my People’, an abstract grouping of ‘extended-Us’ with whom I acknowledge affinity – self-referential ‘all people like me’, typically those of the same nation, language or way-of-thinking, or, in a work-context, the corporation or the industry
  6. Green: ‘all of Us’, often with a somewhat fluid boundary between ‘Us’ (people) and ‘Them’ (not-people) – in principle (if often not in practice) the whole human world
  7. Yellow: ‘my World’ – self-referential connection with ecosystem – typically bounded by present-time or near to present time
  8. Turquoise: ‘the World’ – engagement in / connection with entire ecosystem, without any specific centre – also typically bounded by near-present time
  9. (‘Coral’ and other theorical Spiral layers: variations on interaction with timelessness and/or infinity)

If we think in terms of awareness of ‘the Other’ at each distance, we perhaps can view each of these as mixing-desk sliders. A small child, for example, is at first simply unaware of anything beyond self (Beige) and, slightly later, family (Purple). And intriguingly, many tribal cultures would have little awareness of any human contact beyond the ‘my Tribe’ (Red) distance, but probably would have strong awareness of and connection with the beyond-human ‘my World’ (Yellow) and ‘the World’ (Turquoise) distance, because skill as a hunter within a fragile ecosystem will depend strongly on that engagement and empathy with ‘the Other’ – a good example of where so-called ‘primitive’ cultures are necessarily more ‘advanced’ (in linear Spiral terms) than ‘developed’ ones.

Note that in that tribal example it’s not a simple linear progression: there is strong awareness both of ‘close to Self’ and ‘far from Self’, but actually not much in the middle-distance that is more typical of ‘civilised’ – literally ‘city-based’ – cultures. In effect, the apparent linear progression of Spiral is actually an artefact, a side-effect of increasing ‘distance-from-Self’. Hence none of the Spiral layers are inherently ‘better’ than any other: all that the layering means is that – exactly as we would expect – the ability to make finer-grained distinctions at increasing distance-from-Self enables a greater range of possibilities, of choices for action and interaction.

A crucial sub-theme here – and perhaps an example of a near-binary parameter across the ‘distance-from-Self’ axis – is the extent to which there is a perceived alignment with ‘the Other’ (included as ‘We’ or ‘Us’) or separation from ‘the Other’ (excluded as ‘Them’, not-‘Us’). This parameter is variable, as can be seen in some examples:

  • in war, the ‘enemy’-group  is almost invariably (re-)described as ‘not-human’, an extreme of ‘the Other’ – in effect, artificially increasing the ‘distance from Self’
    • (note that any ‘not-I’ may be viewed as ‘the enemy’ to be distanced here, from ‘my Family’ outwards; likewise even the Self may be treated as the ‘enemy’ – as may be seen even in simple everyday psychological issues such as procrastination or ‘if-only’ self-blame, offloading responsibility respectively to ‘self-in-the-future’ or ‘self-in-the-past’ to avoid responsibility of ‘self-in-the-present’)
  • in peacemaking and arbitration, the former ‘enemy’ is explicitly redescribed as ‘human’ again, often using artificially ‘closer’ terms such as ‘our brothers’ or ‘our greater family’
  • in many forms of meditation, the sense of separation between ‘I’ and ‘not-I’ is explicitly and intentionally suppressed
  • in Deep Ecology, the sense of separation between human and non-human is intentionally suppressed – “aims to avoid merely anthropocentric environmentalism … core principle is the claim that, like humanity, the living environment as a whole has the same right to live and flourish”

Next, we need to return to that theme of responsibility. We can view this as mutual and bidirectional at every layer:

  • responsibility of Self to the Other
  • responsibility from the Other to Self
  • responsibility of one layer of Other to another

There are nuances to these mutual responsibilities that we could regard as dimensions in their own right:

  • balance or imbalance (disparity) in mutuality – i.e. where responsibilities are not reciprocated
  • difference between expectations of responsibility versus actual delivery of responsibility
  • variances in capability – i.e. ‘response-ability’

The balance/imbalance dimension maps directly to the scores of dysfunctional versus functional used in the SEMPER diagnostic, which also has some relationship to distance-from-Self:

  1. actively dysfunctional – prop Self up by putting Other down (or, in ‘lose/win’, prop Other up by putting Self down) – typical of dysfunctional Red
  2. passively dysfunctional – evade responsibility to Other (or, in ‘lose/win’, take on inappropriate responsibility from Other) – typical of dysfunctional Blue and Orange
  3. rule-based ‘best practice’ – typical of functional Blue
  4. organisation supports individual difference – characteristic of functional Orange and Green
  5. individual wholeness-responsibility – systemic awareness – characteristic of Yellow or Turquoise

There’s also an interesting cross-map between Spiral and the Cynefin domains:

  • Beige, Purple: there is no certainty – Cynefin Disorder domain, “the state of not knowing what type of causality exists”
  • Red: individual ‘great leader’ takes control – Cynefin Chaotic domain
  • Blue: pre-ordained rules apply to everyone and everything – Cynefin Simple domain
  • Orange: deeper analysis is required – Cynefin Complicated domain
  • Green: identify and act on emergent patterns – Cynefin Complex domain
  • Yellow, Turquoise: everything is also unique – Cynefin Chaotic domain, also active engagement in Cynefin Disorder domain

Bringing all these themes together provides us with something that can handle a much richer, more nuanced view of value-systems than basic Spiral. For example:

  • Beige: no-rules, no-one responsible to/for me, I am responsble to no-one
  • Purple: no-rules, family responsible for me, I am responsible to/for family
  • Red (functional: chieftain): leader holds rules for all, leader is responsible to all, all are responsible to leader
  • Red (dysfunctional: tyrant / ‘terrible-twos’ child): I possess the rules, I am responsible for no-one, all others are responsible to me
  • Red/Purple variant (dysfunctional: royalty/aristocracy): single family possess the rules, family is responsible for no-one, all are responsible to the family
  • Red/Blue variant (dysfunctional: ‘great leader’ fascist): nation possesses the rules, nation is responsible for no-one, all are responsible to the nation
  • Blue (nominally-functional: ‘the Law’): rules possessed by entity beyond the nation / beyond knowable-human, entity responsible for no-one (though prayed to?!), all are responsible to the rules
  • Blue/red variant (dysfunctional theocracy): rules from beyond-human entity are possessed by priesthood, priesthood responsible to no-one, all are responsible to priesthood
    • (common Blue theme: ‘responsble to’ = ‘blamed for’)
  • Orange (nominally-functional: democracy): rules are possessed by nation, nation responsible to self, self responsible to nation
  • Orange/red variant (dysfunctional: US-style ‘libertarian’, ‘kiddies’ anarchy’): rules are possessed by nation, nation responsible to self, self responsible to no-one
    • (dysfunctional Orange/Blue view of environment: I have “dominion” over environment, environment is responsible to Self, Self has no responsibility to environment)
  • Green: rules possessed by other-than-self (many variants), other may or may not be responsible to self, self responsible to other
    • (common Green theme: ‘responsible to’ = ‘blamed for’)
  • Yellow: no-rules / no-possession, self has personal ‘wholeness-responsibility’ to/for/with other; complex/emergent reality
  • Turquoise: no-rules/no-possession, self as member of collective(s), collective has responsibility to/for/with other; complex/emergent reality
  • Coral: pure no-rules; interactive ‘response-ability’; chaotic / infinite-complexity reality

Will continue working on this till I can clean it up to something that’s more immediately usable. But to me at least it’s clear that the standard Spiral layering is best seen not as stages, nor as individual sliders, but zones or emphases within a space bounded primarily by dimensions of relationship-with-other and responsibility-to/for-other.

Hope all of this is useful to someone, anyway. 🙂

2 Comments on “More on ‘Dimensions of a Spiral’

  1. Hey Tom,
    This is some of the best insights of Spiral Dynamics that I’ve seen in a while. I did a search on Twitter to see what they latest discussions were. I actually just recently did a broad sweep to aggregate as many different Spiral Dynamics visualizations as I could come across, which I’ve aggregated here:

    One thing that I would caution you about is that it definitely sounds like your introduction to Spiral Dynamics has come almost entirely from Ken Wilber’s digestion. I say that because I think that Beck and Cowan would probably agree with many of the points that you make, and in fact Beck talks a lot about the distinction between Life Conditions, Priority Codes, and Beliefs and Behavior.

    After listening to a lot of lectures of Beck and doing a huge sweep of content, I think that they’d be on the same page of a lot of what you’re saying here. And I’ve also heard along the way the notion of progressing through the spiral is an expansion in scope of identity, which you very well articulated here.

    Anyway, great write-up, and it makes me want to geek out more about some of these ideas since I’ve been thinking about them a lot lately as well.

    • Hi Kent

      Many thanks for the comments – much appreciated.

      Would also like to acknowledge that you’ve done a vast amount of work with your ‘Spiral Dynamics Visualizations’ up on Flickr – a valuable resource for the community.

      You’re right about ‘initial introduction to Spiral’ via Wilber: a business-school professor was a Wilber devotee who turned our formal course on business strategy into an emetic forcefeed of Wilber’s millennial-cult ‘AQAL’ and ‘Integral Futures’ as ‘the answer to Life The Universe And Everything’ 🙁 Wilber’s crude two-dimensional grid immediately made much more sense as tetradian (four-axis solid, most easily visualised as the inner skeleton of a tetrahedron), and that AQAL’s linear outward ‘progress’ made more sense as changes of location within regions of an n-dimensional space, with no implied ‘inevitability’ of movement in any direction. From there I went back to Beck and Cowan’s writing; and from there back to Graves, who seems to have been the only one amongst the whole lot who appears to have done any original (rather than derivative) research. :wrygrin: Beck and Cowan’s Spiral is a nice marketing-gloss on Graves’ work, but I’ve not seen much there that’s new: for example, Beck’s Life Conditions are essentially a re-badged version of Graves two-letter codes, and so on. What I’ve found more useful instead, as you saw in the article above, is to cross-map it to other models, such as Jung/MBTI, Dave Snowden’s Cynefin, and Mary Sheridan’s foundational work on child-development from back in the 1960s. To me those crosslinks anchor Spiral much more solidly into everyday reality – as opposed to AQAL and the like, which anchor it only in Wilber’s overweening ego.

      But I may be out of date, of course – it’s been several years since I last suffered the odious Wilber and his acolytes, and I ain’t been back since. :alsowrygrin: Any suggestions on big changes in Spiral that I need to know about?

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