Spiral Dynamics: Theory you can use

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Spiral Dynamics
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Post by Jon Freeman  spiralfutures.com

Native American wisdom teacher Sun Bear once said “I am not interested in a philosophy if it doesn’t help me grow corn”.  Theories are much the same. Their usefulness depends essentially on three things:

Do they explain what we can see?

Do they correctly predict what will happen next?

Do they provide useful information that helps us change outcomes?

In 1974 Professor Clare W. Graves described the conditions that would face mankind in the future. He said that these conditions would demand a “momentous leap” in human capacities. Forty years on we are now living in exactly the life conditions he predicted. This prediction was based on decades of research and data analysis which produced the socio-psychological theory that eventually became known as Spiral Dynamics.

What makes you different from a Kalahari bushman or an inner-city gang member? What would be required for you to survive in their world? What would be your worldview and driving values; how would you have to think in order to thrive? Spiral Dynamics is multi-layered. It explains the ebbs and flows of human cultural history via stages of worldview development. It describes how we develop and behave individually and collectively. It matches well with Maslow, Cook-Greuter and other progressions of individual consciousness but it does more than all of these. It explains how and why the changes happen and how this is rooted in our perception of Values.

Development is a process of progressive adaptation to changing conditions and it is the dynamic character of this process which gives the theory its potency.  It makes sense of politics, explains conflicts from individual to international and illuminates personal behaviour differences and societal problems. It provides a map for growing awareness that offers great power for leadership development. In this article I will focus on how it applies to organisations and what it has to say about today’s urgent problems – sustainability, ethics, unpredictability, turbulence and complexity – and how we support change.

“The rate of change is not going to slow down anytime soon.”  John P Kotter

We often think that life is about decisions – between right and wrong ways of doing things, between the needs of the individual and the needs of the society, between chaos and control, between stability and creativity, fixed rules and rational strategies, material requirements and human values, contraction and expansion. The reality is that any of these apparent choices are as unreal as that between breathing out and breathing in. As Barry Johnson has described, life is not about decisions between poles, but management of polarities, dealing with unsolvable problems.

Spiral Dynamics explains the way many of these tensions have shaped the trajectory of human history and how they inhabit organisational development. For example small and developing organisations typically enter their marketplace driven by powerful leaders who do whatever it takes to succeed. As they scale up there is more that must be built in to procedures, structures and rules, often causing tension with the dynamism of the founder.

Further growth may be a dance between the organisation’s embedded order and its strategic creativity, now in the hands of others besides its founder. Rules, internal process and external compliance are essential; bureaucracy is deadly. A focus on rules or strategy may take little cognisance of human needs. Organisations treating humans merely as ciphers, replaceable elements or commodities eventually experience the tensions which demand attention to aspects of care and individual need. Any organisation must encompass these ways of being and thinking, blending compliance to rules, strategic rationalism and human care as it moves forward.

With these multiple stages in play; the turbulence, unpredictability, pace and pressure of today’s life conditions demand a fresh response which both integrates the previous stages and then takes a major step forward. In order to adapt to the many interactions, unforeseeable events and competing requirements organisations must make a transition. They need increasingly agile and responsive structures, systems and processes peopled by individuals who are more than ever empowered in their expertise and accountable by outcomes rather than by procedural compliance.

In the short and medium term the requirement is to remove blockages, free constraints and build the maximum of flexibility and flow into the organisational being. The eventual goal may be the development of what Frederic Laloux calls a “self-organising enterprise”. Many of today’s organisations have done much to develop the inner aspects in leaders and some have taken that development further into the employee layers. Taking this inner change into the outer features is at the heart of making the new thinking systems effective deliverable and self-sustaining.

There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.Peter Drucker

Peter Senge has written of the need for “systems thinking”, for understanding the interconnectedness and interrelationships, pointing out that “structure influences behaviour”. John Mackey of Whole Foods Market echoes this view in his references to “Systems Intelligence” (SyQ). Mackey has used Spiral Dynamics integral approaches because SDi provides tools and focussed questions which cut through and lay open the complexities to reveal the simplicity beyond. It engages with the organisation’s systemic constraints to enable the organisation to mesh with the new leadership cultures.

“Management is efficiency in climbing the ladder of success; leadership determines whether the ladder is leaning against the right wall.” Stephen R. Covey

Delivering aligned exteriors that support new mindsets rests on knowing what questions to ask that will get inside the organisational dynamics. We can discover how the Values stages are playing out and how to facilitate their development. We can understand their capacities and readiness for change, and just what kind of change is required, from minor adjustment to whole new blueprints. We can match leadership preferences to these different degrees of change and we can find which of the many tools that the world offers are the ones which best support “what’s next” for the emerging Values shift. It is often easy to see that change is needed; the important question is “from what, to what?” Too often people mistake creating what’s wanted for destroying what isn’t wanted.

“I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give all I have for the simplicity that emerges the other side of complexity” Oliver Wendell Holmes

Spiral Dynamics addresses these issues from multiple angles, providing maps and templates for the realignment of the organisation’s teams, processes, structures and systems. It supports the creation of different layers of management and leadership intelligence and understanding what information they need.

Problems cannot be solved from the level of thinking that created them. That which seems complex and unsolvable is simplified when you have an effective way to raise perspective to the next level. The value of the Spiral Dynamics integral theory is that it delivers the tools that we need in order to rise to the next level and enter the new paradigm. It explains where organisations are, predicts what is next and gives us information and tools to make a difference.

— Jon Freeman

Learn more about Spiral Dynamics at Jon Freeman’s upcoming one day course in London: http://gcfcl.com/short-courses/spiral-dynamics/

or see http://www.spiralfutures.com/



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