Summary of Spiral Dynamics  by Don Beck and Christopher Cowan
by Steve Dinan, Esalen Institute

This is really a terrific book once the reader gets past the capital letters and color-coding scheme. It presents, in fascinating detail, a spiral developmental model of worldviews. Beck and Cowan call these patterns of thinking vMemes (short for values-attracting meta-memes). vMemes can be thought of as broad orienting paradigms, a schema through which we interpret the world. These vMemes fall into a series of eight levels, with the potential for higher ones emerging as we speak. Each level also has entering, peak, and declining phases. They avoid the most common pitfall of stage models by introducing a great deal of fluidity. First, situational factors encourage different vMemes to "light up." We might rely upon one vMeme in the religious domain and another in intimate relationships. In times of intensive stressor war, previously submerged vMemes often come to the surface. Furthermore, Beck and Cowan argue that the healthy expression of each vMeme is essential to the health of the entire spiral of development. In this way, they allow for the kind of structural analysis that is so useful from stage models without the rigid (and alienating) process of just assigning people to boxes, stages, or roles. We can be encouraged or assisted to use more complex and evolved paradigms, but the goal of what they call "the spiral wizard" is to meet people, situations, and cultures where they are at, creating organizational and political models that are, at most, a step ahead of the individuals involved. The spiral wizard recognizes that the health of the overall spiral is paramount and that change can generally happen only by small increments. Beck and Cowan are more interested in lubricating change effectively than rejecting and overthrowing old structures. 

Each vMeme leads to certain beliefs, social groupings, motivation patterns, organizational dynamics, and goals. If we try to impose solutions or structures that are too far ahead of the curve (that reflect or engage inappropriate vMemes) the result is alienation and rebellion rather than transformation. In this way, Beck and Cowan model a way of being in the world that is eminently practical, sensitive and oriented towards transformation. Too often, we intuit a "better" or "higher" mode of being without respecting the stages of change and development that must happen before large numbers of people in an organization or society can enact such a mode. Beck and cowan actually avoid use of the terms "better" or "higher," sticking with, at most, "more complex" vMemes. There is a hierarchy involved, but it is more factual than evaluative. The eight dominant vMemes today are listed below with a range of factors that reflect such a worldview. Each vMeme has emerged historically in response to the needs of new, and more complex, life conditions.

1. Beige: Semi-Stone Age not generally that active today, dominated by nature and basic survival instincts, acting much as other animals. Results in loose, clan-based survival groups. Famine might result in large numbers of people arrested in this mode. (newborns and senile elderly, mentally ill street people, people in starvation, late-stage Alzheimers, .1% of population)

2. Purple: Tribal animistic, magical, spiritistic, close to the earth and cyclic in outlook. This leads to tribal groupings, focus on rituals to appease ancestral spirits. Blood bonds are strong. Management of PURPLE demands respect for clan rules and allegiances, respect to the clan "leaders." Rewarding someone too visibly can break the group bond with negative consequences. Change must be embodied in rituals, traditions, and symbols. (guardian angels and voodoo-like curses, blood oaths, lucky charms, superstitions, athletic team bonding, 10% of world population, 1% of power)

3. Red: Exploitative Rough and harsh, rugged authoritarianism, finds expression in slavery or virtual slavery, exploitation of unskilled labor. Generally run by a Top Boss and series of proxies, strict division of have's and have not's. Assumption is that people are lazy, must be forced to work. True leaders must suppress natural human tendencies. Currently evident in street life and gangs in inner cities. Motivated by "heroes" and conquest. Feudalism. (Terrible Twos, feudal kingdoms, soldiers of fortune, many rock stars, Power Rangers, rebellious youth, 20% of world population, 5% of power)

4. Blue: Authoritarian Loyal to Truth, which is defined by social grouping. Purposeful and patriotic, leads people to obey authority, feel guilty when not conforming to group norms, try to serve the greater good through self-sacrifice. Works very well in industrial economies. Discipline is strict but usually fair and often public (flogging in Singapore, e.g.). U.S. has shifted away from BLUE industries, which have moved to Mexico, Taiwan, Malaysia, and elsewhere that this BLUE is now strong. BLUE industries will eventually move to Africa, in Beck's opinion. Moralistic-prescriptive management techniques. Organizational structure is pyramidal. (Boy and Girl Scouts, Billy Graham, Puritan American, Confucian China, Islamic fundamentalism, 40% of world population, 30% of power)

5. Orange: Entrepreneurial Personal success orientation, each person rationally calculating what is to their personal advantage. Motivations are largely economic, people are responsive to perks, bonuses, money rather than loyalty, group belongingness, or life employment. Rational capacities allow people to test many options. Competition improves productivity and fosters growth. This is probably the dominant vMeme in America today. Main concerns are autonomy and manipulation of the environment. Usually results in free market economy and multi-party democracy. (Ayn Rand, Wall Street, Rodeo Drive, cosmetics industry, Dallas, trophy hunting, Hong Kong, GQ, Mediterranean yachts, 30% of world population, 50% of power)

6. Green: Communitarian Sensitive and humanistic, the focus with green is community and personal growth, equality, attention to environmental concerns. Work is motivated by human contact and contribution, learning from others. Being liked is more important than competitive advantage, value openness and trust, fear rejection and disapproval. Leaders become facilitators, less autocratic. Hierarchies blur in the move towards egalitarianism with a resulting tendency towards inefficiency and stagnation. Can become so bogged down and ineffectual, though, that people revert to go-getter individualism of orange. (Rogerian counseling, Esalen, GreenPeace, Jacques Costeau, Jimmy Carter, John Lennon's music, Doctors without Borders, ACLU, Ben & Jerry's, animal rights, deep ecology, 10% of population, 15% of power)

7. Yellow: Systemic This is the first vMeme of the second tier (described below) in which there is a quantum shift in the capacity to take multiple perspectives in life. YELLOW is motivated by learning for its own sake and is oriented towards integration of complex systems. Change is a welcome part of the process in organizations and life; YELLOW likes the challenges. It is characterized by systems thinking, an orientation to how parts interact to create a greater whole. Unique talents and dispositions are honored as contributing something valuable to the whole. YELLOW likes engineering complex systems and dealing with ideas. It is also ecologically oriented, but in a more subdued, behind the scenes way. YELLOW thinkers often work on the periphery of organizations, quietly fine-tuning situations and procedures, much to the bafflement of the first tier vMemes. (Hawking's Brief History of Time, chaos theory, eco-industrial parks, Wired magazine, 1% of world population, 5% of power)

8. Turquoise: Holistic Focused on a global holism/integralism, attuned to the delicate balance of interlocking life forces. Synthetic and experiential, emerging focus on spiritual connectivity. Work must be meaningful to the overall health of life. Feelings and information experienced together, enhancing both. Able to see and honor many perspectives, including many of the "lower" vMemes. Structured in multi-dimensional ways. Conscious of energy fields, holographic links in all walks of work and life, urge to use collective human intelligence to work on large-scale problems without sacrificing individuality. (Gaia hypothesis, Ken Wilber's work, Teilhard de Chardin, David Bohm, McLuhan's ‘global village,' Gandhi's idea of pluralistic harmony, not very influential yet, .1% of world population, 1% of power)

Beck and Cowan denote transitional stages with the predominant vMeme in capital letters and the less influential vMeme in lowercase. BLUE/orange is thus the exiting phase of a predominantly BLUE colored worldview, mixed with emergent orange. blue/ORANGE is the entering phase of true orange. ORANGE is the peak of a worldview. Generally, the higher levels emerge like waves at a beach: swelling from insignificance, peaking, and dissolving again. Each wave is a bit higher (more complex) than the last. This process of successively more complex waves of vMemes is not inevitable, though. Changing life conditions must generate sufficient problems for the predominant worldview to be motivated to change. A corporation, for example, might cling to the bedrock of BLUE, while the information economy forces entirely new ways of doing business. Many illustrious corporation thus end up on the rocks as the next wave of change reveals their incapacity to adapt to new economic circumstances. 

Although the general trajectory is to move to higher, more complex vMemes, we retain the less complex vMemes and can draw upon them, hopefully in healthy ways, when situations demand it. For example, in a football game, the RED vMeme might be appropriate, although in relationships, the same player might express the BLUE vMeme. Sometimes, people prove incapable of this flexibility, especially in terms of activating/actualizing higher vMemes. Beck and Cowan give the example of George Bush, who embodied the ORANGE vMeme of the "me" decades, with just enough conservative blue to keep the conservative factions happy while serving the cause of individualism. As the American populace shifted its concerns however (changing life conditions), Bush revealed his arrestment at the blue/ORANGE cusp and his inability to deal with emerging GREEN vMemes. Clinton, of course, carried the day, appealing more to emergent GREEN, from the base camp of ORANGE. Later, though, there was a conservative backlash against change that was happening too quickly when the Republicans took back the House in 1994.

Beck and Cowan use something like a fulcrum model to describe the shift to a new worldview. In the alpha condition, the vMeme ably fits the predominant life conditions. As this changes, the beta condition emerges in which the old vMemes begin to be inadequate to deal with changing circumstances. This is a time of uncertainty, questioning, and doubt. From here, there are two possibilities: Reform (an evolutionary change) to create a new alpha fit with more sophisticated vMemes or Revolt (a revolutionary change) that generally stems from a slow initial reaction to change. Revolt emerges from something they call a gamma trap, a zone of frustration and hopelessness. If people are fortunate and savvy, a transformational pathway emerges (called the delta surge) to the next alpha fit. If not, regression occurs, or the organizational structure dissolves. Within this basic fulcrum of development model, they see seven main options, two horizontal, two oblique, and three vertical . The horizontal options are to 1)fine tune and 2) expand out, neither of which alters the fundamental vMemes of the organization. The oblique alternatives (stretch-down and stretch-up) involve accessing higher or lower vMemes on a temporary basis to deal with pressing circumstances. The vertical alternatives are 1) Break-out, which is revolutionary but runs risk of regression 2) Up-shift, which is an evolutionary shift to the next level, as with delta surge 3) Quantum, which is when a number of vMemes are shifting simultaneous. This kind of change is integral to success in nation-building and functioning in a global marketplace, and is seen in era shifts like the Industrial Revolution.

Leadership promotes positive change and the health of all levels of the spiral and involves a sensitivity to meet where people are at. First, this involves seeing whether people are Open (capable of change), Arrested (change potential is present but hindered), or Closed (frozen in a vMeme). Rather than trying to dynamite arrested and closed individuals, the savvy Spiral Wizard (a great term he uses) tailors interventions and motivations to meet people where they are at. The optimum leadership style for open individuals is step ahead of their center of gravity. For example, an ORANGE population mass is best led by a ORANGE/green or perhaps an  orange/GREEN leader who can subtly lead them further while instinctively appealing to their fundamentally ORANGE worldview. Individuals who are more closed respond best to management and leadership that reflects their same level (i.e. fundamentalists listen best to other die-hard fundamentalists).

Clare Graves, who started this work before Beck and Cowan, insisted that people have a right to live the way they want to live. It is our job to tailor organizations to suit them and motivate them with the most appropriate tools.  

Beck and Cowan delineate two different kinds of wizards: change wizards and spiral wizards. Change wizards are stage specific; they provide a credible and powerful example of how to bridge the zone between two worldviews. Malcolm X, after he joined Islam, became a change wizard embodying the transition from RED (pimp) to RED/blue (convert) to red/BLUE (zealot) to BLUE (true believer in Islam after his Haj experience). Gorbachev was a change wizard as well; however, he also demonstrates how change wizards run the risk of being left behind as the waves of change they have helped create crest onwards. Spiral wizards are different from change wizards; their thinking derives from the quantum jump forward in complexity found in the second tier vMemes. They are able to view situations from multiple perspectives, to deal with stage appropriate and stage specific situations. They are not locked in to a single view, but see the developing vMeme stacks as a total organism. They will not impose inappropriate vMemes on unwilling subjects, but honor and respect the motivational systems and structures in existence. They are more concerned with oiling the evolution of the whole system than preaching from an particular worldspace.  Enlightened organizations, in Beck's opinion, seek out their spiral wizards, protect them from dress codes, political games and bureaucratic constraints and allow them to scan a large horizon for developing trends.

This constitutes the think tank for an organization, what he later calls the Z template (X template involves the work that a company does, Y template are those people who can facilitate, encourage, and support the X template -- managers in the old sense). Z template folks can be encouraged with highly creative environments such as the: wild duck pond (where nonconformists can swim alone), nursery (where neophytes can be nurtured to learn the ropes), war room (where vital signs of a corporation are monitored), play pen (loose and creative environment where teams wrestle with tough problems, crisis team (experts deployed in emergency to stabilize and repair.

Spiral wizards think in terms of open, evolving systems rather than closed final states. They respond to natural flows and rhythms and enjoy chaos. But since they are attuned to the health of the whole spiral, they do not threaten or jeopardize the old. They interact comfortably with many conceptual worlds and do so in systematic and integrative ways. They mesh left and right brain resources and draw from whatever tools are available, more concerned with efficacy than status, power, or belonging to a group. Beck and Cowan feel that the U.S. military during Desert Storm embodied many of these principles and that people like Norman Schwartzkopf and Colin Powell were candidates for spiral wizardry. The spiral wizard creates organizational structures and motivational systems that are appropriate for the individuals involved in the work. They might create public change rituals to honor PURPLE, competitive sports engagements to honor RED, bonuses and financial perks to motivate ORANGE, celebrations of company loyalty for BLUE, prominent public service activities for GREEN and so on. Rather than judging or trying to change people too quickly, they are adept at meeting people on their own turf. Complex organizations (and societies) function with the assistance of many vMemes. Their smooth integration and harmonization is thus key. Doing so demands politeness, openness, and firm leadership when necessary.

Creating healthy organizations is a matter, for Beck and Cowan, of doing a spiral alignment (focused on the essential core purpose) and letting all other decisions about structure, motivation, resource use, etc. to flow from that centering point. He calls the process of doing so "streaming," which involves second tier intelligences creating systems that harness and honor the best skills of each vMeme. Different jobs might be more suited to different vMeme profiles, so the savvy spiral wizard hires those people who re best suited to such a role (not necessarily the ones they like best). Marketing, for example, is often heavy on ORANGE, while accounting demands the careful, detail orientation of BLUE. Too often, people choose team members for the wrong reasons, attempting to retrain someone into roles for which they are not suited. The classic strategy of bumping high-performing workers to management also does not honor the vMeme profiles and is often disastrous. Structuring corporations such that advancement is possible even without switching to new vMeme requirements is key.

Probably the most interesting part of this book is the final chapter in which, after the reader has been armed with the requisite vocabulary and tools to think in spiral dynamic terms, the authors tackle a wide variety of global development issues, from China and Russia to the dissolution of S. African apartheid. In each situation, the benefits of thinking through this evolutionary lens become apparent. The imposition of ORANGE economic structures and controls without a solid, healthy BLUE foundation in Russia, for example, reveals itself as a clear recipe for sliding back into the criminal governance of RED. The predominantly BLUE command economy of the Soviet era provided a closed sort of stability. Now, Russia needs a BLUE/orange leader who can create the societal structures which allow a more natural unfolding of ORANGE, much as happened in Singapore. The authors point out that business models from the U.S. in the 1890's and the middle of this century are actually more stage-appropriate than the current models consultants are eager to impose.

A point I missed in the above: each step up the spiral is an alternation from a more individualistic/expressive mode to a more communal/sacrificial pole. At each level, this fundamental dichotomy finds a more complex and sophisticated expression, but the alternation is consistent. The problems inherent in each worldview are partially resolved with a swing back to the other pole (the swing from the entrepreneurial spirit of ORANGE to communitarian GREEN resolves some of the destructive imbalances of excessive consumerism, for example). Finally, they feel that vMemes are grouped in batches of six and that the shift from GREEN to YELLOW is a more radical, discontinuous jump than any previous advance, the emergence of a fully new mode of thinking. I found this argument the least plausible of their thesis.

Particularly important moves (in my opinion) 

1) Beck and Cowan take a developmental framework and implement it in a way that is practical and insightful without being alienating. Some of the elements that I at first found cheesy (like the colors) turn out to be assets. More specifically, the color schemes and diagrams engage the right brain in the process and make it very easy to talk about the expression/activation of certain worldviews in neat ways. Once sufficient connections and associations are built, it is more parsimonious to just say that GREEN is activated strongly in a situation or organization. Makes for excellent and intelligible shorthand.

2) They separate people from the vMEMES which are operative in their life at a given moment. A potential problem with many developmental schemes is that people feel like they've been located at a certain stage of the development spectrum. Their egos are activated in a very negative way by this. Beck and Cowan do the same thing but in a much gentler way by saying that a particular vMEME is activated in someone. The extra wedge between  person and vMeme is, I think, a key move to letting these ideas sink in. It makes for a very gentle and fluid hierarchy. Though the underpinning assumptions aren't that different, the languaging keeps people from feeling boxed in or categorized. This undoubtedly stems from the politics of consulting. 

3) They explicitly deal with situational variables: someone might be operating from GREEN in their close friendships, ORANGE in business, and BLUE in their religious affiliation. By recognizing that all the worldviews are, to some extent, active and/or embedded in us (after they have emerged developmentally, that is), Beck and Cowan show how certain vMemes might be more appropriate in certain situations. Focusing on situational variables is closer to people's actual experience. 

4) Beck and Cowan emphasize the health of the whole spiral and the value of each worldview, given the right life conditions. This is an important move towards becoming a spiral wizard, one that many single-issue or single-perspective leaders would be wise to heed. The hubris of a single-solution perspective is often evident with ecothinkers and peace activists who neglect the need for traditional religions, police, or shows of force to deal with lower vMemes, or with economic advisors who try to paste First World economic principles onto Third World economies, thereby sowing the seeds for military coups and exploitation by heavy-handed  elites. Second-tier thinking recognizes that the wisest course of action and the best organizational structures in different situations can be radically different.  The need for this kind of thinking is even evident in transpersonal circles when thinkers lambast the vMemes that lay the groundwork for their own vMeme. For example, ecotheorists writing from GREEN urge a return to a kind of tribalism, neglecting the benefits of the intervening vMemes like ORANGE. TURQUOISE (or higher) spiritual teachers often ridicule the mind, rationality, and ego as unnecessary. In the urge to express the truths of one level of the vMeme stack, we are prone to attack or denigrate the benefits and advances of the previous levels in a way that undermines the whole. GREEN hippies, as another example, undermined all BLUE authority and sometimes aligned with RED elements like the Hell's Angels, ultimately undermining many of the advances they represented.


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