Stream flowing, winter foliage

Spiral Dynamics: Flow Like Water

This is part of the 'Cultural Flux' series, article 2 of 3.

In Article 1, I dove deep into the notion of culture, how it shapes our current context of global uncertainty/change and lay some foundational principles for emergent thinking/ways of being. Why? So we can cooperate and organise at a global scale against some of the greatest threats and opportunities that we face today. How? I believe, we need to explore ways that we can accelerate our level of thinking and consciousness to achieve a tipping point — a moment of critical mass. This shift towards more cohesive global values and culture, can then be the vehicle for global transformation.

In this second article, we will look at a specific framework (Spiral Dynamics) that may be able to support this cultural shift and transformation. The same premise applies once again — just as culture is in constant flux so too is any theory or framework, remaining useful so long as it helps us to evolve and get to an even better theory. Culture like water is in a state of flux adapting to the conditions of its environment, culture needs to flow like water so it does not become stagnant.

As already established, we live in a VUCA World (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous), so theories and frameworks can be incredibly useful to us as we navigate through challenge. As Einstein aptly put it "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” This idea of levels is integral to one of the best frameworks that I have come across whose relevance is becoming more pressing — the work of Clare Graves, later developed into Spiral Dynamics.

Clare Graves a Psychologist undertook research in the 1950-60s that culminated in an evolutionary human development model. The central premise that humans operate from and evolve through different values levels. Graves’ work helps us to understand the different levels of existence (bio-psycho-social systems) that individuals, organisations and whole societies are operating from. He died before his work could be published. Fortunately Don Beck continued Graves’ work and Spiral Dynamics emerged.

Levels to Human Development

The eight human developmental levels that Grave observed in his research of people are listed below. For any transformation work to take place, it is incredibly important to understand the underlying beliefs in the system, which can help determine how to approach the change. These levels have been developed and colour coded by Don Beck and is better known as ‘Spiral Dynamics.’

Spiral Dynamic Summary Table
Spiral Dynamic Summary Table

Key Principles and Wider Considerations

I include some key principles of Spiral Dynamics and wider theories/approaches below to help us move beyond the current level of debate, a point I feel we are stuck at currently.

  1. Transcend and include — the importance of integrating the level that came before. Doing so allows you to ‘surf the spiral’ utilising the most important
    elements of any given level for a desired outcome
    2. Emergence of new evolving systems comes from co-creation and fostering the right conditions
    3. Importance of finding common ground, truth and nuanced discourse
    4. Shared language to support having courageous conversations
    5. Usefulness of scaffolding and a sense-making framework to help navigate this important and necessary work
    6. Organisationally, creating meaningful impact through aligning systems, cultural cohesiveness (beliefs, values, ways of thinking, norms) as well as strategy
    7. Diverse and broad skill-sets and ways of thinking are required to deal with the levels of complexity we face today
    8. Showing up with a 'Growth Mindset' as opposed to 'Fixed Mindset’
    9. Understanding and addressing our personal saboteurs so that we can have lasting and sustainable change (Positive Intelligence)
    10. Acknowledging individual and collective trauma (the historical context continues to shape our lives today)
    11. Acknowledging where we are right now as individuals, families, communities and societies. Spiral level Blue (truth force) is the current dominant level in the world

There is a pressing need to move to functional design of systems within workplaces and society at large, including addressing the socio-political-economic-cultural-technological challenges of our time. Grave’s work and Spiral Dynamics can help us do this urgent work, by providing a framework to explore these dimensions within individuals, societies, organisations and the world at large.

No one level is more important than another. We must learn to navigate each level in order, take the learnings and useful tools of this ‘operating system’ and way of looking at the world before ‘transcending and including’ onto the next level. We must learn to ‘surf the spiral’ i.e. the different levels skilfully so we can adopt the most appropriate tools for the VUCA conditions we face.

In summary, we explored a specific framework to navigate the uncertain and changing world we live in. What insights, reflections and/or questions has this raised for you? In the last article of this series, we will look at why change at the system level is so important and why behavioural interventions can be short-lived if the intervention is not geared at the right level. Spiral dynamics is also very useful in this regard because by understanding the underlying beliefs, values, norms within a given system, we can better determine how to approach the change. In article 3, I will attempt to illustrate this at both the individual
and organisational levels, incorporating additional tools where helpful.

If you are interested in starting conversations on how we can co-create a more transformative, cohesive and inclusive culture in the workplace and society, please send your name, contact phone number and email address to

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Sobia Iqbal is a leadership and management transformational coach, as well as an organisational development strategist and facilitator. 

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