Excerpts from
A Summary of Spiral Dynamics*

Compiled by Ronnie Lessem, Reader in International Management
City University Business School, London

Managing COMPLEX SYSTEMS through Spiral Wizardry

"Spiral Wizards instinctively roam over vast landscapes (and mindscapes) seeing patterns and connections others do not notice because their old-paradigm, "first tier" filters do not allow them to. They can move through the spine of the Spiral awakening, unblocking, empowering or repairing each of the memes (genetic or cultural codes) of an organization. He or she appreciates chaos and thinks more like a creative designer than a re-engineer. The process links functions, people and ideas into new, more natural flows that add precision, flexibility, rapid response, humanity and fun to getting the work done. That is the power of new paradigm, "second tier" thinking, to constantly survey the whole while tinkering expertly with the parts. Monitoring the full Spiral is especially vital during periods of large-scale turbulence and change, like right now."


This approach called "Spiral Dynamics" represents the culmination of forty years of research and development aimed at global managers specifically and citizens of the globe generally. Having been initiated by an American Professor of Psychology, Clare W. Graves, in the sixties, it has since been developed by his two dedicated followers, Don Beck and Chris Cowan, based on their extensive work in North America and South Africa.

In more recent years the work of the British biologist, Richard Dawkins, on The Selfish Gene, and the Polish-American psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, on The Evolving Self has been incorporated to bring the fresh language of "memes" (rhymes with themes) to what has been popularly called "value systems" or "levels of psychological existence" theory. The net result is one of perhaps the three major breakthroughs in approaches to managing complexity – the other two being "systems" and "chaos" theory – - of this century.

Different managerial minds arise out of different times. The clearest evidence lies in the so-called "vMEME (value-meme) systems" that underlie different organizing principles, and outline the diverse structural attributes of the Spiral mind. What biochemical genes are to DNA, vMEMEs are to our psycho-cultural "DNA". The fascinating dynamics of human systems emerge in a spiral-like form rather than a linear sequence or even cyclical pattern. These include the dynamics of change, leadership, complexity, alignment and integration.

The most obvious landmarks along this Spiral of human development are the precise "vMEMEs", or would-be psychological "DNA" structures, of survival, kinship, raw idinal power, meaning and purpose, control, prosperity and achievement, and consensual communitarian orientations (all representative of old paradigm thinking), as well as systemic flexibility and holistically/globally oriented (new paradigm) personalities and societies, with a view to undergoing, finally an integrated "global awakening" to which the Spiral’s dynamics give rise. That will, in turn, lead to still more new vMEMEs since the process seems to be open-ended.

Different Minds

The current destabilization of belief structures and loosed anchors, in a diverse but not yet interdependent world draws our attention to the explanatory power of these vMEMEs. "Like migrating tectonic plates, several core ways of thinking - paradigms, if you will - are grinding against each other. Ancient tribal and ethnic sores are belching regionalized fire while transnational companies linked by satellites conduct their business and cybernauts discuss invigorating the whole."

Diverse Worldviews

Each vMEME reflects a world view, a valuing system, a level of psychological existence, a belief structure, an organizing principle, a way of thinking or a mode of adjustment deep within evolving human nature itself. It represents, firstly then, a CORE INTELLIGENCE that forms systems and impacts on human behavior. Secondly, it IMPACTS UPON all life CHOICES. Thirdly, each vMEME can manifest itself in both HEALTHY AND UNHEALTHY forms. Fourthly, such a vMEME is a discrete STRUCTURE for thinking, not just a set of ideas, cultural artifacts, or philosophical cause. Fourthly, it CAN BRIGHTEN AND DIM as circumstances in the milieux change since it is the dynamic interaction of latent capacities and systems-within with perceived existential conditions-without that awaken vMEMEs.


The eight sets of vMEMEs, which make up the Spiral’s central core and developmental process, are represented in terms of different colors. The first six of these make up "old paradigm" business and management. The BEIGE vMEME is structured in loose bands and underpinned by survival processes. The PURPLE vMEME is structured in tribe-like groups and is underpinned by circular processes. The RED vMEME is structured in empires an underpinned by exploitative, power seeking processes. The BLUE vMEME is structured in pyramidal form, and underpinned by purposeful, controlling or even authoritarian processes. The ORANGE vMEME is structured in delegative forms, underpinned by achievement oriented, strategic and competitive processes. The GREEN vMEME is structured in egalitarian fashion, underpinned by processes that are both experiential and consensual, and driven by a communitarian ethic.

The two vMEMEs, finally, that constitute the beginnings of a "new paradigm" are YELLOW and TURQUOISE. YELLOW is flexible and integrative, both as a structure and in its systemic processes, while TURQUOISE is holistic and global in structure, and flowing in its process. These will in turn be followed by a CORAL vMEME, which will probably emphasize a new kind of unification with an individualized intelligence. Other vMEMEs will follow so long as human nature and the complexities of existence evolve.

Change Potential

Clare Graves found that people vary in terms of their change potentials along an OPEN - ARRESTED - CLOSED (OAC) continuum. If you can discern a person’s OAC status on a topic you know the possibilities for MEME change, the appropriate techniques, the amount of energy it will require, and the stress that will result. In the Open system, moreover, it is possible in a broader sense to entertain thinking from new vMEMEs on the rise and access previous systems when appropriate. Closed state thinkers, on the other hand, are locked in narrow ranges and may exhibit a core vMEME at its peak, shutting the door not only to alternative ideas, but to the rest of the Spiral.

Six Change Conditions

In addition, there are six conditions that have to be met if an individual or organization is to change. Firstly, the POTENTIAL for change must be there, that is both the necessary degree of Openness and the latent vMEMEs, or intelligences, appropriate to the Life Conditions. "Unfortunately, the very minds necessary to support a multi-party, free market democracy in Somalia may have been exterminated by those who did not want it". Secondly, if there are UNRESOLVED lower order problems, you cannot expect to realize change at higher Spiral levels. "If stability is the key issue, bring order; if fear is draining productivity, deliver the bad news quickly and then make things safe". Thirdly, there needs to be felt DISSONANCE within the current vMEME system before change will be welcomed in. Fourthly, there needs to be sufficient INSIGHT into the causes of the dissonance, and of alternative approaches to their resolution. Such insight will be enhanced by prior awareness of the way systems form, decline and reform, and by a disinclination to regress towards outmoded answers from the past. Fifthly, BARRIERS to change need to be concretely identified, and then eliminated, bypassed, neutralized or reframed into something else. Sixthly and finally, when significant change occurs, you can expect periods of confusion, false starts, long learning curves and awkward assimilation while CONSOLIDATION of the new thinking occurs. If there is no culture of nurturing Lacking therefore a SUPPORT culture during the transformation, new plants barely germinate, much less bloom.

Change1 is not Change2: The 7 Variations of Change

Finally, consider that the notion of change is often misunderstood and defined as a single thing. Instead, let us suggest that there are at least seven variations on the theme of change and that each approach fits particular circumstances across an arc from two fundamentally different "horizontal" through "oblique" and then "vertical" orders of change. First order Horizontal changes are the norm when First Tier vMEMEs are solidly in control during Alpha or early Beta phases, and when only a few of the above mentioned six conditions for change are being met. Such first order change variations range from FINE TUNING and EXPAND-OUT from base systems which remain the same. The Oblique variations, , to ENHANCEMENT to more fundamental DOWN-STRETCH, UP-STRETCH, and BREAK-Out "Oblique" change modify the base vMEME systems while adding or subtracting elements of other vMEMEs. Such oblique change represents the practical limit, without the kind of Second Tier intervention that makes genuine large-scale transformation work. In fact the quality movement is possibly the best example of such oblique change, though half-hearted attempts at reengineering run a close second.

Vertical change of the second order generally involves the awakenings of new vMEMEs, though it may also resurrect ones that were thought to be buried and gone. In either case this represents "vertical change through the Spiral, which may be either evolutionary or revolutionary." In either case such vertical change requires a direct assault on both internal and external barriers. When REVOLUTIONARY change is approaching you will probably recognize late Beta and Gamma signals from several vMEMEs at once. Fundamental, order of magnitude, change is demanded. "Red", for example, requires concretely meeting people’s empowerment needs;’ "green" requires consensus building and shared reasoning; "blue" requires doctrinaire authoritarianism during the transition; and "orange" must sense opportunities for individual growth. EVOLUTIONARY change which bypasses the Gamma Trap is dependent upon not only a great deal of Openness but also upon all six change conditions –- available Potential;, realized Dissonance;, lower order Problems resolved;, Insight into causes and alternatives;, identified Barriers;, and Support for consolidation of change - being fulfilled. This brings us onto the dynamics of managing complexity.

Systems and Change Wizardry

Because they are both art and science, leadership dynamics incorporate SYSTEM WIZARDS and CHANGE WIZARDS. Systems Wizards understand a given vMEME thoroughly, knowing intuitively how to "lead" people within that particular vMEME’s sphere. "They may be one-trick ponies but they may perform the trick so brilliantly the whole circus lives of fit." Lee Iacocca, for example, was such a wizard of "orange". His wizardry was in creating images, making improvements, fixing problems and getting things done. Evangelist Billy Graham is a Wizard of BLUE. Jacques Cousteau’s Wizardry is GREEN.

Change Wizards understand the transitional cusps between vMEMEs. While both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher made little sense to the egalitarian "greens", and frustrated the "yellows" with oversimplifications, both reigned successfully over the end of the "blue/-orange" Cold War era. Both resonated with patriotic blue and individualistic orange in an era , of the seventies and eighties, which had reacted against the self doubts that had emerged out of the radical sixties. Both were able to combine elements of the individual (warm color) , as "orange" game player, with the communal (cool color), as instigator of "blue" followership. Although a similar sort of Wizard, Mikhail Gorbachev proposed too much, too fast for peoples who were still a notch behind on the Spiral and found Boris Yeltsin more congruent. However, such Change Wizards tend to be color specialists whose style fits a narrow band. The ability to consider broad spectrum views, much less respond to many systems at once, is the realm of the Spiral Wizard.

Recognize the Spiral – Listen to the vMEME Chords

  The most challenging job of leadership is tuning the Spiral so that the parts resonate with each other rather than canceling each other out. The opening step is good vMEME detection. You are able to do this by firstly STEPPING OUTSIDE your own vMEME profile; secondly by recognizing the LIFE CONDITIONS that surround a particular person, organization or even a whole society; thirdly by probing into the WHYS AND WHEREFORES of a particular worldview; fourthly by being able to identify the different vMEME colors a person exhibits in DIFFERENT CONTEXTS; fifthly individuals and organizations need to be viewed in terms of their overall stack of RECEDING AND AWAKENING vMEMEs; sixthly, and finally, vMEMEs need to be recognized as LIVING FORMS that adapt to changes in the milieu, leading to Spiral Wizardry.

Becoming a Spiral Wizard

  Spiral wizards also know that there is no single best way to learn, or to develop. "BEIGE" survival oriented learning is INSTINCTUALLY, by varying the intensity of stimulation of the senses. "Purple" learning is stimulated CLASSICALLY through modeling, repetition, rhythm and storytelling. "Red" CONDITIONED learning is stimulated by hands-on activity accompanied by immediate, external reinforcement. "Blue" so-called AVOIDANT "book learning" is oriented towards content and facts, rather than towards process and ideas, and is reinforced by standardized testing, by guilt, and by punishment for mistakes. "Orange" EXPECTANCY learning is geared towards real life experience, trial-and-error experimentation, competitive games, case studies, and simulations. "Green" OBSERVATIONAL learning is stimulated by reflection, observation, interaction, and attention to feelings as opposed to merely dry content.

Moving on towards the Second Tier, we find that "yellow" INFORMATIONAL learning is self-paced, and tailored towards the needs of the particular individual. Rewards are intrinsic rather than extrinsic, and discovery based learning overtakes programmed knowledge. "Turquoise" EXPERIENTIAL learning takes place in communal networks - both social and electronical - involving a deeply felt sharing of consciousness. So the Spiral Wizard, in the final analysis, is able to create a learning environment that befits a wide variety of styles. This leads onto "Spiral alignment".

Spiral Alignment – Streams

Spiral alignment suggests a comprehensive design process that obliges managers to align future visioning, strategic thinking, long and short term planning into a single stream-like flow. There are ten elements in such a streaming process. First DECIDE WHAT BUSINESS YOU ARE IN, asking such question s as why does your enterprise exist, what work do you do, and what do you want to become? Second, CHART BIG PICTURE PATTERNS and flows, initially investigating upstream through hypothetical plots and movie scripts and subsequently downstream, tracking the deepest currents, the wellsprings of change. Third, TAKE AN INVENTORY of resources, functional capacities and life-cycle stages. Only now, that is fourthly, are you ready to develop and propagate a STRATEGIC VISION, ensuring that you communicate it throughout your organization’s Spiral, in all its languages, not only to yourself.

In establishing, fifthly, your specific STRATEGY FOR CHANGE you will need to pay particular attention to the respective vMEMEs. "Purple" will want you to embody change in rituals, traditions and symbols. "Red" will require heroic leaders and storytellers to forge a new the mythology. "Blue" strategy will need to be "carved in stone", in the shape of a mission statement and new rules. "Orange" will be looking for specific signs of "how does it get me ahead? what’s in it form me?", while "green" defines ends and means in distinctly humanistic terms. "Yellow’s approach", moreover, revolves around keeping the whole Spiral healthy through necessary and aligned outputs. Sixthly, then, it is CONNECT EVERYTHING TO EVERYTHING ELSE.

"Bureaucracies take care of themselves, not the flow of work." At this seventh point, you CREATE A HYPOTHETICAL MODEL of your ideal organization that fits with the six elements already outlined, and that is congruent with the flow of work itself. In the eighth process of REALIGNMENT, whereby you reshape current systems to fit the new model, managers need to pay particular attention to the forces of resistance. Change ceremonies and rituals need to accommodate "purple"; change mandates, accompanied by tangible rewards, need to appeal to "red"; "blue" needs to be able to espouse a new cause.

The ninth element involves the selection of THE RIGHT PERSON FOR THE JOB. If the job is competitive and high-risk, seek out an "orange-oriented" leader;’ if you require tough-minded, cold-blooded decisions in times of crisis, look for some "red";’ if you are needing to involve people in teams along the way, choose for more "green"; if complexity and diversity is the name of the game, lean toward "yellow" or even "turquoise "criteria. Finally, element number ten, recognize that CHANGE IS CONSTANT, not a closed loop nor even cycles, but a Spiral, requiring continuous movement through Alpha, beta, gamma towards a new alpha.

Spiral Integration – Templates

Spiral integration brings the pieces together in a seamless whole.s That incorporates the imagery of TEMPLATES. These templates, three of them in all, need to accommodate the full Spiral as they move, cloud-like, within the organization. "Each location along the Spiral has its own mental configuration like a radar scope on which the contours of its ideal life are painted". The screen appears to:

purple as a MAGIC CIRCLE that makes all inside feel safe
as an EMPIRE where one feels powerful and in control
blue as a solid PYRAMID giving stability and permanence
orange as a challenging GAME that promotes opportunity and skill
green as a supportive COMMUNITY that cares for its own
yellow as a flowing STREAM crossing shifting natural plates
turquoise as a LIVING thing, bringing order from within chaos

Instead of being rigid, permanent cutouts, Spiral Templates are organic, living layers that fuse together, stretch, adjust and mesh like interdependent layers of our skins. There are in fact three kinds of template.

Workflow - the X Template

On the X template, every variable that influences the job to be done is included in the WORKFLOW. Such terms a value analysis, value chain, enterprise networking, and horizontal management are pertinent here. The intent of this template is to link together all of the variables that impinge on the job to be done so that they are handled in a coordinated and logical manner. The payoff is that the ultimate output will be clean, focused, strategic and lean.

Management - the Y Template

People and resources operating through the Y template support, facilitate, assist, enhance and improve X template procedures and performance. Thereby:

purple is nurtured through observing rituals, finding reassurance, and by expressing a sense of enchantment in life’s mystery

red is excited by preserving stories of company heroes, and by celebrating feats of conquest, and by evidence of respect

blue is reinforced through appeals to traditions, fair treatment for all, and by honoring length of service and loyalty

orange is exercised by displaying symbols of success, individuals being recognized for their achievements, and challenges for improvement

green is enhanced by stressing the importance of the human beings, responsiveness to feelings, and within a caring socially responsible community

yellow is energized by conveying a sense of freedom, respect for discovery, and fun in the context of getting important jobs done

The healthy Y template is flexible, apolitical, demands POA, changes and reconstitutes itself as the X need arises.

Command Intelligences - the Z template

The unique insight and wisdom of the Z template is the combination of EXECUTIVE CORE and FOCUSED INTELLIGENCES. The executive core (EC) monitors the whole process like the CPU in a computer. It is a small group chosen for its competence, experience and maturity, representing a microcosm of what is required to coordinate X and Y templates, and to maintain a lookout to enable the organization to thrive in the milieu-at-large. The second function of the Z template is to bring Focused Intelligences to bear upon problems. Knowledge, skills-how and informed perspectives transcends rank in making decisions.

Some clusters drawn from all the Templates may include a WILD DUCK POND where bright, non-conformists can explore off-the-wall ideas; a NURSERY or development track where neophytes can be exposed to mainline functions in each of the three templates at low risk to the organization; a WAR ROOM that displays the vital signs of the company, including models of the environment and profiles of competitors; a PLAY PEN, that is a loose and creative environment for renewal and change; a CRISIS TEAM of rapid response experts who can be quickly deployed for damage prevention and/or control; and a WIZARD’s TREE HOUSE, or periodic convention of Spiral Wizards who can scan for new trends and opportunities, and feed them into the Command Intelligences. Such Spiral Wizards, as we may recall, are able to span the full vMEME spectrum, in their awareness if not also in their leadership activity.

Spiral Chaos – Global Awakenings

  Finally, you may well discover a "new perspective on world orderliness and disorder" emerges from understanding their Spiral Dynamics. To deal with the many levels of this complex "global awakening", as a Spiral Wizard, Spiral congruence is required. If the culture that surrounds you is at a slower level of development, goals must be immediate and specific; at a higher level they can be more abstract and distant. Moreover, cultures evolve. Each social universe is an interactive moving picture rather than a still frame.


National and international "geo-currents" can be identified in Spiral terms: of "PURPLE/RED ethnicity, tribalism, and dictatorship; red/blue" nationalism, ideology and theocracy;ethnicity; "blue/orange" free market and multi-party democracy; or ORANGE/GREEN social democracy, communitarianism, and egalitarian humanism. In macro-managing the planet, whether from a political or a commercial vantage point the Spiral Wizard must necessarily adopt a Second Tier "yellow"/ or "turquoise" standpoint. Firstly, within such a perspective, Spirals are viewed as healthy when each of the vMEMEs is expressing itself from a positive, additive perspective. The Wizard must always ask the question - will this expression of a given vMEME add to or take from the life of the Spiral as a whole? In other words, will other vMEMEs remain free to express themselves and develop their own trajectories?

Secondly, therefore, a human Spiral is healthy when avenues are open for movement on towards the more complex bands of thinking. Forced blockages cause the Spiral to stagnate or even to implode. The trap must be unlocked and barriers broken down before all hell breaks loose! For example, "purple" and "red" must establish effective "blue" authority before "orange" enterprise can sprout. BLUE stability and ORANGE entrepreneurism must be present before GREEN social transformation is feasible. At the same time it takes an overarching "yellow" to macro-manage the whole process.

Some twenty years ago Clare Graves remarked that, "the present moment finds our society attempting to negotiate the most difficult, but at the same time most exciting, transition the human race has faced to date". The future presents, Graves wrote in 1974, three distinct possibilities:"

The choice, inevitably, is ours.