The Nature of Change

The change meme takes many forms. When someone says, "It is time for a change," three other questions should follow: From what, to what? Given the operant systems and context, how? And finally, the one that should come first, why? Sometimes change activists and their initiatives are like hammers looking for nails. Agents of change want to sell their services (for profit or not) and use the tools they have in hand, appropriate or not. 


On the other hand, Spiral Dynamics programs help people determine the plausibility of change, determine the nature and appropriate kind of change, and plan strategies likely to make the process more effective. Many of our students are engaged in change initiatives of some sort - for individuals, organizations, and even societies. 


The change models are the 'dynamic' aspect of the SD approach which seeks to explain the forces of transformation in thinking between the nodal spiral levels, as well as the combinations and transitional sub-systems. The spiral is the train; change is its engine. The engine is fueled by the interaction of existential problems recognized in the milieu and neurobiological capacities in the brain (or collective brain syndicate). When the neurology is sufficient to address the extant problems, there is a state of balance, homeostasis. But when either double-helix element shifts with respect to the other - new problems appear (or are recognized) and new ways of perceiving and thinking turn on - there is imbalance and a disturbance. That might lead to a change of the system, though there is no guarantee since conditions must be met. 


Accurate differentiation of the levels and their sub-phases is a crucial first step in a spiral analysis. Managing change from DQ/er to dq/ER requires a depth of understanding beyond the coarse "from Blue to Orange," for example. Spotting the differences in underlying thinking between exiting DQ wrapped up in existential jargon and exiting ER preoccupied with post-modern neo-spiritual lingo takes depth of knowledge about the underlying Gravesian point of view. When applications grow from superficial myth or metaphor-level understanding of SD, it's no surprise when they go awry, nor when they succeed out of sheer good luck. 


Yet no matter how sophisticated and elegant the analysis, merely recognizing differences doesn't mean effective follow-up action. That's where myth/metaphor color-coded approaches to SD fall short, or at least vastly under-utilize the potentials of the work. Enter the dynamics of change with its elements of balance and imbalance, alignment and incongruence, fit and force. In our NVCC Spiral Dynamics trainings, we explore these aspects of change in both nodal and transitional forms and from several angles. One is from the essential four phases in the basic Gravesian change process - Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta - along with their causes and characteristics, regressive searches, etc. Another is modified orders of change ala Bateson. And a third is the directions of change - horizontal, oblique, and vertical.

Orders of Change

We refer to first and second order change, a construct derived from Gregory Batesons orders of change. Essentially, as described in the Change State Indicator, first order change is change within a system which, itself, remains essentially unchanged. First order transitions accept the pre-existing premises and adjust within the givens. In second order change, the system itself comes into question. Basic premises are brought into question as assumptions and intentions are subjected to either modification or replacement. 


First order change:  consists of reformations that occur with no change in the meaning of the context, primarily to restore balance by enhancing and adjusting existing strategies


Second order change:  involves the creation or change of a context and presents new images, defines (bounds) new concepts, or intrudes into the space of existing concepts

    • uses one reality to modify representations in another reality

    • new premises introduced

    • interpersonal and societal changes

    • morphogenesis, policymaking, root, revolutionary, radical, transformational

Third order change:  learning about the concepts and processes in Level II to form concepts and values across the range in which the changing/organizing/ synthesizing mechanisms of second order change operate

    • assesses the existing reality and paradigm(s)

    • a change in knowing about the personality of the world

    • transcendence leads to a holistic (unitary) worldview in which subject/object dichotomies disappear

    • personal becomes aware of connections to larger system(s)

Fourth order change:  changes in the evolutionary process of the human species involving simultaneous third order transformations

Directions of Change

The three primary directions of change covered  in our SD level 1 and 2 seminars are: horizontal, oblique, and vertical. Dr. Graves explains these three basic directions of change very succinctly: 

We can see change as movement up the vertical axis from systems more  homogeneous, less complex, more restricted behaviorally to systems more heterogeneous, more complex, more free behaviorally. This type of movement will occur when there is an increase in energy in the system, when there is dissatisfaction with the present state of being, and when the insights necessary for propelling man to the next level occur. Movement of this sort results in marked qualitative changes in behavior, greater freedom to choose, and increased variability within the behavioral thema of the next level.

      Change can also be seen as movement horizontally to the ultimate of a particular state. Such change would take place when there is surplus energy in the system, when dissonance is present but when no new insights for living have developed. It results in marked elaboration of the thema of the level and would ultimately achieve, so to speak, maximum entropy and thus the demise of those who reached the maximum of horizontal change.

      A third way that we can think of movement is movement on the oblique. Oblique movement would result when free energy and dissonance were present along with only partial rather than the necessary insights for vertical movement. Here the behavior would remain based on the level from whence the oblique started, but would show subordinate aspects of behavior at the levels reached by the oblique. Thus, theoretically, if a society or person is operating at a certain level, we can predict by this conception what changes in behavior would ensue if certain combinations of releasor conditions occur 

In the Spiral Dynamics book, those are further divided into sub-variations: horizontal (fine-tune and expand out), oblique (stretch-up and stretch-down), and vertical (break-out, up-shift, and quantum). The direction is linked to which of the six releasor conditions (potential, solutions, dissonance, insight, barriers, consolidation/support) are present, and to what extent in terms of the systems-specific characteristics needed in the from - to process. Again in the words of Dr. Graves:

"Change is not the rule. Lack of change  is not the rule.

 If there are no disturbances, no change can appear to be the rule.

 If there is disturbance, change may be seen to be the rule."

Change agents and social engineers will do well to consider the conditions and then to choose the type of change that is appropriate, congruent, and possible under the circumstances with the systems involved. Those trying to explain why organizations, individuals, and societies either do or do not complete a transformational process can benefit from such a directional analysis, as well as of the expectations and aspirations versus realities. Those planning to implement change benefit from recognizing the roles of progression and regression, as well as homeostasis. And those attempting to fathom why frustration and even emotional storms occur would do well to assess whether vertical change was promised but not realized, oblique change was celebrated as if were something else, or honest horizontal improvements were not  recognized as legitimate and important change, too. 

We should also note that the presupposition of an evolutionary developmental track driven by the interaction of the Gravesian double-helix forces is not the only way to look at change. Our position is that the systems fall into an emergent hierarchy such that each new level grows from elements of previous systems and then forms something new - successful living produces new problems that ultimately require new thinking to solve. It is possible to create a "psychological map" based on this sequential process, and that is why the models in Spiral Dynamics programs can be very useful. 

However, an alternative view is that these levels simply exist in the core nature of Homo sapiens as a product of our genetic makeup, thus need not arise in a step-by-step order. As latent coping systems in the brain, perhaps they just "pop up" in response to conditions without going through expected precursors, or even without much shift in external conditions at all. This is not in opposition to the Gravesian idea that the potentials are pre-existent in the brain, only that the double-helix interaction (LCs:MCs) might not tell the whole story. 

While we find the developmental sequence useful and attractive because it offers both predictive and retrodictive possibilities, especially on the social scale, there's no doubt that apparent exceptions can be found, especially at the individual level. The caution we offer is that shifts in schema (memes and forms of expression of systems) can cloud recognition of transformations in thema, the underlying vMemes and systems, such that a change in content is misconstrued as a change of container. The swap of doctrinaire religious faith for guru-directed spirituality isn't much of a stretch, even though the language differs. Turning self-directed competitiveness from economics to enlightenment is a turn of what to think about more than a change in thinking. So before rejecting the developmental sequence too quickly, we suggest taking a very close look at the thinking beneath the thoughts, and the causes below the observable symptoms. In our experience, the Gravesian process, and developmental approaches in general, offer great explanatory power and apply far more often than not.  

Finally, it is important to keep in mind another admonition of Dr. Graves: "Damn it all, a person has a right to be who he is." All too often "change" is a directive than a process of opening possibilities, often with at tacit "or else" attached. That is often accompanied by a vertical assumption that "up" is proper direction, thereby ignoring the other perfectly viable forms. Usually, downward change (back into congruence and a restoration of a comfortable state, even constructive downward mobility without disgrace) is dismissed as weakness rather than a possibility for better coping. So if there is to be change, then facilitating the right kind of change at the right time with the right means is essential to making effective use of the principles taught in NVCC's Spiral Dynamics training programs. 

Bateson, G. (1971/2000). Steps to an ecology of Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Graves, Clare W. (1965). Man: An Enlarged Conception of His Nature.
_____ (1973). "Let Us Bring Humanistic and General Psychology Together: A Research
          Project Needing to Become." Presentation at the NIMH, Washington, DC. 
Watzlawick, P., Weakland, J. H., & Fisch, R. (1974). Change: Principles of problem formation
          and problem resolution.
New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

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