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. 


States: Phases of Change


Very simply, the Gravesian change model is a five-phase process: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and on to a new Alpha. The Alpha state is a time of balance and homeostasis. Helix 1 and Helix 2 are aligned. Beta is the point of doubt and anxiety with dissonance present in the field - something is wrong, but what and why are still unclear. At Gamma the apparent problems become clear, but solutions are elusive because the barriers feel insurmountable. External barriers get the blame though it's often internal barriers which often stop movement. There is often anger and acting out, either inward or outward. With Delta there is a surge through the barriers with insight into alternatives and new ways of functioning which can restore balance. With consolidation and enough support, delta is followed by a next Alpha and a return to a stable state in a new Gravesian level. 


At Alpha, holding onto the status quo maintains stability: doing things as they have been done, fulfilling expectations, conforming to standards, reinforcing what is. Begin doing otherwise, either by deliberately violating expectancies or by introducing problems beyond the scope of the system and the shift to Beta begins. To stop the process and return to Alpha, address the uncertainties and reinforce the stock solutions with options like: get back to basics; work harder but smarter; demonize the problems or deny their existence; slide back into previous behaviors because they aren't so bad. 


For a person/group at Beta that wants to/needs to change, clarify the problems, identify the barriers to change, and name names. Begin to identify what's wrong in specific terms and push recognition of it/them. Demonstrate the misalignments and incapacity of the old system to address the oncoming problems. Get engagement with finding solutions. Be supportive while angst and 'neurotic' behavior occurs; expect signs of stress and mistrust. Help with discovery and insight about what is wrong. This will push toward Gamma. 


With Gamma the regressive search to previous solutions will become almost desperate, and it won't work if the problems of a next level are real. All the king's horses and all the king's men won't put Humpty Dumpty together again. The harder the barriers identified on passing through Beta are to overcome, the deeper the Gamma pit. Big barriers, deep hole. At first they might look insurmountable - no way to clime out. The person/group will feel desperation a the seeming impossibility of crossing them. Expect anger and acting out in express-self systems; sacrifice-self systems will tend to act in. To get out of the Gamma valley, first offer means for dealing with the barriers. Then present insight and realistic alternatives. That begins the Delta phase.


With Delta come feelings of break-thru - barriers overcome, chains broken, light at the end of the tunnel. Keep the process grounded so pie-in-the-sky dreams don't come crashing down. At the same time, avoid pouring cold water on enthusiasm. People at Delta often get the "settle down and act normal" message from people still at Alpha, the message of hopelessness from those in Gamma, and confused blank stares from Beta. Too much of those can push them back toward Gamma anger, or total resignation in the original Alpha but with energy drained. Delta needs support to consolidate into a new way of thinking/being. Make space for some failure; insulate clumsy efforts while the learning proceeds. This is where cheer-leaders and reinforcement are crucial, and positive enthusiasm and desire to learn and grow are at a peak. In this zone, individuals find what Csikszentmihalyi calls flow and organizations reach Adizes' peak. After this, look for a move toward a next Alpha. 


Like Alpha, the New Alpha is also a state of balance and stability. Unlike the first change state, however, there will be fresh memory of the previous system. The experiences of transition will be close to the surface. This is the "new me" phase, the "me I am now versus used to be." With time it becomes normal and usual. Then it transforms from "new" Alpha into Alpha, just the way things are. If the person/group is open, that opens the door to a next transition through the stages if either the problems or neurology shift. They can slide among systems into congruence. Others might be closed in a system such that their Alpha is like a box - anything on either side is invisible; it's a house of mirrors without need for a door. And many reach a developmental peak and then become arrested there. The Alpha becomes a ceiling, though they can look to what they've come through to get there and it might break under extraordinary pressure. If they're fortunate, it's a comfortable place to be and their way of functioning is a good fit with the world they're in.   


These phases can also be described in terms of the conditions for change and transformation. Before change can happen, there must be untapped Potential to think in different ways. This is difficult to assess, yet understanding it is crucial to designing a congruent change initiative. If necessary Potential is present, the next condition is that Solutions to the urgent problems of the current state are reasonably in hand since people put first things first. The next condition is Dissonance, the feeling that arises with Beta that something is wrong, that things aren't working quite right. Following that is the blame game where Barriers seem to block change. This is the emotion-loaded Gamma trap where causes of the problems look obvious, and overwhelming at the same time. When the Barriers are overcome by reframing, elimination, or bypassing them, it's possible to see alternatives if there is a source of Insight. This might come in the form of education, coaching, OD interventions, team building, introspection, psychotherapy, or any number of other ways. The key is to see that there are other ways of thinking/being which can solve the problems better. As those new ways are internalized and Consolidated, the person or organization begins to balance out in the new functioning.


Requirement for good analysis


Accurate differentiation of the levels and their sub-phases is a crucial first step in a spiral analysis. Managing change from DQ/er (exiting Blue) to dq/ER (entering Orange) requires a depth of understanding beyond the coarse "transforming from level 4 to be a level 5," 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, as well as the memes and jargon of a group. When applications grow from superficial myth or metaphor-level understanding of SD, it's no surprise when they go awry, or when they succeed out of sheer good luck. 


This is not typology or categories; it is a moving picture, a flowing process of human development. No matter how sophisticated and elaborated the categorical analysis, merely recognizing differences doesn't mean effective follow-up action. That's where myth/metaphor color-coded approaches to SD often 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 through the essential five phases in the basic Gravesian change process - Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, New Alpha - along with their causes and characteristics, regressive searches, level-related expressions, etc. Another is the orders of change ala Bateson to suggest that change1 is not change2 - the word has many meanings that need to be sorted so appropriate interventions are selected. Sometimes coaches and consultancies are skilled in one but not the other; matching change agent with client is an art. Finally, a third angle is the directions of change - horizontal, oblique, and vertical. All three are valid classes of change, but again, need to fit the situation at hand. 

Orders of Change

We refer to first and second order change, a construct derived from a simplification of Gregory Bateson’s orders of change. Essentially, as described in the Change State Indicator assessment, 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; it tunes, tweaks, adjusts. 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. 

Here is an approximation of the Bateson version:


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 which implies simultaneous transitions in multiple sub-systems within a greater super-system, like a society or global region). 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. All are legitimate and can serve - it depends on the need. 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 initiatives benefit from recognizing the roles of progression and regression - the spiral is a two-way street - as well as homeostasis. And those attempting to fathom why frustration and even emotional storms occur in the stress of transition 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. 

Developmental Levels or Pop-ups? 

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 that support the pop-up approaches. 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 person discovers new things to think about, and the naive observer attributes systemic change - how one thinks about those things. 

For example, the swap of doctrinaire religious faith for guru-directed spirituality isn't much of a stretch, even though the language differs. It's common to see the true believer switch from devout theist to certain atheist - the underlying thinking remains the same. Turning self-directed competitiveness from economic success to maximizing enlightenment is a twist of what to think about much more than a change in the core 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 rather than a process of opening possibilities, often with at tacit "or else" attached. That is often accompanied by a vertical assumption that "up" is the right and 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 and adaptation. So if there is to be change, then facilitating the right kind of change at the right time with the right means for the appropriate people 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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