Spiral Dynamics: Cult or Useful Theory?

December 30, 2008

Dave Snowden has been arguing for some time about the neo-cultist approach towards Spiral Dynamics. In other forums, I have put forward the view that SD has merit but that it has been bastardised by some people who have used the theory inappropriately, and extended it into areas beyond the reach of the original theory by Clare Graves (such as into spirituality).

I have not done SD-certification (through any of its various schools) but I have read a fair bit on the topic, including Graves original work, and had detailed conversations with people who know a fair bit about it. I find the Emergent-Cyclical Theory to be quite useful in explaining the various situations that people and societies are confronted by, and to explore the reasoning and intentions of their values and behaviours. My personal view is closer to that of Cowan rather than SD-integral. Rather than provide a synopsis of the theory here and the views of the various SD camps, if you want to know more about it – see here for an excellent overview.

I liken the divide between the various Spiral Dynamics communities with that of varrious management approaches over the years. Someone comes up with an approach that appears to have merit, and then as it is diffused, it gets simplified as people look to apply it to various circumstances. In particular, they lose the original context of the theory or why the application worked, and attempt to apply it in areas which are not suited or to extend the theory beyond its original scope.

Here are some selected quotes from a particular page on the Cowan/Todorovic site about their misgivings on others’ application of Spiral Dynamics.

It’s a mess because, like “integral,” Spiral Dynamics has come to mean so much it reliably means nothing.

Sadly, we find much of what we hear about how some others use it deeply troubling, even appalling. Whereas our efforts five years ago used to center on broadening recognition of this model, now too much of our energy goes to damage control as a result of charlatans and exploiters who lack rudimentary expertise.

Although much has been discovered since Dr. Graves’s day, very little contradicts most of his hypotheses, and much has been published which illuminates and expands this remarkably insightful theory.

What I find personally useful about SD is its attempt to articulate why people behave in particular ways and to offer a pathway forward for resolving existential problems (until other problems surface as they inevitably will). More quotes from the same page:

The practical side of the work focuses how to achieve systems which congruently match people with their worlds, their capacities with their situations; it actually offers very few prescriptions for what to change, though many descriptions and suggestions on how to approach it if and when it is appropriate. The SD model does not define optimum outcomes because they will differ among situations and contexts, though the viewpoint always looks to movement up the levels of existence overall, in the long run of time because the increasing complexity of existential problems and the expansion of human experience demand it.

The question so central to Gravesian studies – the how and why one values.

When people see a particular application of an approach and witness cultist qualities in its proponents or an inability of that application to adapt to a new context, often what happens is that the whole approach is decried and labelled as unfit for use into the future or as a pseudo-science or worse.  I’ve seen that happen in knowledge management too many times to list.  But if one looks at the original theory and approach and beyond the “cultists”, then one can see that there is merit in the approach, real evidence behind the theory, and an action theory that if crafted well, could be applied in context that will have considerable merit and benefit to people, organisations and societies. That is how I view SD.