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Ruth Wallsgrove - 10 Mar 2018


One framework about values, development and differences that I find very useful is called Spiral Dynamics. The concept is that there are various turns of development, from the time we are babies. Each stage offers a way forward on the challenges of the previous one, but then has limitations itself.

I’d like to start with the stage we can label ‘My Way or the Highway’, or believing that what I want is right. A positive feature of this is that it can have energy, strength: I know what I want, and what I want is what you should do. Obviously a negative feature is that it doesn’t recognise that other people have other perspectives, or rights.

The primary problem with this attitude is not that it’s not very nice.  No, the real limitation is that it’s just about impossible to learn from anyone else if you are just not interested in what they know, think or feel.  It’s a blindness to other perspectives.  And co-operation – you co-operating with them - doesn’t enter your head.

In Spiral Dynamics, what propels people out of this stage (which for ease of reference is said to be RED) is how tricky it is to get anything done with such a fundamental lack of co-operation.

But let’s stay with red for a moment. When I first investigated Spiral Dynamics, I thought of this stage as being all about thumping the table, ‘Mr Angry’. I had to find out the hard way that not all who are red raise their voices.

The real characteristic is that absolute certainty that theirs’ is the only valid point of view.  You can resist them or you can yield to them, but if they are not interested in your perspective, neither of you are learning anything, except perhaps how to avoid such people in future.

I’ve known a few reds. Some of them are so hopeless to work with they never get anything done. I tried to work with a real hard nut red in a community group, who it turned out literally could not accept that anyone had any view other than his. If you did not accept his version of the truth, on whatever the issue, he just believed you must be lying about it for your own selfish purpose. He had a serial history of being thrown out of workplaces and groups.

However, I have also worked for reds, one of them high up in a big organisation. Perhaps in other fields they might have shouted or thumped the table, but they were engineers, and particularly engineers with a horror of expressed emotion. So I was confused, for a time. They sounded rational.

What I learnt from working for them is that they don’t recognise co-operation. They want you to do what they tell you, and may demand loyalty, but giving them a usual signal for willingness to co-operate elsewhere – warmth, or making helpful proposals, or offering to do things – is not necessarily taken well.  I wonder, now, if that’s because it sounds to them like you believe you have a choice.

A co-operator can be eaten alive by a red. They don’t recognise they need your assistance, your ideas, even your support. They certainly don’t have anything to learn from you.

Yeah, I once was hired as an expensive international expert by a red, and he never once asked for my thoughts on anything.

In my experience, they may (or may not) demand that you follow the overall processes. One way you can tell someone is red is that they demand you follow their rules, which they can choose not to follow themselves. Their loyalty to their own bosses is often weak – of course. They don’t think they have anything to gain from them either.

If, on the other hand, you are the manager and you find yourself making demands that boil down to your staff doing what you tell them without question or input: is this the red in you coming out?

Red has energy. Sometimes, each of us needs to harness our inner red to make things happen, or indeed to resist things being done to us. But it’s not such a good place for learning.


In Spiral Dynamics, the immediate way out of red is BLUE. ‘My way or the highway’ is lonely, and clearly is often not very effective for achieving what you want. Blue moves from I to we.

Basic blue is characterised by rules. We will be ok together if we all follow them. I think of a cashier in a bank who told me to fill in a box on my deposit slip, and when I asked why it was needed said he believed that if there is a box on a form, it should always be filled in.  If you are not very blue – as I am not – it can be frustrating. But it’s easy to see why it’s a development from everyone thinking their individual point of view is all that matters. Now, at least, we are all pulling together.

Some people recognise a second BLUE stage, highly relevant in my line of work, which is being expert. An expert is someone who values – and feels valued by – knowing a lot about something; being the person in the room who knows the most about this subject. Those who see themselves as real experts at work (think of a professor, or a chief engineer) may believe that there is nothing higher to aspire to.

What’s positive about blue is that it values people working together with agreed processes: it has to be about we. Even the expert in the room is dependent on other people acknowledging their expertise.

However… “To a man with a hammer, every problem is a nail.”  The means – the rules – are everything. There’s no discussion about how best to achieve the ends. It’s not about choosing the appropriate tools for the job at hand. And of course it has little room for individuals.


The next turn of the spiral – ORANGE – is about recovering what your own aim is, and I think of as the stage of the entrepreneur. Now the end drives the means, and we can pick the right tool or approach for the job.

Why would anyone ever move on from orange?

I once read an article about a multi-millionaire who was dying of cancer, who told his doctors to do anything to cure him, however much it cost. The doctors were pretty impressed, and tried out all sorts of treatments.

The end of the story was not, in fact, that he died anyway. It was that, while he was sick and reflected on his life, he fatally started to ask what all his millions had actually got him. He started to notice that the people around him appreciated him for his money rather than himself; that he was, in fact, lonely, and could no longer remember why he had struggled so hard to achieve what he had. At that point, he said he no longer wanted treatment.

If you are driven by your own goals, what happens if you achieve them? What do you do if you start to suspect they may not, after all, be that important?

A programme about successful British entrepreneurs some years ago told a good story about how resolve and commitment and doing whatever is necessary can make you very rich. But none of them knew what to do with any of their houses, cars or wives. They certainly did not make them happy.

The next turn of the spiral is to start to ask about other people: what can we do together? GREEN is where we begin to appreciate that other people have different perspectives, and that we can learn from them. But it, too, has its limitations – most notably direction. What are we trying to achieve, other than getting on with each other?

YELLOW swings back to goals – my goals – but yellow really understands how every turn of the spiral has something to contribute. Really intelligent co-operation is, one way or another, about sunshine yellow.



Self-development, learning, applying knowledge, change – agile and purposeful



Tolerant and accepting of diversity and difference. Sharing and caring for others.



Success and results are all important. Entrepreneurial, pragmatic, doing whatever the job takes.



Order, stability, rightful authority, rules; focus on the process not the person.



Energy, power, beating the competition – possibly high internal competition



Focus on group relationships that provide certainty, warmth, protection


How might this all be applicable to Campfire Convention?




Pete Lawrence

It's interesting, though all the colour code can be a bit confusing. When I first looked at green, yellow and purple I saw a lot of overlap rather than differentiation.
My friend Konstantine from St Petersburg introduced me to this concept recently and interestingly, he said about Campfire "What I see at Campfire files is mostly the Green level (as in Spiral Dynamics), which is good, but to bring change Green is not enough as usually making a decision (and creating something) is more expensive than the result itself. My strong belief is that we somehow should consolidate the Yellow (and Turquoise if we are extremely lucky to identify them) and deliver their brains and energy and leadership to the Green level. To understand more what I mean I would really really like you to watch this: . I think it will also be interesting for Brian Eno."

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