Notice if it is time for change


Change comes about when it is ready.  Not when I am ready, you are ready, or we are ready.  When change is ready.

Back in June I noted Beck and Cowan’s six conditions for change: openness to the potential for change, the presence of solutions for the current problems, sufficient dissonance and turbulence with the present, the ability to overcome the barriers within self and others, insight into the patterns in play, and consolidation of understanding that leads to change.

These six conditions are not a recipe; just ‘doing’ these things is not enough to see change, let alone make change happen or last.  Beck and Cowan are very clear on this: even if all conditions are met, awakening new ways of thinking MAY happen.  It is not a given.

Change is a complex matter.  A small action (or realization) may have huge unintended consequences.  It is possible that all conditions could be met and no change would take place.  There might not be sufficient dissonance, for example. The potential intelligence might  not be there.  There could be barriers that can not be overcome.  It is possible that we are not even able to see and feel what is wrong with the current life conditions, let alone begin to imagine what new possibilities could exist.

When I look at our cities and how we live together, I see that collectively we are experiencing dissonance with how we live.  Everyone seems to be unhappy, some of whom see new ways of being and living together.  There seems to be a gap between what we ought to do and what we do that we barely understand as individuals or as a collective.

Changes needed to resolve tension in our cities will come when the conditions are right.

An essential practice: notice if it is time for change.  If not, be patient.  If yes, seek out the ways you can influence the conditions for change.   My next posts will explore other critical practices that support our uneasy journey.  


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This post forms part of Chapter 4 – An Uneasy Journey, of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities.

Nest City is organized into three parts, each with a collection of chapters.  Click here for an overview of the three parts of Nest City.  Click here for an overview of Part 2 – Organizing for Emergence, chapters 4-7.



Evolutionary impulse to thrive

I once heard Don Beck explore the difference between the words ‘change’ and ‘adjust’.  What he said made perfect sense at the time and then moments later I lost track of why it made sense.   I have been trying to figure it out for a couple years.  Today, I now realize that these words are all about our efforts to thrive – with efforts to survive, as appropriate, in the mix.

Change is movement on the Spiral

Adjust implies tinkering.  Change implies something more significant.  Both are relevant and needed, but they are not the same.  The difference lays in our life conditions and the degree to which we are open to change (see the last two posts on the principles and patterns in/of the Spiral, and the conditions that enable movement up the Spiral).

If adjustment is tinkering, then that means creating new ways of doing things within the current vMEME.  It is a way of making the current value system work.  It is a way of allowing the current value system to take into account any inconsistencies.  Change, however, arises when the value system itself is challenged to the point where a whole new view comes into being.  This can be up or down the Spiral – upward to a new perspective, down to a previous perspective.  Change is movement on the Spiral from one vMEME to another vMEME – either up or down.  While change means movement on the Spiral, adjustment means staying put.

Figure A - Movement on the Spiral

Two directions of movement on the Spiral

When life conditions change around me I react in some form.  If I experience sufficient discomfort, I may be compelled to look at the world quite differently.  I may experience – and begin to live – a new, higher, view on the Spiral.  Depending on the degree to which I am open to the potential for change (see condition 1), I may be unable to see the new conditions  and be closed to this change, I may need additional discomfort before so I am partly open to change, or I may be ready and open to doing things in a totally different way (open).  All three scenarios are open to me at any time.  Yet just because I am open to change does not mean that movement on the Spiral is necessary – adjustments that maintain the status quo may be fully appropriate.

There are two directions for movement on the Spiral: up and down (Figure A).  As circumstances dictate, coupled with our openness to change, we move up and down.  When moving up the Spiral we are expanding our perspective and understanding, inclusive of all the levels below.  When moving down the Spiral we are constricting, or hunkering down.

When we first starting using automobiles few rules were needed.  As more vehicles came into use and as they moved faster and faster we noticed that life conditions were changing.  The RED world of impulse led to accidents and death and injury.  Society began to see that BLUE rules were needed: speed limits, laws of the road, enforcement, road design standards, etc.  Speed limits and road design standards would not have emerged if there was no discomfort with the RED conditions.  A change came about and we moved up the Spiral.

Similarly, when the forest fire hit Slave Lake, Alberta in May 2011 and destroyed most of the town, any roadway rules were put aside.  (See How could a whole town burn?)  Life conditions changed quickly and citizens hunkered down to ensure their survival.  A change came about and folks moved down the Spiral.

Movement up and down the Spiral takes place when life conditions change around us, compelling us to change.  It also takes place when we are open to the change and are able to make the change (for more on the conditions that allow change, please read yesterday’s post).  At every threshold we are a point of allowing our very expansion and evolution or of constricting it.  Yet, there are also times when constriction makes perfect sense.  The trick is in being fully aware of the situation and noticing what the context is really demanding of us.  The easy route may be in being closed to change and hunkering down.  The tough route may be in facing what we are fearful of.  This is hard enough for us as individuals, let alone as a collectives the size of cities.  This is big, important work to undertake within ourselves as we build cities for ourselves.

Adjustment is in one spot on the Spiral

Recognizing when it is time to move up or down the Spiral is one decision.  Another significant decision is when it is time to stay put and tinker with things as they are.  This is another totally appropriate response to our world – when life conditions are appropriate.  In one organization I worked with, our leader looked to us to tinker with policies and procedures (BLUE authority) when the organization was in crisis and our attention needed to be put on the things that were driving people out of the organization.  In contrast, I have watched how the National Building Code has been adjusted over the years in an effort to raise construction standards relating to energy efficiency.  While each adjustment is not revolutionary, over time the standard of constructive is considerably different.  Tinkering resulted in a recalibration of the rules over time.

We need to be skilled at changeability and adjustability – recognizing when it is time to tinker and when it is time to expand and when it is time to hunker down.  Taking wise action in any of these directions requires significant self awareness.  Over time, we will find that the most appropriate response is lower on the Spiral – when our attention is on surviving.  Once things settle, things recalibrate and we again begin our journey upward – where our attention is on thriving (Figure B).  Every action on the Spiral – even the pauses to adjust and the moments when we need to hunker down – is in service to our upward impulse to thrive.

Figure B - Evolutionary impulse to thrive


Conditions for evolutionary expansion

Our impulse to work to improve our world is an impulse to evolve.

I suspect that you recognize a deep impulse to survive and thrive in you, in other individuals, your family, your community, your nation and in the whole of us as a species. When faced with hardships and challenges, we do what it takes to protect ourselves and our clan, to survive.  We don’t often think of this, but it is ever present in our actions.  What is also present is our impulse as a species to thrive –to learn how to grow and change and adapt constantly.  Survival alone is not good enough.  We are always seeking more of what is possible in the world.  This is an impulse that even drives the creation of cities.

The last two posts, A primer on the emerging spiral and 7 principles that frame the Spiral, lay out one way of seeing how new value systems emerge within us as we evolve:  Spiral Dynamics.  As we move up the Spiral, our awareness and understanding expands as we meet ever more complex challenges in life.  Clare Graves called this movement up the Spiral a never ending quest.  Our evolutionary expansion, however, is not a given.

Potential for expansion – six conditions

Beck and Cowan outline six conditions that need to be in place for upward change on the Spiral to be possible.  Keep in mind that this is not a recipe – it is possible that most conditions are met and change does not occur.  It is also possible that only some conditions are met and change occurs anyway.  This is a pattern that offers some insight into how change happens, but more specifically, about the conditions in place as we move upward along the Spiral, at various scales – individuals, families, groups, organizations, nations, species.

1.  Openness to the potential for change.  Beck and Cowan are very clear that not all people are equally open to, or even capable or prepared for change.  Normally, humans are in a potentially open system of need, values and aspirations, but “we tend, however, to settle into what appears to be a closed state wherein we operate in a consistent, enduring steady way.  Once reached, we tend to stay in these zones of comfort… unless powerful forces induce turbulence.”[1]  So the potential for change revolves around three elements: thinking that is open, or at least arrested; having the appropriate intelligences, ie the ability to operate under more complex life conditions; and being free from restrictive patterns, ‘sink-holes’ and ‘baggage’.

Beck and Cowan distinguish three states in which we may find ourselves relative to potential for change[2] that I have organized as follows:

Openness to the potential for change

2.  Solutions.  Change will not occur if ‘serious, unresolved problems or threats still exist within the present state’.  Satisfying this condition involves: adequately managing the problems at their vMEME level creating comfort and balance; and direct excess energy to exploration of the next, more complex system.[3]

3.  Dissonance.  “Change does not occur unless the boat rocks.”[4]  The sensation of dissonance is stirred when the waves of some kind of impact jostle the steady-state system.  The factors that create dissonance are (verbatim)[5]:

  • Awareness of the growing gap between life conditions and current means for handling those problems.
  • Enough turbulence to create a sense that ‘something is wrong’ without so much chaos that the whole world seems to be falling apart.
  • Abject failure of old solutions to solve the problems of the new life conditions may stimulate fresh thinking, release energy, and liberate the next vMEMES along the Spiral

4.  Barriers[6].  Beck and Cowan discern two steps in this process. The first is recognizing the barriers, which typically are external.  ‘It’s their fault.’  ‘The bloody establishment holds us down.’  The second step invites exploration into why the barriers are effective obstacles, which reveals both internal and external obstacles. In the end, we have to clean up both the world outside and inside.

So barriers need to be eliminated, bypassed, neutralized or reframed into something else to provide the needed solid foundation on which to build change.  But all this is to be done conscious of risks, consequences and the pain of barrier removal, as well as exposure of the excuses and rationalizations for not implementing change.

5.  Insight.  When leading change, it is critical to understand the thinking systems in play, and discern the different patterns, models and structure that come with those ways of thinking.  Further, “alternative scenarios must be active in the collective consciousness before they can be considered.  Too often they are guarded in the minds of an elite few ‘planners’ or ‘decision-makers’.  People need mental pictures of what things might be like for them in their own real Life Conditions, not for some distant Hollywood start or textbook case-studies.”[7]

Change is ultimately about changing patterns, and Beck and Cowan offer the following ways to initiate change in patterns[8]:

  • Greater insight into how systems form, decline, and reform – particularly one’s own.  People must accept the possibility of change as well as the means.
  • Put a stop to wasteful regressive searches into out-moded answers from the past which simply cannot address greater complexity in the present.
  • Consider optional scenarios, fresh models, and experiences from applicable sources.  Scout the competition and demonstrate concretely what alternatives look like.
  • Quickly recognize the appearance of new life conditions and the vMEMES required to shift into congruence. Custom tailor for best fit.

6.  Consolidation.  Beck and Cowan say this best: “When significant change occurs, you can expect a period of confusion, false starts, long learning curves, and awkward assimilation.  Those who change – either as individuals or as organizations – may be punished by those who do not understand what is happening and now find themselves left out, misaligned and threatened.  Old barriers may be rebuilt in the form of punitive rules, turf battles and power tests.  New obstacles might be set up.  Sometimes, you will have to go around, let the bridge burn and not look back.”[9]


There is a gap that sits between how we experience the world and how we see the world could be that propels us forward.  This is not a gap that we all see in the same way at the same time.  It is not a gap that we are all even able to see, nor are we all required to see a gap before making attempts to cross it.  But there is always a gap, should we choose to notice it, examine it, explore it and cross it.  We are always at a threshold.

My next post will explore the word “change” from a Spiral perspective, and the difference between changeability and adjustability.  When at a threshold, when is it appropriate to change or adjust?


[1]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 76

[2]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 76-82.  The text.

[3]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 82

[4]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 82

[5]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 83

[6]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 83

[7]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 84

[8]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 84

[9]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 85