Spiral Dynamics from Peter Koenig’s Source perspective

Peter Koenig’s Source Principles and Spiral Dynamics (SD) are both incredibly useful for understanding dynamics between individuals, and within organisations.

I’ve found that people whose mindset around organisations and work is dominant in a particular Spiral Dynamics ^MEME sometimes reject Source out of hand because they believe it clashes with their mental models about people and organisations. Others embrace Source, but for the wrong reasons as it can feed the shadow sides of a ^MEME as well as the positive.

However, when Source is properly understood, I think it’s clear that it is highly compatible with SD and provides a very useful lens to study human initiatives. The Source principles are universal, and active in human initiatives at all levels of the spiral. They help to explain why initiatives sometimes succeed or fail at each level, and give us clues as to how we can create ever more successful endeavours as human consciousness grows in complexity.

Whilst I have been working with Source for some time, I don’t claim to be an expert in SD so I’d welcome feedback from others to help improve this article.

What follows is a guide to how initiatives work from a Source and SD perspective, beginning at Red.


Individuals take the initiative and begin new endeavours with a vision and passion often rooted in power and dominance. The source relies on fear, coercion and force to enroll the ‘help’ of others, who get involved because the fear of non-compliance is greater than the fear of being involved. Sub-sources may sometimes feel they have no choice.

Think of sailors being press-ganged into joining a voyage on a ship. Taken by force and threatened with 50 lashes if they do not follow orders. Sometimes the ‘gun to the head’ may be very real, like soldiers recruited into a militia. Sub-sources may also join to fulfil a need for adventure, rebellion or vengeance against another group.

Source is a very natural idea for leaders of Red organisations. They understand the power of individuals taking the initiative and having others work for you. New lands can be discovered (and conquered) and great monuments erected under a source’s leadership. However, the dominance of fear and reliance on force can make Red initiatives very unstable. The source is liable to being overthrown if they cannot maintain enough fear or force to ensure compliance. A popular uprising can occur where suffering within the initiative becomes so great that it’s worth the risk to counter force with force. The initiative ends, perhaps even with the killing of the source.

Life is somewhat better for the sub-source lieutenants closest to the source. They are rewarded for helping the source hold onto power and many will create sub-initiatives, channeling the source’s power within their own initiatives. This will satisfy the Red needs of the sub-sources, but the rewards must also flow back to the source, or else. A powerful sub-source can also be a great threat to the source. They may lead others in a mutiny or challenge the source face-to-face with threats or violence, like competing alpha males in a primate group or wolf pack.


In many Blue-dominant cultures, God is seen as the ultimate source of all human endeavours. Human initiatives are seen as sub-initiatives of a master plan, to keep and follow the higher authority’s orders and promote a particular stance on right and wrong. There are strict rules and regulations giving people laws and codes of conduct which must be obeyed no matter what. Sacred texts provide guidance, reassurance and threats.

Unlike in Red, force is not always required for compliance in Blue. Blue’s laws make expectations clear. If you follow the rules you will be OK. Rebellion is also far more rare. The threat or possible rewards from the very highest power (“You’ll go to hell/heaven”) is enough to keep people in line most of the time.

Blue can create very stable initiatives — like the Catholic church — lasting centuries, with source clearly being transmitted from one individual to the next, often with very public ceremony.

Taking the initiative in Blue is encouraged, providing you’re ultimately working for the highest authority or God — the ‘greater good’ — and that you follow all the rules. Initiatives which purely satisfy an individual’s needs are frowned upon and there is little innovation since the rules are fixed and right and wrong is absolute. This can create a suppression of the individual which can stifle creativity, innovation and fulfilment.


With Orange, the spiral swings back to an individualistic perspective, but unlike the purely primal needs of Red, Orange seeks self-betterment, achievement and autonomy.

Initiatives are sourced by anyone who has a vision to satisfy their own needs, and sub-sources can be recruited in with promises of rewards to satisfy theirs.

Money is a powerful proxy for needs in Orange. Sources develop businesses to pursue money with the expectation that it will enable their underlying needs to be met. Sub-sources can be bought with money for exactly the same reason.

Like Blue, organisations in Orange are very hierarchical. Strategy and instructions are passed from top to bottom. This is a very powerful system for an entrepreneur source to realise their vision.

Orange is highly innovative, seeking new and better ways to do things. Rationality and experimentation overtake Blue’s dogma. Through trial, error and hard work, Orange can satisfy individual needs on an ever larger scale. An Orange mindset powered the industrial revolution and continues today in Silicon Valley with its startups and venture capitalists.

However, the incremental returns on life satisfaction for the pursuit of individual consumption decrease exponentially. The natural environment suffers from excessive resource exploitation, as do families whose children rarely see their over-worked, stressed parents.

Whilst sub-sources can be bought in return for a good salary, someone else can offer them more to steal their loyalty. And in any case, it has been proven that extrinsic rewards fail to get the best performance from people over the long-term.

Hundreds of millions have been lifted out of extreme poverty by Orange, but moving from the graft of subsistence farming to the toil of an industrial sweatshop is no great leap.


Green attempts to address Orange’s shortcomings with a pluralistic perspective. Collectivist needs for equality and community take centre stage. Green seeks work/life balance and intrinsic motivation, finding fulfilment in the work itself, not just the rewards. Billionaires who made their fortunes in Orange gain deeper meaning in their lives by giving away their fortunes to philanthropic causes in their retirement years.

Initiatives are sourced not just to meet selfish needs, but to improve life for all stakeholders: The source, their sub-sources, the wider community, customers, suppliers and the physical environment. Innovative strategies are created to align the interests of all stakeholders. Charities and NGOs are established to meet the needs of those less fortunate.

The power over people inherent in Red, Blue and Orange is replaced by decentralisation and empowerment.

Working with Source can feel uncomfortable for people in Green. Leaders do not want to be the top-down dictators of the past. They know it doesn’t get the most out of sub-sources and they know that ‘no one of us is smarter than all of us’. Power over people is not as effective as a community of peers, working together for the common good.

In Green, individuals let go of individual authority and responsibility in favour of collective authority and responsibility. Everyone’s voice is valued and through consensus or consent-based decision making, many more voices input into decisions, both creative and functional.

Green’s dislike of individual power over other people can also suppress an individual’s ability to bring their own personal vision to life. Unlike Orange, strategy is created through group processes, involving collective visioning and design. A leader may be elected or appointed by the group, but their power is limited. Much time is spent working through ‘tensions’ rather than work being in a state of flow.

However, whilst groups can add insight, ideas and support to an idea, the source’s individual vision is ultimately diluted or compromised to accommodate the needs of more people. To Green, a reasonably content group is more important than a happy source. Visionary founders having given up their creative authority to the group can lose their passion for their organisation and eventually leave to realise their individual vision elsewhere. The source can suffer since some of their energy is still tied up in the organisation even though they’ve physically left, and those left behind can find the initiative drifts with far less passion than the early days.

Like Orange and Blue before it, Green can be constrained by organisational thinking. The organisation is treated like an entity in itself with clear boundaries around it. People are in or out. This creates a sense of scarcity. If people can’t input into the organisation’s vision then they can’t feel completely valued or fulfilled. To Green, this feels oppressive, reminiscent of Orange’s top-down strategy process and there is a wariness towards leaders who attempt to ‘own’ a vision and say what’s in and what’s out.


The transition from Green to Yellow marks a far larger leap than the steps before it. As individuals and organisations move to Yellow, they have access to all levels of the spiral that came before it. They have the opportunity to benefit from the positive sides of each level: The creativity, passion and adventure of Red; The sense of purpose, values and order (where order is useful) of Blue; The innovation, autonomy and self-betterment of Orange; and the community connection, equality, environmental sustainability and deeper fulfilment of Green. Yellow takes a systemic view of organisations and values adaptability and integration.

By accessing the full spiral, the individual and the collective can both be fully valued. The full range of human needs can be expressed through sourcing and joining other’s initiatives.

Yellow is the first level on the spiral where Source can be highly effectively manifested. Yellow can separate out creative and functional authority. Individuals can take full authority and responsibility for realising their vision without suppressing themselves to the whims of the group. However this can be done without needing to exert power over people like in Blue and Orange.

A good example of this is at W.L. Gore Associates where all employees can start new initiatives without permission. Others are recruited in not through force (Red), duty (Blue), the promise of rewards (Orange) or equality (Green), but voluntarily. If working on a source’s initiative meets a need for a sub-source and helps them realise their own personal vision, they will choose to follow.

In Yellow, the collective visioning of Green is no longer necessary to create highly effective organisations. Instead, a source, starting with the very first founder, can ‘recruit’ individuals (where there is a good matching of needs) and put together groups to help them better articulate their vision and extend it in ways they may not have thought of themselves. The source can still have the final say over what’s in and what’s out. Unlike in Green, this does not need to create a sense of scarcity or fear of a dictatorship, since anyone at any time can join other initiatives or start their own. There is an abundance of opportunity for everyone to realise their own personal vision, and this can happen partly inside and partly outside an organisation as necessary.

Turquoise (and beyond)

Organisational thinking can be transcended in Turquoise. Turquoise no longer sees stakeholders like Green does — as separate groups which need to be ‘aligned’. There is no absolute wall around an organisation. To Turquoise, all people and other life-forms exist in an infinitely complex and awe-inspiring web of interdependent connections.

Turquoise takes a holistic, global perspective. There is less separation of individual and collective needs, since we’re all connected like neurons in a brain. Compassion — relief from suffering — is the driving force. Some ancient wisdom cultures describe this as a journey towards enlightenment, where all suffering disappears. Individuals, driven by compassion source initiatives, and others join them to help, whilst also starting their own initiatives.

Today, Turquoise may still use organisational constructs like a ‘company’ from lower levels on the spiral since the socio-economic systems in the world today are dominated by Blue, Orange and Green mindsets. However this is purely for convenience and the work extends far beyond the walls of the organisation.

As humanity as a whole moves towards a Turquoise mindset, we may eventually completely rethink our most basic assumptions about law, money and organisations, finding new ways to work with compassion towards all beings. We can be sure that humans will continue to source initiatives as this unfolds, just as they have done since the earliest days of human consciousness.

Researching and working with founders to realise big ideas and keep the startup passion forever.

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