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Many-thinks, not just groupthink; personal change, not just personal growth; development, not just progress… Spiral Dynamics, by Don Beck and Chris Cowan, outlines a language for thinking about and moving between many of the different ways human beings make sense of our world...

Sometimes it seems as though the bookshops are entirely consumed by seven-part science fantasies, fat-free recipes for personal growth, and imposing management paperbacks. What's worse, sometimes it's hard to tell them apart. They all tend to assume that every life has a purpose, and that to live successfully is to focus, dedicate, and change (yourself or your organisation) until the purpose is fulfilled. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's not the only way to understand the meaning of life. Here's this book's take:

...In trying to understand change in someone or a company, always ask, 'In what way does the person operate in respect to this issue?' Ask not, 'At what level is this person and how do the rules indicate I should be?'...the latter approach is looking for a simplicity that is not there. People are not types; they think about things in their lives in different ways.

Spiral Dynamics describes nine vMemes (value memes); internally consistent, but radically different, frameworks that people and groups use in different times and circumstances. The "Meme" part of vMeme connotes the self-reproducing nature of ideas and world views. The "value" part is because these are value systems; collections of apparently self-evident foundations people use to build world views.

On its own, that might be just another system of typecasting. But the authors are emphatic that all vMemes are inherent in all of us, and most of the book is about the feedback between life conditions and vMemes. The spiral combines progess and pendulum in human affairs. Dynamics describe change, interaction, and movement.

The authors draw on metaphor and language from every field they can find to build the spiral model: genetics, chaos theory, architecture, movies, nursery rhymes, and more. Sometimes this irritates me into arguing details of the metaphor instead of understanding the meaning. In other places, especially early in the book, I find myself prickling at the tone. But that's a small price to pay for a book that recognises depth, fragility, capacity, and complexity of human beings in commercial organisations, as well as in themselves and in societies.

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