12/21 – SDi and Solonics with Christopher and Sheila Cooke

Russ Volckmann

Russ Volckmann

Russ Volckmann

Christopher and Sheila Cooke

Christopher and Sheila Cooke

Russ:  When I first heard about you, it was in relation to your work with Spiral Dynamics Integral and Don Beck. Then, you were doing some work in Houston, Texas. You were also working in Omaha, Nebraska. As I look at the work you’ve done – I don’t see anything in Latin America or Antarctica – you’ve been everywhere else in the world. Is that right?

Christopher: Yes, and we have actually worked in Latin America in Columbia and Chile. We’ve got projects going on in Chile at the moment.

Russ: It looks like you do a wide variety of things. It seems like your work is a mix of organization development, coaching, sustainability, and a variety of topics, including post-traumatic syndrome. Who are you guys?

Christopher: That’s a good question. We don’t often have the luxury of someone having the courage to ask that question of us, so thank you.

Whenever people ask me what it is that we do and why do we do so much, I just say that it’s very simple. We just do one thing. That one thing is our focus on human emergence.

If I go back to ’97, ’98, when I first came across Spiral Dynamics, and then later on Ken Wilber’s work in Integral Theory, I was fortunate enough to be in Boulder when the Integral Institute was in its foundation and formation. I was spending a lot of time there with Don and with Ken.

It was at that time that I made the decision, “Okay, this is it. I’m in the business of human emergence.” That was my point of alignment with Don Beck. I decided that while most people were talking about the theory, my role was to focus on practical application. That means – in terms of a business model – wherever there is a human being, there is something to be done from the perspective of human emergence.

Russ: A pretty good market.

Christopher: Obviously! What permits me to have this quite eclectic range is a wide background of competencies in engineering, management, senior management, et cetera, as well as in pure coaching, therapy and large-scale facilitation practices. I was very fortunate to have a first career that gave me freedom to pursue not only what the business required, but also to understand some of the pioneering work on human change and human change processes. This all came together in ’97 or ’98 and led to what I do today.

Russ: What might be an example of one of those early projects?

Christopher: The one that comes to mind was that I realized when I came across Spiral Dynamics there was very little documented. I was coming to form my own views as to the validity of the work. We ran a very large-scale pilot in Yorkshire based on a former coalfield called Hemsworth. That was a region that had 41,000 people. In 1998, we ran a pilot to demonstrate the application of an integral perspective that was focused on a whole-scale or a whole system upliftment process in a former coalfields area.

I had a full-time team of six people who worked with me for a year. We demonstrated application across a wide range, from working with the schools, with businesses, with social workers, police forces, you name it, to bring together a project that became known as HemsMESH. It was a meshwork of activity around the town of Hemsworth.

Russ: Was that the first time the term “meshwork” was used?

Christopher: The term meshworks had already been coined by Don Beck, but at far as I am aware, this was the first time the term was applied in a public project. It’s funny, today, I’ve just received an email from one of the people I worked with in Hemsworth. They keep in contact with me. What we saw was that a radical change occurred in that community as part of their desire to let go of the past.

I’ll give you one piece of evidence for success. It wasn’t just the report we wrote and the number of jobs that were created. It was a coal miner who came to me and said, “Finally, I can brush the coal dust off my shoulders.” That was all the reward we needed.

Russ: Is it any coincidence that Don Beck’s work in South Africa was with miners in the mining companies and your first project was in relation to mining?

Christopher: Yes. It was an interesting coincidence. And also, it connected with my family’s background. My grandfather was a mining engineer in Derbyshire in the UK, so I’ve got a strong interest in the mining industry even though I had no direct contact myself until that period when we did the project.

Russ: Well, you mentioned a lot of different elements of the community that were a part of that project. How would you characterize the developmental effort that you were undertaking with regard to the individuals and the collective elements of that community?

Christopher: It was really twofold. One is what I would call releasing the latent integral potential. There is a latent potential in the human mind that is underutilized in society today, largely because the social systems, norms, customs and practices tend to suppress the utilization of that awareness.

Secondly, we equipped individuals to communicate more effectively. I’ll give you a very specific example of that. It was a direct and indirect intervention, so it created a space in which those who could hear could respond to the situation. In the debriefing sessions that we ran every two weeks in the school, we used the school library. Our meetings coincided with the time when the school caretaker was cleaning out and dusting the library.

After listening in for about four sessions he decided that he would change the face of politics in that community. He successfully ousted one of the previous political groups with the support of a small group and redefined the shape of local politics in that community based upon what he’d heard. It resonated with him – he just went away and applied the work for himself.

In that process, what we were able to do was bring together different groups to have new conversations. It didn’t require any theoretical content. We used very basic information exchange. For example, we asked the elderly to describe a map of the safe places, the unsafe places, the respected, the disrespected places, the happy, the sad places. We had the youngsters do the same thing and we brought their maps together.

They could see that they were both seeing the same things from their own perspectives. Previously, each was blaming the other for the problems they were experiencing. Meshing together these conversations helped them to let go of the previous barriers to start to have new conversations that they weren’t able to have previously.

Russ: It sounds like this is part community organizing, part coaching and part psychological interventions. This is across a wide spectrum of activity.

Christopher: Yes. It covers a wide range of competencies and the list you’ve described is accurate. I’d add leadership development and executive development. We were dealing with government agencies. We were dealing with the European Union. It was a project funded jointly by the European Union and by the local training and enterprise council. Also, we actually fed a portion of our fees back in – I think it was 30% – to contribute towards the project, because we were determined it would happen.

Russ: What was it about Spiral Dynamics that attracted you so much that you’ve invested the last 17 years with that approach as a central part of your work?

Christopher: My first career was in the water industry and that was a very significant period between 1983 and 1997 when I left. That was the period when the UK water industry was being privatized. It was being converted from a nationalized industry to a full commercial entity. I joined as an engineer in ’83 having been in the oil and gas sector before that.

I was fortunate enough not to be embedded in the water industry culture, so I was asking questions that no one else was asking. Within six months of joining, I was headhunted to become part of a new team of coaches and facilitators who were being trained to support the next generation of change management practice in the UK. British Telecom was involved and companies like IBM. It was a very, very interesting time. I had these two parallel paths.

What quickly unfolded was a capability in change management, which I didn’t fully understand at the time. I knew I could get things done. I knew I could resolve many of the issues that were in the oil and water industry that many people hadn’t been able to address, but I could never explain why I was so successful.

I did a masters degree in Change Management between ’93 and ’96. I still couldn’t find any theoretical construct or anything that could help me understand human change as I had experienced it.

It was in the Spring of ’97, just after the book Spiral Dynamics had been published, when I was at a meeting one evening and a colleague of mine said, “I’ve got this book. I can’t finish it. You might be interested,” and he gave me the book. I read it from cover to cover. In those days, Don and Chris used to put their telephone number in the book. I rang them the following morning and within three months, they were co-training here in the UK with me. The reason why it struck a chord in me, was that it held a mirror up to everything I was aware of but was not cognizant of in my own change process. When the mirror became clear, there was a big sense of relief that I wasn’t going crazy. Secondly, what really inspired me was that it gave me cognitive access to the second tier transition, which I had had a taste of.

The experiment that I’ve run since ’97 has not just been about the application of the point of view. It’s been about growing and developing an understanding, and an expertise in understanding of that second tier transition. That has been the basis of the experiment since ’97.

Russ: I want to deepen that response a little bit.

Christopher: Keep going. I love it.

Russ: Could you say a little more about what it was specifically about the Spiral Dynamics model, the Gravesian perspective, or however you want to characterize it, that was such an attractor for you?

Christopher: One of the key attractors for me was the quality of the research that Graves did. It really was profound. The distinctions he made from a primary research perspective, wasn’t just the eight stages that most people talk about. It was a 22-stage emergent, cyclical, double helix understanding, so it brought in the understanding of the interaction with the life conditions. That for me was so critical.

The other piece, which I think is pure mastery, is his understanding of the change dynamics within, through, and between each of these stages of development. That maps onto everything I knew as a large group process facilitator, coach and therapist at the time, because I actually trained with organizations like the Foundation for Community Encouragement – Scott Peck’s organization. We actually trained with a lot of their leaders in the UK before they were doing the programs in the States. In that process, Scott Peck’s work really gave us a good understanding of the ability to navigate through chaos and avoid premature organization to allow the new thinking to emerge to engage new life conditions.

Having had that experience, I came across the change technology that’s embedded in the greatest technology in Spiral Dynamics and Spiral Dynamics Integral. It just resonated with me, because I knew it to be true. It gave me a structure I could articulate, explain, train others, and then equip them with the experience to embed the understanding tacitly so that they could get what the theory was really talking about. It’s those three dimensions.

Russ: So you’re talking about not just the stages, as you say, but you’re also talking about the change model?

Christopher: Yes.

Russ:  Could you say a little more about what you found to be powerful in the change model?

Christopher: From a Ken Wilber perspective – looking at quadrants, stages, or waves, states, lines, levels and types – what Graves was really doing was modeling or mapping what today I’d call the human holon. You can break it down into all these attributes, the perspectives, whatever, but Graves was mapping the whole. He was mapping the synthesis of the being, the existential state of the being, which translated into the stages of development, but with an understanding of the perspectives.

From a first person perspective, this is what this particular existential state means. From a second or third person perspective, the change piece brings in a really useful distinction on states of change. So, yes, we can focus on the waking, sleeping, and dreaming aspects of a state. But with Spiral Dynamics we’ve got an understanding of the change state dynamics of the deep complex adaptive intelligences that inform how we think.

So Graves provided a very rich emotional map of the emotional transitions right through the spiral. You can work with emotional states or existential states of change and/or you can work with the full panoply of the theory. You’ve got lots of flexibility in the way that you apply the Gravesian change technology.

I think it’s one of the most interesting areas at the moment. Spiral Dynamics gets reduced back to being a line of values development, but if one looks at the research and looks at all the instruments that we use today it truly is a holographic map of the dynamics of the human holon, which is the existential state of the being. This fits nicely into the conversations on holon and holarchy.

Today, we use that language. We bring in the motivational flow with the soul. As Ken Wilber says, “A lot of this work without soul is not valid,” but we bring in the soul, add it to the holon, and we’ve got the dynamics of the solon. We know there’s a flow, and I hate to use the word “direction”, but there’s a direction the spirit invites, the song invites. Also, it’s the original song that inspires. That’s the dynamic that we’re working with at the moment.

Russ: So that’s where the integral comes in, the inclusion of soul, the inclusion of spirit, is that what you’re saying is unique?

Christopher: Well, I think it’s a further reason to legitimize a conversation around soul. I was working with biological systems in the water industry. It’s an interesting domain to operate in, because even the science of working with the biological systems of wastewater treatment plants is not fully understood. When one works there consistently over time, one notices things that can’t be explained scientifically, both through the way the microbes operate and how the beings who look after those plants respond to the changes in the microbes. So, there’s a strange interaction that occurs in those domains, which always fascinated me.

Also in the early work, as I mentioned, back in the early ’80s with the water industry around change and change management, we were working with one of the police forces in the UK, which was promoting the work of Arthur Young whose book is called, “The Reflexive Universe”. There, I got a complete cosmology to work with and we were working with that cosmology quite actively in our coaching and facilitation work. This work legitimized conversations on the evolution of consciousness and the very profound distinctions between the collective soul and the human soul.

Russ: I see that your lovely wife, Sheila, has joined us. Hello, Sheila!

Sheila: I apologize for being late. Hi, Russ!

Russ: Oh, no apology necessary. We’ve been laying the foundation around the work that Cookie has been doing, his history and things like that. I know you joined him — what is it — about four years ago now, something like that?

Sheila: Yes, three years ago.

Christopher: The story of how we met actually relates to your conversation with us, so it’s worth Sheila just telling you a bit about it.

Sheila: In 2011, I was working as a group facilitator and a colleague of mine in New Orleans, Jean Watts, introduced me to the field of Spiral Dynamics. I had a project coming up in Korea and I was at the stage in my facilitation career where I wanted to deepen my work. I really wanted to understand at a much deeper level what was happening for people when I was doing facilitation and actually how to enhance the change process.

When Jean introduced me to Spiral Dynamics, I was really excited about it. I thought in this upcoming work in Korea, I would like to bring that into the work. Jean introduced me to some online instruments, and then I hired Christopher as my coach. It was supposed to be a 30-minute coaching session or mentoring session, but it ended up being two and a half hours.

I really just fell in love with Christopher right on that call. I just was shaking all over during that call, because the quality of what he was saying to me was something I had never experienced before. I really had no idea there was a human like Christopher on the planet. He just completely blew me away. On a spiritual level, I had been seeking someone like him. After the call, I got the message that this was the guy that I had been seeking.

I didn’t know any personal details about Christopher for a long time, but I made every effort to just try to get to know him and work with him in as many ways as I could. After the course of a summer, I realized that I had really fallen in love with him and then I told him that.

In that process, he looked at himself really hard and asked the question, “Is Sheila the person I want to be with?” Then he gave me the answer without ever having met me in person or really having much of a personal conversation. He was committed to me.

And so, effectively then, five months after that very first coaching session, we met for the first time face to face in Rome. We were married just a few months after that. Since then, I’ve been going through the Christopher Cooke Graduate School of Change. I always joke and say I still haven’t graduated yet. There’s so much to learn. It’s unbelievable.

Russ: Sheila, what was your background that led you into the facilitation work internationally?

Sheila: I had worked for 20 years in International Business and I had an MBA in International Business. Before that, I got a degree in Sociology and Anthropology, so that is what led me to the international work. I studied a lot of different languages. I loved studying languages.

Russ: Do you have a favorite project that the two of you have done together? Or one that is representative?

Sheila: I guess Future Captain Sports is really fun in that we learned so much from it. We wrote a chapter in the SDI applied book (forthcoming, Tom Christensen, Ed., Integral publishers, 2015) on it. It took us three months to write that chapter. It was really hard work. When you go back and examine your own work and the detail that we did in order to write something meaningful for others, which was basically three principles of solonic practice, we had to take a really deep dive into our work to figure out what are the principles and how did those principles show up in our work.

Russ: Will you tell us what those principles are?

Sheila: The primary principle is to stand on the other side of the line.

Christopher:    Stance matters. When you stand in an integral frame even if it’s an “as if” representation, you’ll do a far better job than if you don’t.

The gift that Sheila has brought to me personally is that she asks questions, which takes my tacit knowledge and translates it into shareable information. When Sheila unpicks it, documents it, and assists in the communication to others – that’s what we’re excited about.

Russ: If I can use the broad classification of organization development that I’m most familiar with, the literature says that 80% of the organizational change efforts fail to meet their primary goals. What would you say is the percentage of your projects that have succeeded in meeting their primary goals?

Christopher: Well, remember our primary goals are often helping leaders create new understanding and new meaning around what they’re doing. This is knowledge transfer. It can be helping a company strategically come up with its own solutions. So at one level, I honestly don’t know of a situation where we’ve not actually achieved everything we’re set out to do. We normally achieve more than we’ve set out to do because there’s an added value component that only comes out when you start the work. We don’t operate within defined boundaries. Yes, there have been times when we were challenged, but I don’t know a situation where we’ve not exceeded expectations.

Russ:  Do you agree with that, Sheila?

Sheila: Yes. I was thinking the same thing. I guess the quality of the work that we do is really high because of the process that we follow right from the beginning with the client. They’re so deeply involved in designing what it is that we’re doing with them, and then we hold their hand every step of the way. That’s why the quality of the work is really high.

Russ: Where do you see the biggest challenge in the client systems you’re working with these days?

Christopher: If I use this jargon, many clients are using first tier thinking and first tier systems to try and address second tier issues.

Russ:  What’s an example of a second tier issue?

Christopher: Money! What many organisations don’t realize is that the core principle of the way we function as a species is that a core organizational skill is to find a way of maintaining reciprocity. Yes, reciprocity might translate into dollars, but there are many ways of sustaining reciprocity, keeping things moving and getting rid of the limiting belief that “If I don’t have dollars, we’re out of business.”.

At the moment, most systems that we operate with tend to try and keep us in the status quo – the way the world was. So, we’re working with 50 to 60-year-old systems that don’t have the capacity to free people to lead into the new era.

Russ: Okay, so you’re building capacity in a sense. Is that what you’re saying?

Christopher: Yes. We’re helping them redefine. We talk about organization design and alignment. If we’re talking about HR, we’re talking about individualized HR management, not carwash solutions that go across the whole organization based upon what the HR management rulebook says. We’re talking about building systems that have the capacity to deal with the individual in the organization, to create the life conditions in which that individual’s motivational flow is released.

We have demonstrated how to do that using our cultural scanning methods. We first developed those in the coalfield area described earlier. We processed four and a half thousand assessments on paper and decided to automate the scanning.. The first big electronic survey we did was back in 2001 when we reviewed the capital program for one of the big water companies. We surveyed 90% of all the construction industry leadership teams. This taught us a lot about the water industry and the construction industry, the banking sector, lawyers, design engineers, the whole shebang.

What we demonstrated was that if you scan a whole organization, you can then go and listen to the people who have solutions that otherwise lay dormant in the organization. We call them the “hotspots”. We scan the organization, go and find the hotspot, and listen to the conversation about the solutions that are being suppressed in the organization.

Russ: You referred to cultural scanning. Can you elaborate a bit on that and link it to anything else that is out there that relates to this Spiral Dynamics model and assessments?

Christopher:  Okay. If you go back to Prof. Graves, as part of the generalization of his work in the late ’70s and early ’80s, he developed a range of instruments that became known as the form A, B, and C that Don Beck and Chris Cowan operated with the National Values Center until Graves’ death in 1986.

I remember when I first met Don and Chris, they had just done one Spiral Dynamics training in Dallas. That was the first one they had done publicly. Then I started the HemsMESH Project and we built a whole range of instruments from those core instruments. Don and I started to introduce other instruments; one was called CultureScan which I converted to electronic form.

The platform we use today is called “5 Deep Vital Signs”. We’ve retained the lineage from Graves and Beck, and added to it.

I learned back in my time in the water industry well before I came across Spiral Dynamics that if you provide an individual a chance to speak their truth, knowing that what they say will be listened to and dealt with respect and integrity, everybody wants to respond, because they can see a benefit.

Russ: That sounds extraordinary in terms of the openings to multiple levels within the system.

Christopher:    Absolutely.

Russ:  Have you published anything about the data you’ve gathered from these 35,000 plus surveys that you’ve done?

Christopher: No, we’ve never published a full analysis in that way, although client reports always offer that triangulation process, but they tend to be confidential and they have not made any of those publicly available.

Russ: All this talk of culture and the mention of the double helix made me wonder — have you ever done any work with or been influenced at all by Charles Hampden Turner?

Christopher:    Wow! That’s going back a bit for me. Yes, I was influenced by his work, but done no work with him or in relation to his methods. What specifically are you thinking on?

Russ: Well, I was thinking of his developmental model, his anomic and development double helix model. And I was thinking also more recently of all of the work he’s done out of Cambridge and in Singapore around innovation. I wondered if there might be some connection with the things that you’ve been doing.

Christopher: I’ll have a look at that. I came across his work a number of years ago and I’m just trying to think what the link was. The metaphor we’re tending to use today goes back to the work with Arthur Young. We believe a better metaphor, a better image now is basically to use the image of a toroidal flow, Howard Bloom’s bagel model of the cosmos.

Russ: Say that again.

Christopher: We use a metaphor of a toroidal flow. If you imagine a smoker who blows a smoke ring, that ring continues to spin and it’s got a dynamic motion. That for me is one of the best metaphors I found to describe the dynamics of a holon. It’s discreet, it retains its form, but it’s moving in its dynamic. That was really the imagery and the metaphor that Arthur Young was using.

Russ: Are you saying that the developmental process includes this continuing revisiting what we might call lower stages of development to perhaps heal the wounds of the earlier stages or to leverage the strengths of the stages?

Christopher: I think there’s a big debate here and a lot of misinterpretation going on because a lot of practice goes to fixing the problems in the first tier without realizing the mind can’t differentiate the signals from the future, because they’re so closely aligned with the shadows of the past.

Russ: Interesting. I just published an article in the World Futures Journal and part of the title is the term “generativity”. It sounds like you’re trying to work towards generativity. Is that a fair statement?

Christopher: It is. It’s a very fair statement. I use Jean Gebser’s language a lot. His concept of latency and this transition into second tier consciousness involves the utilization of unrealized capacities, latencies that are dormant.

Jean Gebser uses language that for me has a beautiful, melodic flow. He talks about the ever-present origin and the increasing diaphany, the increasing thinness of the veil between the mind and the evolutionary impulse. Now, that latency is one of the most exciting areas to work in, not only for self, but also with clients in everything we do. That for me is the essence of human emergence at this point in time.

Russ: Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you wish I had? Sheila, anything you’d like to add?

Sheila: Yes. We’re really working toward a world that works for all of life. We are very strongly aligned around that purpose. As we do that, what we’re really aiming to do is to release what we call Factor 100 Innovation.

Russ: As I listen to you, it feels to me like you’re speaking to what I would say is the essence of the whole SDI movement. The Integral Movement, even under Wilber, I don’t think is as clearly articulated and understood in the world as I think you’ve just articulated it. I think people are looking to a lot of things that are the consequences of doing what you’re talking about as opposed to engaging in the process and the developmental challenges that you represent.

Sheila: Yes. Our work, on the one hand, is very complex. On the other hand, it’s really, really, really simple. A friend of mine contacted me one day and said, “I’m just not knowing what to do, Sheila. I really need help.” So Christopher and I had her do the scans and then Christopher gave her coaching, and we had just a couple of sessions.

The challenge for her was that she was working in a company where they just really didn’t understand her. You might characterize it differently, but in my simple way of understanding it, she has a lot of emergent Yellow in her. The Green and the Orange around her were rejecting her Yellow coming out. And so, she was highly criticized. She was in a performance review process that was scaring her, quite frankly. She was very fearful of losing her job.

We helped her see that actually, she was bringing quite a bit of intelligence to the group and they just didn’t have the capability to see it. That was all she needed from us.

Russ: I would think that the next step would be for her to learn how to express her Yellow in terms that Orange and Green would appreciate it.

Sheila: In this case, I think that wasn’t going to work. We had given her some things to do. I won’t go into that, but she did those things. We heard from her a while later. She said, “Sheila, guess what? I have a new job!” That started in August. And then just recently, I got another message from her. “Guess what? I love my new company. This is a fantastic job, fantastic company! I love my colleagues! We have lunch together every day.”

She was so lonely in the old company. No one would ever talk to her. Now, she’s got colleagues who are happy to talk with her. She’s not being rejected all the time. She found a place where she belongs. So that’s a really good example of what we do. Now, our work is done with her.

Russ: Lovely story! Chris, anything more you’d like to add?

Christopher:  The only thing I’d add is that we operate both virtually and face-to-face, so we’ve got very established practices where we can deal with any individual anywhere in the world. That gives us lots of flexibility and lots of freedom.

Russ: Great! Well, I want you to know how much I appreciate both of you taking the time with me today. I think that there’s such a richness of opportunity for learning that the readers have gained from reading your comments, so thank you so much.

Christopher:    Thank you.

Sheila:You’re welcome!


  1. mike jay on February 18, 2015 at 10:04 pm

    Ran across this in Cookies last email, interesting interview all.


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