Feature Article: My Integral Change Journey

Steve McDonald


Steve McDonaldOver the past few years I’ve been engaged in an on-the-job action research project to develop an Integrally informed change management business, based in Melbourne, Australia. Like many change agents, sometimes it’s been hard for me to explain exactly what I do. That just seems to be part of the challenge when you attempt to work across all four Integral quadrants and serve a variety of clients.

The purpose of this article is to explore, from an Integral perspective, the practical application of Integral Theory in managing change. I am writing from the first person perspective intentionally in the hope of offering you a more Integral experience by providing an insight into the ‘I’ behind the story, as well as the cultures and systems I’m working within I assume a basic knowledge of Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory, including the four quadrant framework.

In referring to levels of bio/psycho/social/systems development, I have used the colours from Spiral Dynamics by Dr. Don Beck and Christopher Cowan. Their work is based upon the research of Dr. Clare W. Graves, which provides an academic foundation. Due to the differences in terminology between the Spiral Dynamics and Integral communities, in Table 1 (below) I have provided a comparison between the labels used by Dr. Graves, the Spiral Dynamics colours used in this article and Ken Wilber’s colours, as published in his book Integral Spiritualty.

Table 1

Table 1: Comparison of Labels Representing Levels of Bio/Psycho/Social/Systems Development

For those who may not be familiar with Spiral Dynamics, Table 2 (below) provides a simple overview of the typical thinking, structures and processes found at each of the levels of development, as described by Beck and Cowan (1996).

table 2
Table 2: Typical Thinking, Structures and Processes for the Spiral Dynamics Levels of Development

Graves’ research identifies a cause and effect link between life conditions (both subjective and objective) and the process of human development through the levels shown in the table above. His theory suggests that the complexity of life conditions is a primary cause, driving change towards more complex thinking, behaviours, cultures and systems.

In the interests of an Integral exploration of my work, I’ll begin by describing my own life conditions and then look at how the ‘I’ that is me has interacted with people, cultures and systems, with the aim of supporting and managing organisational development. Understanding my life conditions is important to understanding how and why I’m applying Integral Theory in my work.

Discovering the Integral Perspective

I was introduced to Ken Wilber’s work in 2003 by good friend and colleague, Ron Laurie, who was one of the first Integral management consultants in Australia. On seeing the four quadrants, I recognised that I’d been working with a similar concept, which I learned during my officer training with the Australian Army. At that time (1982) our military leadership theory was based on John Adair’s three circle model, which considered individual needs (from Maslow), group needs and task needs; essentially the I, We and Its of leadership. Ron and I worked together on the board of a community-based company and I learned a good deal from him about both Integral Theory and Spiral Dynamics, before attending formal training with Dr. Don Beck and Christopher Cooke in the years that followed.

My 15 years in the army was divided between flying helicopters and serving as an infantry officer, which gave me an interesting mix of technical and leadership experience. Military training is aimed at operating under extremely adverse and complex life conditions, so it’s quite focused on personal development (despite the stereotypes). Australian Army culture is also different than that of the US and other armies, just as mainstream Australian culture is unique.

As an infantry officer, I was required to function ‘normally’ in the midst of chaos and to lead and manage others at the same time. Late in my career (1993) I served for five months in Somalia during the United States’ led humanitarian intervention, which inspired the film Blackhawk Down. From my experience, filmmakers Gerry Bruckheimer and Ridley Scott did a great job of reproducing the life conditions of Mogadishu during that conflict.

My time in Somalia was a valuable learning experience about large scale change. With hindsight, here was a failed state with dominant worldviews at the Purple and Red levels; an occupying force led by western nations coming mainly from Blue and Orange perspectives; and a large NGO presence with Green motives. A few days after I arrived it became apparent to me that the famine was the result of local conflict (not the weather) and that our intervention was unlikely to create sustainable change.

After leaving the Army in 1996 I returned to professional flying and piloted a rescue helicopter for five years, while at the same time transitioning into organisational development consulting. For me, the unpredictable nature of rescue work combined with regular exposure to human suffering prompted some deep introspection of cause/effect relationships and the nature of life itself.

Since then my consulting work has relied heavily on lessons learned as a leader and executive in the Army and on the insights I’ve gained working alongside people under extreme life conditions. With hindsight I can see the benefits of Integral whole-of-system thinking (albeit based on John Adair’s model) and how leaders who neglect subjective issues, in particular in the experience of difficulty.

After working as a contract executive officer for a not-for-profit company for just over a year, in 2005 I reoriented my consulting business to make Integral Theory and Spiral Dynamics my central operating frameworks. This included attending formal Spiral Dynamics Integral (SDi) Level 1 training with Dr. Don Beck.

Bumping into Reality

I quickly realised how difficult it was to talk about SDi with mainstream business people, so I began an action research project to find out how to get heard. I knew the value of the material, but how could I attract some interest?

Through experience I realised I had to adapt the Integral and SDi models to fit the interests of my audience. If I was speaking to second tier managers it would be easy, but in 2005/2006 I wasn’t coming across many (if any) influential second tier thinkers within business or government in Australia. In addition to considering developmental levels, there was also a typology issue: the terminology used in the Spiral Dynamics book sounded like American jargon to many Australians.

Over time I found that using some of the original Gravesian concepts and language brought better results, so I dropped the term vMEMEs and starting talking about adaptive systems or coping systems. Visually the Graves ‘expanding head’ image, which shows the developmental stages nested inside each other, seemed to make more sense to my audience than the classic spiral image.

During this pioneering time, I completed a series of consulting engagements with the Strategy and Development Group of a defence industry company. This was not Integral consulting work, but it did provide a valuable insight into contemporary corporate culture, as well as some cash flow to fund my ongoing action research.

In mid 2006, on the spoils of my defence industry work, I flew to Texas to attend SDi Level 2 CultureSCAN training with Christopher Cooke [See Integral Futures: A Conversation with Christopher Cooke,], and the annual SDi Confab.

Back home in Australia, I continued my primarily network-centric (Green) approach to exploring business opportunities in the change space, and this began to bring results.

The Rubber Hits the Road

In the latter half of 2006, I was asked to contribute an SDi perspective to a government communications strategy for a state level contingency plan, covering influenza pandemics. This was a turning point for me and the flow on work allowed me to start full-time SDi based change consulting and to earn a living from it.

Quite synchronistically Al Gore’s ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ hit the Australian cinemas around this time and it seemed to have a tipping point effect on Australian culture. Suddenly climate change was on the mainstream radar and there was a sharp increase in world-centric awareness. Throughout 2007 I saw more Green oriented advertising and public information campaigns. I realised I was witnessing a major shift as Australia woke up to the Green worldview. Life conditions in relation to water supply were an important factor in the shift. Many Australian cities were pressing the panic button as their water reservoirs approached alarmingly low levels. Suddenly climate change wasn’t just on the cinema screen, it was in our face.

Throughout 2007 I explored the application of the Online PeopleSCAN SDi based assessment tools. I was well supported by Christopher Cooke and his New Zealand based business partner John Cook. John and I spoke regularly via Skype and I often engaged him to crosscheck my analysis and reporting.

I completed a number of SDi assessments on senior executive teams within both government and commercial organisations. One of my most interesting jobs was for a team of 25 executives from a major Australian financial services firm, who were spread between London, Sydney and Melbourne. Their leader was transitioning Green-Yellow at the time and consequently he saw the potential value of an Integral approach over other options. I was put through a mainstream commercial selection process involving a couple of meetings, some written client references and a comparison against other change consultants. It was the awareness of the leader and his interest in exploring a leading-edge approach that swayed the decision my way.

In my experience the decision maker’s worldview is vital to securing Integral based work. It is hard work talking to prospects about the Integral approach unless their mindset is at least Green, otherwise the interest in interiority isn’t there. This applies to using the Integral framework explicitly and not as a back end tool for the consultant’s use only. Over time I’ve identified my personal market niche as being organisations with leaders who are in the Green-Yellow transition, or beyond.

Case study – a Legal Team in the Financial Services Industry

Assessing Life Conditions and Worldviews

The financial services team I worked with in late 2007 were all qualified lawyers providing advice to internal clients on financial deals and other issues. My task was to run some kind of assessment on the team and then help design and facilitate a two day ‘Culture and Behaviours’ conference. I used the SDi CultureSCAN assessment and then used the data to help me shape the program for their event.

Interestingly, the team had recently completed the Human Synergistics Organisational Culture Inventory (OCI) assessment, which gave me an opportunity to compare this tool against CultureSCAN. The OCI is a popular cultural assessment tool in corporate Australia.

The CultureSCAN results showed the overall mindset of the team under normal conditions was Blue; not a surprising result for a team of legal professionals in a financial services environment. The only developmental level that scored below the world average was Green and this pointed to a developmental opportunity. An average Orange capacity was present, but wasn’t dominant.

Under duress, the data showed that the team’s mindset switched to strong Yellow. Given the absence of a solid Green score, both John Cook and I assessed this as a temporary upstretch (Change Variation 5 in SDi terms) rather than a mature Yellow capacity.

When using the PeopleSCAN assessments the aim is to triangulate, using data from the online survey, from face-to-face engagement and from an observation of the group’s life conditions. In discussions with the team, I learned that they were often under pressure to provide legal approval for large financial transactions, while attempting to balance adherence to the law with the needs of the internal dealer (their client, who sometimes had personal gain in mind) and with the firm’s business strategy.

As their legal opinions were not always what the dealers wanted to hear, I could see how an upstretch to Yellow would be extremely helpful in addressing the competing demands of stakeholders. According to CultureSCAN the team members saw their work structures and flows as an order driven hierarchy (Blue), while they expressed a desire for change to a systemic flow (Yellow). The CultureSCAN provided a variety of other useful information and highlighted differences in life conditions between London, Sydney and Melbourne.

Comparing the OCI and CultureSCAN

This engagement provided an excellent opportunity to highlight the difference between CultureSCAN as an Integral assessment tool and the Organisational Culture Inventory (OCI), which is a widely used organisational development tool in corporate Australia. While I’m not a qualified OCI consultant, I feel I have a basic understanding of its characteristics drawn from my experience with this client and other organisations.

The OCI assessment is based on Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs and identifies three categories of behaviour, Passive/Defensive, Aggressive/Defensive and Constructive. Each of these is broken down into four sub-categories known as behavioural norms. An underlying assumption of the OCI is that it’s desirable to achieve a higher score for the Constructive behaviours than for the others. The OCI takes a flatland approach in Integral terms, as it assumes that one category of behaviour is best for all people in all organisations, under all life conditions. It doesn’t take into account the developmental level of the person responding and its ideal or preferred culture is defined by the client organisation’s leaders – in other words it’s a product of their worldview. The data collected during the survey is measured for alignment with this ideal or preferred culture.

The legal team’s most recent OCI results showed high scores for Avoidance (Passive/Defensive) and Oppositional (Aggressive/Defensive) behaviours. The definition of Avoidance includes ‘making popular rather than necessary decisions’—in other words having to please multiple stakeholders. Oppositional is self-explanatory. Given the team’s job role, neither of these results would be unexpected.

Yet the team was required by a senior executive, in a very directive approach, to change their behaviour so their OCI results indicated more Constructive behaviours.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the Human Synergistics OCI approach to change and a second tier SDi approach, is that Human Synergistics places the onus on the individual to change her/himself (with support from tools such as ‘how to’ cards etc.), whereas SDi recognises the adaptive dynamic that exists between life conditions and human responses. From an SDi perspective, telling someone to change themselves while their life conditions remain unchanged is a high risk approach and unlikely to bring sustainable success. Human Synergistics appears to be applying a Green approach to change (which Integral Theory would consider flatland – one size fits all), whereas SDi permits an adaptive second tier approach. In my experience many SDi practitioners are working from a values-based Green approach as well, so the model itself does not determine the methodology; this relies upon the interior depth of the practitioner.

While many organisations are benefitting from the OCI, it seems particularly suited to organisations that are transitioning from dominant Orange to dominant Green. The OCI’s behavioural norms for Constructive cultures are:

Achievement. Members are encouraged to establish challenging, but realistic goals, develop plans to reach those goals and pursue them with enthusiasm. People are expected to pursue a standard of excellence and work for a sense of accomplishment.

Self actualizing. Characterises organisations that value creativity, quality over quantity, and both task accomplishment and individual growth. Members are encouraged to gain enjoyment from their work, develop themselves, and take on new and interesting activities.

‘Humanistic-Encouragin’. Characterises organisations that are managed in a participative and person-centred way. Members are expected to be supportive, constructive, and open to influence in their dealings with one another.

Affiliative. Members are expected to place a high priority on constructive interpersonal relationships and are expected to be friendly, open, and sensitive to the satisfaction of their work group.’

When viewed in the context of personal and cultural development, these behaviours fall into the Orange to Green spectrum in SDi terms.

Using Integral Theory and Spiral Dynamics in Practice

The program for the legal team’s two-day convention included introductions to the Integral Map and the Spiral Dynamics model. The CultureSCAN results were delivered on the afternoon of day one, in the hope that some contemplation would occur overnight.

On day two I facilitated an inventory of current life conditions (disguised as a SWOTT analysis, the second T being for Trends). Then after lunch we did some outdoor spatial work. I learned about SDi-based spatial work from watching Christopher Cooke in action and this event was my first decent opportunity to give it a go.

The weather was ideal for working outdoors, so I laid out the Spiral, from Beige to Yellow, on a lawn adjacent to the conference room, with posters representing each level of development. I then walked the group of 25 executives through the Spiral. We stopped at each level and I briefly refreshed their memories of its particular signature. I then asked the group whether they thought this system was adequately expressed in their working lives. What I found was that people with high scores in particular systems (according to CultureSCAN) tended to speak out when we reached those places on the Spiral, since they were naturally motivated to speak from their own mindset. This process was very well supported by the team leader, who encouraged the team members to speak openly and honestly about any change they saw as necessary or appropriate.

Consequently at each level, potential improvements to the team’s life conditions were suggested by the team members themselves. As the facilitator, I ensured that any desired action was agreed upon there and then, and that someone was identified to champion each action item. The beauty of this was that, since people were speaking from their own personal ‘cosmic address’, those suggesting change were naturally motivated and suited to implement it. From a team perspective all of the suggested changes seemed to be a natural fit. The team was tending to the health of its own Spiral. This process had a noticeable team bonding effect and resulted in a documented action plan with 23 action items, each with an appointed champion.

The team leader was well positioned to lead the implementation of the action plan, which had a strong Green flavour to it. According to his CultureSCAN results, at that time he was about half a step ahead of Green, which is the perfect place to lead the change from. Contrary to conventional change management practice, there was no follow up action on my part, except to attend a debrief meeting after the conference and deliver the written action plan.

Four months later I had a coffee with the team leader and checked in on their progress. He said that every item on the action plan had either been achieved or was in progress. Since the two-day conference, the sub-prime mortgage crisis had hit and he felt that his team had performed well through the onset of the crisis and that they were well regarded within the firm. Much of their action plan was aimed at developing their network-centric, humanistic (Green) capacity, which in turn would allow their Yellow to develop further.

This job provided an interesting Integral learning experience for me. It seemed that using the Spiral to shape an action plan that’s aligned with the individual and team worldviews enabled faster, more natural change than would otherwise be possible. While this might have been expected, what was surprising was the apparent ease with which the change was implemented, without any follow up effort from me. The notion of facilitating rapid, sustainable change through a single intervention is not something I’d experienced before, nor is it common in organisational change literature.

I caught up with the team leader again 11 months after the event and at that point there was no indication of any backsliding or loss of momentum. As you might imagine, the firm was experiencing quite a deal of turbulence as a result of the ongoing financial crisis, but despite this the team seemed to be holding up well.

Their subsequent OCI assessment results indicated higher scores for Constructive behaviours, which is consistent with the development of their Green capacity.

The Importance of Integral Life Practice

Engaging in Integral Life Practice (ILP) has been an important part of my action research process. While my work has been an ILP itself, I’ve found that attending to my internal state of being on a daily basis has had a significant impact on my capacity to create a livelihood as an Integral consultant. This has manifested as my ability to comprehend and to do the work, and also as the arising of synchronous events in my life, including the attraction of work opportunities. In the interest of Integral enquiry I’ll briefly outline my core practices.

I have been practising Tai Chi Chuan in its traditional form as a martial and healing art for 10 years. There are many watered down versions of this art taught today that reflect only the Yin healing aspect, however, the traditional form includes the Yang fighting aspect as well, for balanced development. It’s a form of moving meditation that brings stillness into action and over the years this stillness has permeated my normal waking state of consciousness. In terms of Wilber’s Core ILP modules, it serves Body and Spirit.

Mystical study has been one of my practices for some years, through a couple of different organisations. One is the Integral Institute and its Integral Naked and Integral Spiritual Centre multimedia websites. Another is the Rosicrucian Order AMORC, which offers formal mystical studies in line with the ancient wisdom traditions. These studies serve Wilber’s Mind ILP module.

Wilber’s fourth core ILP module is Shadow. As a result of trauma experienced during my war service in 1993, I’ve done considerable shadow work through both individual and group therapy sessions.

Since late 2006 I’ve also been involved in regular shamanic practice as part of a growing neo-shamanic community here in Australia. This has included the use of traditional plant medicines from the Amazon for holistic purification and development. This work touches upon all four of Wilber’s core ILP categories and in terms of its impact, it’s been the most powerful practice I’ve experienced.

I’m a strong supporter of Wilber’s ILP concept and regular practice has been an important aspect of my work and life.

Mapping the Future

As a change agent one of the most exciting aspects of the Integral approach is its potential as a predictive tool. Once a group’s worldview is mapped then it’s possible to predict the general theme of any developmental change that might occur, and to plan for that. With knowledge of the evolutionary tensions that arise at each level of development, the ‘problems of existence’ in Graves’ terms, it’s possible to look at the current problems within an organisation or society and to ascertain what the next natural level of development will be for that group. While the reality of applying this theory is complex (since there are often simultaneous changes occurring at different levels and on different lines) it is accurate enough to be extremely useful.

For Integral change agents, I believe that the next ‘big thin’ is to move beyond the predominantly Green structures and systems that serve the Integral community to systemic, purposeful structures that support active collaboration on a global scale. If second tier operators want to connect and collaborate to address global issues and make a truly Integral contribution, we need state-of-the art systems and processes that are appropriate to the level of thinking. These might include a web-based Integral project coordination service that allows Integral practitioners to see each other, understand who’s doing what in terms of addressing key global issues, and to work together to design and implement large scale solutions.

In Australia, I’m encountering a growing number of people working within government and business organisations who are transitioning to, or have already developed, an above average Yellow capacity (according to CultureSCAN scores). Graves described this level of existence as characterised by the ‘dissolution of fear and compulsiveness, with marked increases in conceptual space’. Over the next few years, as life conditions become more complex and the social systems designed by Blue and Orange mindsets become less relevant and less effective, we can expect to see significant change emerging driven by these new thinkers.

If Graves’ theory holds true, we can also expect to see a reorientation of values as the Yellow mindset becomes more dominant, towards a greater appreciation of vertical development (more complex thinking) in our leaders and managers.


  • Beck, D. and C. Cowan (1996). Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership and Change. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd .
  • Graves, C. (2005). The Never Ending Quest, Christopher. C. Cowan and Natasha Todorovic, eds. Santa Barbara, USA: ECLET Publishing.
  • Holwerda, E and Karsten, E. (2006). “Empirical Evidence for PeopleScan’s Spiral Dynamics Tests.” University of Amsterdam, Faculty of Economics & Econometrics. Dept. of Business Studies Section Strategy, Organization & Marketing. Netherlands. (Unpublished).
  • McCarthy, S. (2005). The Leadership Culture Performance Connection, Transforming Leadership & Culture, the State of the Nations. Wellington, NZ: Human Synergistics.
  • Wilber, K (2006). Integral Spirituality, A Startling New Role for Religion in the Modern and Postmodern World. Boston MA: Shambala Publications Inc.

Steve McDonald is Director of Transcendence Pty Ltd, a change management consulting firm based in Melbourne, Australia. Steve has been consulting in organisational development and change since 1998. His professional background includes service as both an infantry officer and helicopter pilot with the Australian Regular Army. He has also worked as a civilian emergency services helicopter pilot. His professional qualifications include Spiral Dynamics Level 1, Level 2 PeopleSCAN and CultureSCAN, and Train the Trainer certifications. He holds a Diploma in Personnel and Resource Management from the Australian Army. To contact Steve, please use the online form at