Colours of Agile

Colours of Agile

2018, Mar 29    

Is Agile green? Is it orange, red, yellow or even blue? If you read Reinventing Organizations you might know about the different “colours” for organisations. Where does Agile fit into this model? Let’s answer this question, in respect to the vMEMEs of Spiral Dynamics.

Over the last weeks I had the great chance to work with one of my colleagues at a client. During this time we shared a room to map out the approach about how we would roll out our plan for changes within the clients organisations and this caused us to have a lot of strong discussions. From time to time these balanced on the small edge between change management theory and philosophical ideas. The question I’d like to discuss with this post came up in one of these.

About the Colours

Colours are a widely used way to describe various classifications in psychology (and other disciplines). The colour schema I am referring to here is the one described by Don Beck and Christopher Cowan in Spiral Dynamics to make the research and “classification” of Clare W. Graves more understandable. In order to get an idea of what I am writing about in the core of this post I’d like to quickly introduce you to the core concepts of the eight vMEME systems that Graves, Beck and Cowan are discussing.

A more detailed description of the tiers can be found here.

First Tier: Subsistence

All memes of the first tier are characterised by the believe that there is only just and true view on the world. Although each higher vMEME recognises that the world is getting more and more complex, the view is still focussed on its own values as the one true way of life.

Colour Theme Characteristics
beige Do what you must to stay alive. Uses instincts to stay alive
No distinct self
Food, water, warmth, sex and safety have highest priority
Formation of family-like bands for survival
purple Keep the spirits happy and the tribe’s nest warm and safe. Animistic thinking
Obeying the desires of spirit beings
Allegiance to a chief, elder, ancestors or the clan
Observing rights of passage and tribal customs
red Be what you are and do what you want regardless. The world is a jungle full of threats
Breaking free from constraints to please your desires
Powerful individuals command respect, expect awareness and make decisions
Overpowering or outsmarting and domination of other powerful individuals
blue Life has meaning, direction and purpose with outcomes determined by an all-powerful Other or Order. Sacrifice self for the greater cause or truth
Following the right path rewards you; following the wrong one is punished
Zealotry and rigid mindset
Fundamentalism and Tradition are valued
orange Act in your own self-interest by playing the game to win. Strongly expressed individualism
Human rights, legal freedom, free market, capitalism
Faith in science and rationalism
Seeking material abundance
Play to win
Optimistic and risk-taking people win
green Seek peace within the inner self and explore, with others, the caring dimensions of community. The human spirit must be freed from greed, dogma and divisiveness
Emphasis on feeling and sensitivity rather than cold rationality
Share resources and opportunity equally among all
Decisions by consensus within the group
Puralistic and relativistic
Highly idealistic and humanistic
Politically correct thinking

Second Tier: Being (Integral)

Individuals who reached the second tier are changing their views to acknowledge and fully appreciate the variety of views and value systems. They are no longer driven be the anxiety that somewhat characterises the first tier and strive for systemic and integral thinking approaches.

Colour Theme Characteristics
yellow Live fully and responsibly with authenticity. Pursuit of learning
Systems thinking
Priority for flexibility, knowledge and competency over power, rank and status
Integrating complex systems with ease
Having the big picture in mind
turquoise Experience the wholeness of existence through mind and spirit. The world is a single, complex and connected organism
The self is distinct but still part of a global whole
Everything is connected to everything else
Holistic thinking
Universal spirituality
coral ? we don’t know what that could be yet

A quick note on Reinventing Organisations

In his book Reinventing Organisations Frédéric Laloux built a very similar scheme of colour-based categories for organisations. This is somehow based on the ideas of Beck and Cowan (and thus also on Graves). but a bit more simplified make it more accessible for the ideas presented in his book. So if you know this categorisation you will quickly find according references. As my colleague put it:

Basically Laloux just labelled turquoise as teal and removed some “intermediate” steps like yellow or purple.

Looking for Resonating Colours

After this short(?) introduction into the overall topic of Spiral Dynamics lets focus on the core question of this post: Which coloured tier does Agile resonate with the most? What aspects of various tiers on the spiral can be identified in the ideas of the Agile Manifesto?

The Obvious

When pondering over this question with my peers we quickly thought of the green vMEME, because it is quickly perceivable that it resonates:

Considering the values of the Agile Manifesto, we easily see that, for example, Individuals and Interactions over Processes and Tools puts a stronger emphasis on acting as a group and collaborating instead of high individualism. Also, as Agilists, we obviously value Customer Collaboration over Contract Negotiation. That again fosters the idea of working together - as a group - not only within our team, but also with the customer, to find a way for delivering value in a consensus. There are also a lot of other factors that are making Agile very green: Business people and developers working together on a daily basis; Build projects around motivated people; Face to face conversation; Agile processes promote sustainable development; Architectures and designs emerging from within teams.

But does that really tell us that Agile works best in green(ish) organisations? When examining this I tried to find aspects that are usually attributed to other tears.

Thinking Orange

Working software is the primary measure of progress. Continuous attention to technical excellence. Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage. Working software over comprehensive documentation. - All of these are principles and values from the Agile Manifesto, which I first thought of to be very green, but they have a more orange ring to my ear. They are focussing on competitive advantages, measuring progress and are a bit focussed on winning the game.

So at this point we should integrate the idea that Agile as some green and some orange aspects. Well, obviously I still think that the emphasis is on green. Thus it would be labelled as orange/GREEN In the notation of Spiral Dynamics.

Second Tier Resonance?

To expand our gedankenexperiment a bit further: Are there other aspects that I see as incorporated in the idea of Agile?

Okay - rhetoric questions, because obviously I do. The Manifesto itself also lists Responding to change over following a plan as a value, which I think pays tribute to the fact that most projects involving people are located in the domain of complex problems. Another interesting principle is the one focussed on inspecting and adaption: At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behaviour accordingly. For me, at least in practical application, this principle is tackled by systemic thinking and the idea to learn. Also the principle for technical excellence highlights the idea to see learning as a way of life while ideas of cross-functional teams put weight on competency. All of this sounds like a yellow value system, right?

Unfortunately for us, I do not see much turquoise reflecting in the Agile principles and values. As of now, I have not experienced any proven or good way to achieve an understanding of how it could seamlessly work on a wholesome and global thinking approach.

Spiraling Down

What about the other direction, downwards on the Spiral? How well do Agile ideas resonate with a red or blue value system? I cross-checked with some case studies that I had at hand and also my own experience. There are behaviours we can see in real-world implementations of e.g. Scrum that show shades of blue: the zealous Scrum Master who is on a crusade; the team following the tenants of the Scrum Guide; companies implementing the blueprints that SAFe provide; quasi-religious discussions of “what is still Agile” and “what is not Agile”). Also there can be seen various tones of red: a Product Owner having near absolute power to define what is going to be implemented; giving the team power to tell what they can deliver; tension between the team and the PO; a struggle between the customer’s expectations and what the team is able to do. The observation here is though, that all of this shows some kind of ill behaviours or dysfunctions. While Agile can survive in a blue value system for a short time, it is clearly misplaced in the red area as its ideas are opposed to this worldview.


When we combine the observations above into the visual representation of some kind of totally subjective spectral analysis for the colour spectrum of Spiral Dynamics it would, in my opinion, look like this:

Spectral Analysis of Agile

We can clearly see that Agile resonates very strongly with a orange/GREEN setting. It may even be able to enable an upwards shift in orange organisations to become green. Still Agile itself is not simply rooted in one of the value systems. It spans across a complete stack, being limited by the aggressive stance of the red vMEME while coming short to the needs of turquoise and above.

However, the really interesting discovery in here is, that the ideas behind Being Agile seemingly do not stop at the first tier (subsistence), but also attempts the leap to the second tier (being) of value systems. So maybe Agility can be the door opener for new ways to integral thinking and acting and thus to second-tier organisations. Maybe this also shows what the Post Agile era might look like: Being based on value systems that are completely rooted in the second tier (being). Spanning from an systemic-integrative yellow over turquoise, holistic, interwoven principles into the unknown coral regions and beyond?