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Stairways to Heaven? Revisiting The Controversies In Developmental Psychology Models

A Framing Of An Integral “Developmental Sensemaking” Approach And Application to Our Social Commons

Working Draft Version - extracts of Abstract and Introduction Chapters

John Oliver, August 2022

“I suppose it comes from this edge identity,

this frontier conversation that I talk about, but it's in many of our great traditions.

The understanding is that there is a conversational nature to reality,”

David Whyte

“Reality is a constant movement between opposites.”

William Irwin Thompson 


This paper presents an opportunity for the integration of two historically quite independent fields of practice in organisational development and complexity sciences; that of developmental psychology and narratives sensemaking. Leveraging lenses from Integral Theory and addressing the social constructivism in ‘anthro-complexity’, a vision for a practice of ‘developmental sensemaking’ with clear ethical principles is described.


In our contemporary cultural context, one of the interests in embracing developmental psychology within a wider sense of social constructivism, is to offer an integration between the classic polarities of progressive yet cold rationalism and inclusive yet circular relativism.


The growing adoption of developmental psychology frameworks, in particular for executive coaching, as presented by a broad scope of practitioners from clinicians, therapists and researchers such as Robert Kegan and Bill Torbert (themselves building on the heritage of Erik Erikson, Laurence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan), has raised concerns of the ethical grounds of the judgements that derive from such linear progression, hierarchical or stage based theories. The developmental dimensions cited by these researchers include for example ego, moral, interpersonal, consciousness and cognitive capacities, and refer to the nature of the development typically in terms of a hierarchy of stages, altitudes or spirals. 


These frameworks contrast with well established psychological trait (or behavioural archetype) models that have been adopted extensively in human resources, team development and coaching over the past 30+ years.


This paper addresses the contrasting trait vs developmental models as a polarity between highly contextual dynamics (or ‘modulators’ that the traits models might represent) vs hierarchical frameworks (or ‘stages’ that the developmental models represent).


Developmental theory has created quite intense polemics in the organisational development, complexity sciences and coaching and consulting sectors - with reference to the use of developmental theories in eugenics and early 20th century extreme right wing politics - typifying a ‘colonial’ mindset. 


With Kegan’s own term for his model being a ‘constructive-developmental’ framework of stages of meaning-making (grounded in Jean Piaget’s work), the ‘constructive’ term is investigated in greater depth to seek possible complexity, ethical and philosophical principles that it might share with the school of sensemaking (Dervin, Weick, Snowden, Russell, Klein, Kurtz).


Kegan’s summary of the Piagetian model where the polarities of one stage are held as a greater whole in the next stage, can be therefore applied to the very polarities of the modulators vs stages debate. A broader framing of this integration of modulators and stages is offered by Kegan through the lenses of the Biological, the Psychological and Philosophical. 


Kegan refers to these lenses as a way to situate the ethical issues of judgements based on the stages of development. Looking carefully at the language that Kegan uses (norms of growth; norms of collective sense of health; humanistic normlessness), his lenses appear to map onto the ancient “transcendentals” of the Good (2nd person), the True (3rd person) and the Beautiful (1st person), that Ken Wilber also develops in his Integral Quadrants.


Piaget’s historical impact is in no small measure due to his striving to create a bridge between the biological (growth) and philosophical (human experience of meaning-making) lenses. In terms of that experience, more focus is given to the actual process of the developmental stage transition, including a connection with other theories looking at the process of change, in particular Debrowski’s theory of positive disintegration, and the affective, emotional components in one’s ‘developing’.


The paper proposes that we are called upon not to lose the insights from hierarchical frameworks and metrics, in the spirit of Ken Wilber’s phrase that there are “no wholes without hierarchies”. Yet, we can only integrate stage type frameworks and metrics into our practices with sound ethical principles, if embedded in a constructive dialogical and Integral practical process.


Such a coordination of competing meaning-making systems that the dialogical and Integral lenses offer, appears to be a Stage 5 characteristic in Kegan’s model. To date, it is naturally difficult in the debates and fora of practitioners to hold at scale the competing validity claims across the Integral Quadrants or the Transcendentals (e.g. ranging from the polemic Nora Bateson Facebook critique of developmental models, to more in-depth dialogues and panels published on the Web). This highlights an opportunity to seek processes for holding or scaffolding the dialogical coordination of competing perspectives for larger audiences, and herald a new generation of how developmental insights can be brought into application. 


A distinct evolution can be observed within the developmental research community towards a more definitive and clearer integration of the ‘constructive’ and dialogical dimensions. Influence can be seen from domains such as critical realism (e.g. Roy Bhaskar) and anthropology. This paper seeks to integrate and expand on examples such as:

  • Bill Torbert’s focus on leaving a living legacy of persons capable of practising Collaborative Developmental Action Inquiry (CDAI). CDAI is a new paradigm of social science and social action that integrates 1st-, 2nd-, and 3rd-person action and research, on the past, the present, and the future, and generates single-, double-, and triple-loop feedback in the service of timely action.

  • Otto Laske’s expansion of the Constructive Developmental Framework, with a “Dialectical Thought Form Framework”.


This paper invites a shift from the dominant application of developmental tools from measuring where someone is ‘at’, to more self-reflective platforms that highlight the dynamics of developmental movement (e.g. directional vector vs coordinates), and scaffold the quality of both intra- and interpersonal dialogue.


Developmental models can become therefore grammar within a sensemaking process, that embeds a 3rd person perspective, within a 1st and 2nd person “movement” of dialectical exchange.


In order to achieve 1st, 2nd and 3rd person dialogue, Developmental Sensemaking is therefore by definition grounded in methodological pluralism (contrasting probes, actions, contexts etc.)


Throughout the paper, the application to both individual and social evolution will be evoked, weaving and connecting their interdependencies. 


Dialogue as a concept, is also expanded as being expressed through our systems of financial exchange, political choice and technologically mediated social interactions (building on Robert Shiller’s narrative economics). Developmental opportunities can be therefore framed in a new way, as to how more experimentation and creativity can be applied not just at an organisational, but at a social scale, in the spirit of David Graeber and David Wengrow’s 2021 book “The Dawn of Everything”.


This paper struggles of course in how to describe in a sequential series of sentences and chapters the dynamical anatomy of dialogue, development, evolution and meaning making at the heart of the human condition. There is therefore an inevitable interweaving and cycling through ideas and concepts, zooming in and zooming out, exploring of interconnected threads etc. in the style of the writing. From the perspective of the interwovenness of phenomena, of human history, we can consider that ultimately there is no separation between the Arts, Religion and the Sciences - and it is our generational imperative to bring them together in our meaning making and in our actions.



This paper was initially inspired by an exchange of posts and comments between Dave Snowden "Stairways to heaven?" May 17, 2022) and Jonathan Reams' LinkedIn post "Reflections on Stairways to heaven?" May 24, 2022) that address the ethical issues on the rising trend of 'vertical development' frameworks (e.g. from Robert Kegan) and the application of such language in both coaching and organisational development.


It is a subject that has particular resonance based on my experience in working in organisational development. Since my independent organisational case study research after my MBA program over 20 years ago (where Dave Snowden was a lecturer) I have immersed myself into the two schools of practice that provide the backdrop to the above two posts - that of complexity sensemaking and developmental psychology. Integral Theory is a third background of influence, that will be evoked later in the paper.


An ambition to write a book based on interviews at case study companies experiencing radical change and experimenting with non-hierarchical and democratic principles (during the period 2001-2006), led me into complexity studies and developmental psychology as potential lenses for how to interpret the qualitative data I had gathered. In particular since I sought to integrate longitudinal, multi-year information as to how these organisations had evolved beyond any one intense phase of re-organisation, such lenses were immediately of huge value to my interpretation as I grappled with often ambiguous and contradictory findings. My idealistic hypothesis of the rise of democracy in such organisations, was challenged by the more nuanced and multifaceted data as I interviewed people across different levels in these organisations - organisations that had more often than not become well-known through a visionary turn-around story published by the CEO.


Appreciating the quality of critical thinking behind the Cynefin framework and in much of Dave’s commentaries around complexity and the social sciences (for example with regard to the impact strategies in overseas aid projects where I had worked for 4 years), I reached out to Dave in 2015 to hear his views on the developmental frameworks from the point of view of complex adaptive systems.  He kindly agreed to an interview with audio recording in February 2016 at the Landmark Hotel in London.


This meeting represented a milestone in my personal journey of having connected deeply with the Integral Theory publications, conferences and community between from 2002 (meeting Ken Wilber in Denver to discuss my first chapters of my organisational development case study book in 2008), to then find a valuable expansion of my thinking thanks to the Cynefin framework and the field of Complex Adaptive Systems - in large part thanks to the richness of Dave’s published material and the training programs he runs.


Both from my interview with Dave in 2016 and in his above May 2022 blog post, I appreciated and resonated with the nuances of Dave's critiques - I found his analysis compelling and of high ethical importance.


Within the developmental school of thought, I was drawn by its historical lineage where by only one measure within the field of psychology (as opposed to spiritual or wisdom traditions) its origins reaching back over 100 years ago (e.g. Baldwin then Dewey, Mead) - and by the diversity of their landscapes or maps.


The dimensions or scales of these maps included continuous adult learning, growth or levels of consciousness, across diverse domains such as ego development (Graves, Piaget, Kegan, Cook-Greuter), leadership (Jaques, Torbert), morality (Kohlberg), faith (Fowler) and cognition (Dawson, Stein, Fischer), to just scratch the surface of some of the leading researchers.


However, despite the breadth and depth of the developmental domain and my being trained as a certified coach with one of the leading cognitive platforms (with industry leading psychometric validity analysis and one of the largest free-form narrative reasoning data sets in the field based on to open-ended dilemma questions), I could hear a parallel voice of counterfactual reflections within me based on the interpersonal experience of the coaching practice I was being trained in (e.g. the debate on to what extent do you share the developmental stage scores with your coaching client; am I as your coach judging you based on your score?). 


The challenges from the early launch days in 2009 of my consulting brand when working with such developmental language were keenly experienced. When engaging with our clients at the time (primarily financial sector clients in London and Paris including for VC investors focusing on supporting Start-Up founder teams), while introducing the differentiation of our developmental approach from the established personality type assessments (such as DiSC team profiles, SHL or Hogan), one particular client reacted with the comment “so the CEOs in my portfolio companies are aiming for guru-like heights?”.


It is well known that despite the extensive adoption of the Piagetian developmental model in the education sector for optimising interventions up until early adulthood, any speculation that adults continue to evolve throughout their lives, has encountered considerable resistance. Kegan has not generally been seen to emphasise his philosophical lenses (i.e. the transcendentals or Integral Quadrants) in his public discourse or translate the lenses into practical guidelines. This is despite his keenly felt isolation in the academic world and resonance with Wilber’s cultural observations under the concept of ‘boomeritis’ (Wilber’s characterisation of the deadly combination of a modern egalitarian worldview with a deep unquestioned narcissism commonly held by Baby Boomers and their children).


With the call from Kegan in seeing others in terms of their becoming, their developing (vs. in terms of what stage a person is ‘at’), the approaches in how we practically apply the constructive-developmental framework can evolve into the theory being used as more as a ‘grammar’ in more of an intersubjective dialogic/discourse sensemaking process, compared to a subject-object (e.g. coach-client) developmental stage assessment tool.


The application of principles from the field of Complex Adaptive Systems (or ‘anthro-complexity’) is seen as an important opportunity, in how we can hold a developmental stage as a hierarchical lens hand-in-hand with the parameters of situation (how someone shows up depending on their environment), context and culture.  With the exponential complexities of the multi-dimensionality across the ‘lines’ of development (e.g. across ego, moral, cognitive, affective, interpersonal, spatial etc.) we are better off gauging direction of travel (vector) as opposed to measuring a coordinate location (as evoked when referring to someone (or their centre of gravity) being 'at' a particular stage). 


These themes are then brought together with the possible practical applications of the Sensemaking principles and a rewording of ‘Constructive-Developmental’ to ‘Developmental Sensemaking’, as a manifestation of Kegan’s philosophical lenses and the Integral Quadrants. These applications include looking towards the latest technological trends in algorithms and social media, as manifestations of current large-scale domains of meaning-making in society.


With the ambition that such ethical issues can be better addressed through a 'Developmental Sensemaking' vision, further exploration is proposed of the relevance and practical manifestations of Kegan's Stage 6 self-transforming mind as one of our major hopes for making sense of, and acting in the global environmental and social crises. 


Indeed, the ethical application of developmentally informed interventions particularly in commercial corporations, where consultants are often best able to monetise their offers, is brought into focus. Knowing which stakeholders and owners are being ultimately served has to be considered, as an analogy to the question of are we working ‘in the system’ and/or ‘on the system’. 


With Wilber’s bottom-right ‘external collective systems’ quadrant being less frequently referred to in the developmental, Integral and even complexity practitioners, in the words of Roberto Unger, it is our now urgent calling to integrate ethical principles in the continuing evolution of our political social structures and systems. Can this be done without necessarily going through catastrophic failures that open new fields for our human collective’s reinvention?


It is fascinating to think back to how ethical principles in ancient history impacted the economic / political rules of the time, when considering the concept of usury. “In many historical societies including ancient Christian, Jewish, and Islamic societies, usury meant the charging of interest of any kind, and was considered wrong, or was made illegal. During the Sutra period in India (7th to 2nd centuries BC) there were laws prohibiting the highest castes from practicing usury. Similar condemnations are found in religious texts from Buddhism, Judaism (ribbit in Hebrew), Christianity, and Islam (riba in Arabic). At times, many states from ancient Greece to ancient Rome have outlawed loans with any interest. Though the Roman Empire eventually allowed loans with carefully restricted interest rates, the Catholic Church in medieval Europe, as well as the Reformed Churches, regarded the charging of interest at any rate as sinful (as well as charging a fee for the use of money, such as at a bureau de change). Religious prohibitions on usury are predicated upon the belief that charging interest on a loan is a sin.”


How might an Integrally informed developmental-sensemaking approach contribute to that, is speculated in the paper, beyond the struggling attempts of deeper democracy and head winds of political regressions.  


The paper is also a call for a step shift away from analogies that attempt to make sense of human systems through natural biological ecosystems complexities. The self-conscious construct aware feedback loops of human consciousness are of a different category of complexity (from physics to chemistry to biology to ecosystems to construct-aware consciousness). Hence the framing of developmental sensemaking is presented here in the context of moving;

  • from complex adaptive systems/cybernetics 

  • to anthropology/anthro-complexity 

  • to evolutionary consciousness - as ‘fields’ of consciousness rather than ‘systems’. 


To come back to the opening ethical concerns and set the scene in more detail, Dave is open minded in saying when referring to the developmental psychology school of research; "...if push came to shove I can live with a lot of the material and ideas and can work with it', and that he is "working with some Cynefin associates into recognising the value of Kegan’s development stages, not as a linear progression but as a highly contextual set of modulators.".


At the same time, Dave voices caution on the potential cult-like following of the Spiral Dynamics developmental psychology framework (Don Beck’s and Chris Cowen’s building on Clare Grave’s work) or of Ken Wilber ("which has damaged what could have been interesting Integral work" quote from Dave’s post).


In response, Jonathan states in his LinkedIn post “I was curious about Dave’s description of working with Kegan’s theory as contextual modulators rather than simple linear stages…. I begin to wonder if some degree of selective utilisation and adaptation of parts of Kegan’s theory could end up missing an opportunity to have the meeting of diverse ideas generate deeper inquiry into assumptions behind ideas.” Jonathan goes on with a description of development in terms of; “Vertical development (as it is being termed) does not happen on its own. It requires a robust set of skills or conceptions to be fleshed out and interconnected to enable the chunking into a higher order, or ‘vertical’ move.”


To offer an initial wording for the exploration of these contrasting views, I'd like to firstly highlight one polarity that emerges in my reading of the posts from Dave and Jonathan: that of:

  • hierarchical ‘scales’ or ‘stages’ versus;

  • modulator ‘tensions’ or ‘dynamics’.


The value judgement perspective that arises from the former is of the higher-the-better versus a highly contextual appreciation of dynamics between potentially equally important factors in the latter. 


Dave's transposing of Kegan’s specific use of the term stages to one of modulators, I propose calls for an opportunity to seek "a context of where these polarities arise from", quoting Kegan himself from his 1982 "The Evolving Self" book.


Indeed, we can see inferenced in the blog post title that Dave chose of "Stairways to heaven", that there is a potential category confusion.


The notion of sequential stages is taken as suggesting a logical, normalised path leading to some universal ideal. ‘Heaven’ however would fall into the notion of what is the ‘Good Life’ - a divergent domain of infinite personal choice and preference, that Wilber goes to great lengths in differentiating from the rational ‘sciences’, alongside his unique breadth of interdisciplinary writing on creating bridges between domains as antagonistic as science and religion.


This paper emphasises Kegan’s careful distinctions of truth claims (that map onto the philosophical “first” concepts of the Good, the True and the Beautiful), to hold the broader pictures of rationality (judgement), subjectivity (choice) and ethics (collective values) in their rightful place.


What might be a both-and perspective on Dave’s and Jonathan’s posts?


Quoting further Kegan: "I am a researcher-theorist who finds the field of ego or personality development somewhat encumbered by a number of poorly constructed meta-psychological questions: ‘Which is to be taken as the master in personality; affect or cognition?” or “Which should be the central focus ; the individual all the social? ... In this book all these questions get reconstructed by moving from the dichotomous choice to the dialectical context which brings the polls into being in the first place”.


In the spirit of the above quote, this paper therefore frames such exchanges between Dave Snowden and Jonathan Reams within a broader philosophical context, at the risk of taking the conversation to a high level of abstraction. I have found this step towards abstraction unavoidable in making sense of my own cognitive and moral dissonance, when studying and applying developmental and complexity frameworks in my organisational consulting work.


As these themes are explored in more depth, I will be taking some creative licence in extrapolating Dave’s position to represent the broader concerns of the sensemaking/complexity community - to then contrast them with how Robert Kegan’s writing can be interpreted to respond as a leading representative of the developmental school. 


As an opening stance, my bias is that I do believe that the developmental school is driven by a striving to make sense of the broader global picture of the human condition, and find new perspectives and capacities of response to our seemingly intractable social challenges. How can we therefore integrate notions of increasing complexity, without the proponents/users of such frameworks falling into the ethical traps of holding forth upon a world that they seek to ‘lift’ to their (inevitably self assigned) higher level of ‘development’?


It is worth also acknowledging the recent trend in the field of organisational development, that there are a growing number of practitioners from the sensemaking school (working with complexity principles and narratives) who have also trained in developmental psychology. A trend equally reflected in a number of coaching/OD/complexity media, community and events platforms that host specialists from both disciplines (e.g. Jim Rutt, Rebel Wisdom, Emerge podcasts; and community fora such as Perspectiva, LifeItself, the Ekskäret Foundation and the Inner Development Goals). 


There is also a growing number of instances as to how the “Teal” language is deployed in the management and organisational development fields to herald new horizons of flatter, more democratic, self-organising organisations. Often paradoxical positions arise where this language is used to eradicate organisational hierarchies, from the ‘altitude’ of a hierarchically higher Teal viewpoint (for example, this article on Teal inspired education).


I have written a review of Frederic Laloux’s book here, drawing on my own (failed) attempt to write a similar book - I evoke the complexity principles such as retrospective coherence, case study a priori (theory led) projections, and reporter bias (how the data was gathered) as challenges in projecting the Teal vision, whilst celebrating the book for its aesthetic and championing of humanistic practices. 


Indeed, I believe it is the sensemaking and complexity school of thought (especially in the field of organisational development) that is uniquely well placed to bring developmental psychology to its greater potential - which currently is something of an irony in that Dave Snowden, as a leading proponent of complexity principles, has had a position in the past to steer away from the developmental school.


We need to therefore respond to the polarities between positivist quantification and radical contextualism. It could be seen as a developmental move in itself in this community of practice, bringing a qualitative shift where a new level of differentiation and integration can be brought to life (an increase in breadth and depth) through methodological pluralism in practical applications.


The invitation is to "coordinate in dialogue" a more conscious holding of our polarities and contradictions vs. seeking to resolve them.


A particular interest is to extend the predominant focus of these schools of practice in the individual coaching and organisational development applications, to the broader and urgent political, economic and cultural issues, that underlie our critical environmental and social justice crises.


As evoked in the article co-written by a group of 12 representatives from academia, business and organisations, in the same way that Scandinavia became a pioneer in terms of gender equality and sustainability, there is a call for the region to be a pioneer when it comes to human maturity and wisdom. The article refers to the opportunities for the capacities of individuals in addressing the accelerating complexity of the world and our societies to be supported by the life-long learning maps from adult developmental psychology research.



I believe that Dave’s post represents a very common reaction within both the business and in our broader social communities, to the notions of growth presented by developmental psychology.


But is Dave’s post potentially diluting or even rejecting the fundamental philosophical distinctions in how stages are defined in Robert Kegan’s ‘constructive-developmental’ model?



In acknowledgement, multiple ideas from Dave Snowden have inspired points of reflection throughout this paper, from his thought leadership shared through his workshops, publications and presentations.


Structures of Thought vs Content

A final word on the personal journey to this book. When attempting to write my first book in the period 2002 - 2088 I experienced early on the phenomenon of the more you dive into a literature research, the more avenues opened up. My ability to ringfence the intellectual boundary for the book’s hypothesis (i.e. the ultimate goal of democracy and morality in organisations) were compromised by a boundless curiosity and pleasure of learning and discovery. The efforts of trying to become anything of an ‘expert’ were ultimately an unsustainable energetic drain. Here, in this paper, the context I am setting for myself is that I am aiming to speak to the patterns in the structure of knowledge in the field of human evolution.


Whilst built on I hope a reasonable foundation of research in the content of previous pioneers, thinkers and activists in the area of concern of global society’s conscious steps on its evolutionary path, I do not necessarily need to strive for an exhaustive integration of all that has been written or presented (e.g. in the exponential online content of videos and podcasts), in order to say something of value relating to the patterns of dialogic structures across the cognitive, aesthetic and moral domains.


The paper is to offer therefore one small step in making the unconscious (e.g. the hidden patterns and structures) reveal itself into our conscious realm. 


Quoting Anthony Judge, when reflecting on the multitude of social development papers and policies among inter-governmental and UN type bodies and initiatives:

“The transformative development which is possible emerges from the relationship between such answers, not through the elimination of one or the other (or the constituencies to which they appeal). A different language is required to render such possibilities more credible and more fruitful. Such a language should not deny the simple answers, rather it should place them in a ("conceptual") context which encodes the dynamics by which they need to challenge each other to separate the "essence" of each from the "dross" from which the dangerous abuses of any simple answer can emerge. In this way a form is given to the context in which each such answer has a function.”

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