Encountering the Theory

In 1976 I was good friends with Jack Saloma while working doing leadership development at the Coro Foundation. I was also developing Group Graphics, a visual way of working with groups. I had lunch with Jack one day in San Francisco during his research on a book on the consciousness movement and he told me: “I’ve only found one person who has any real theory and he expresses it with graphics. You better go to his seminar.”

Of course Jack meant geometry, but that discipline is the abstract foundation for graphic display. He was referring to Arthur Young, who was holding Saturday seminars at his Institute for the Study of Consciousness in advance of the publications of his two seminal books and wanting to further test the theory. I became a regular member of his study group for about ten years.

I was trusting Jack Saloma’s advice more than pursuing any specific question of my own at the time of my meeting Arthur. I was deeply immersed in figuring out how leadership works in the public sector and how organizations and power interests work together across sectors. Jack had written about politics and was also interested in spirituality. I am the oldest son of a Protestant minister and was raised in a fairly healthy church environment, so Jack and I shared this dual interest. He explained that Arthur was working to reconcile these different points of view in an integrative theory of process. I was fascinated without really knowing what it was about.

That first seminar was a real breakthrough for me. I had begun college majoring in physics, and as a minister’s son, I was still wrestling with questions of spirit and practice. These two disciplines had nothing to do with each other for most of my life up until then. For the first time both were part of one explanatory system! That first Saturday Arthur oriented us to the basic tenants of the theory, and graphically sketched out his ideas on the arc of process on a blackboard. I was as excited as I can ever remember being! I didn’t realize how hungry I was to reclaim the roots of my spiritual orientation. The effect of my education had been to lead me into secular objectivism rather completely.

Arthur invited the participants in this initial seminar to take the fields they knew well and explore them with his theory. I had studied General Semantics extensively (it was the operating meta-language at Coro) and was quite comfortable thinking about thinking, and looking at the relationship between thinking and action-the basic orientation of GS (which really should be called applied epistemology). I saw Arthur’s work as a very conscious process of design and his arc and other “operators” as maps to the work of awareness. My GS training grounded me in the idea that the map is never the territory, so from the first I saw the Theory of Process and its operators as a system of “lenses” through which I could look at anything. The elegance of his distinctions reminded me of the solution for organizing the piano keyboard in the days when musicians were discovering ways to communicate across indigenous practices.

My first effort at understanding TOP was applying it to Group Graphics. Could I look at drawing and visualizing as a process rather than just a pattern? In one, incandescent, burst of insight, I saw that there were seven primary seed shapes that mirrored the seven stages of process, and that these echoed at a macro level in seven formats for making displays:

  1. POSTERS, which make a point
  2. LISTS, which flow in a linear line of thought
  3. CLUSTERS, which invite identification and comparison by leaving out the lines of connection
  4. GRIDS, which cross categories and allow users to build combinations of connections.
  5. DIAGRAMS, which allow users to grow understand with branching patterns (like living plants)
  6. DRAWINGS, which use graphic metaphors and analogies to invite viewers to animate meaning by projecting prior knowledge into the graphics.
  7. MANDALAS, which organize all information around a central, unifying center and suggest wholeness.

I called this system the Group Graphics Keyboard and emphasized that it functioned much like a musical keyboard, rather than like a blueprint. It is the first system I know of that fully integrates graphic display making in a coherent system of explanation. Most all other attempts are seduced by trying to classify the artifacts of the drawing process themselves, rather than the making and the perceiving processes.

The insight that purpose and process are more fundamental than structure and form is the shift in thinking that ignited all of us in the study group at ISC.

When Arthur’s two books came out in 1976, I immersed myself in understanding all of the operators and what he was offering as a fully integrated system. While this way of thinking is second nature now, there are parts that are difficult to understand. I made an initial “mistake” in my Group Graphics Keyboard, for instance, thinking that “flow charts” were at stage 6 because they showed movement. But graphically flow charts are just a grid with time on an axis. The perceptual process doesn’t jump to a new level just because part of the content is measured time. But two years later I realized I’d slipped back away from looking at the process itself, and when I took that perspective I realized that adding a graphic metaphor and allowing participants to “animate” the drawing was the real jump from just depicting a branching pattern. You can imagine this if you think of doing a mind map as a simple branching pattern, or actually map it onto a tree.

In 1980, about four years after meeting Arthur, I was leading some seminars on the Theory of Process and Group Graphics. I met a fellow who was an expert on Team Process. Allan had a simple team “building” model in four stages that mapped onto the first four stages of process. I saw right away that TOP could be used to look at team development, and spent ten years evolved a Team Performance Model that maps to TOP. It is now one of the leading frameworks for thinking about team dynamics, used at organizations like Nike and Genentech. As I experienced TOP making sense out of all the processes involved in leading group process, I pushed on, imagining a totally integrated tool set for facilitators and managers who lead collaborative processes.

In the 1990’s my company The Grove Consultants International, developed a Strategic Visioning process that built on the Group Graphics Keyboard and Team Performance model. We also developed a Cross Cultural Development model and a Community of Practice Model, all variations of TOP. I came to see TOP as a kind of operating system with these tactics as the applications.

My own interests have always been communitarian, based on my early church experiences. I believe that transforming and enhancing the art of collaboration worldwide is actually a realizable goal with TOP. Because I work graphically, and am an avid journal keeper and writer in addition to the drawing, I’ve collected and studied all the different concepts and theories that play a role in organizational work and leadership at all levels of society. Arthur’s work is still, without a doubt, the most elegant and broadly useful, in no small part because of his diligence in creating links back to the best contemporary science. He also avoided the traps of creating a faux spiritual framework with all its layers of unprovable explanation. He was most fond of keeping the numinous layers of our awareness a mystery, and simply keeping a place for them in his system.

I’ve watched students of Arthur’s fall into a kind of rigid orthodoxy that often attends the work of great thinkers. I wish more of them were familiar with general semantics and all the traps of any kind of language, even ones that use geometry and formulas as elements of expression. I now feel that part of my own life work is to continue the work Arthur started, by exploring its application. I’ve since studied Tibetan Buddhism and a serious school of native American thinking called the Teachings of the Delicate Lodge. The resonance across these disciplines is fascinating; I am drawn to consider taking on more of this kind of exploration in the future as I pull away from active consulting.

The pendulum of the Enlightenment has swung well over into a kind of technologization of thinking and life. We have moved far away from experiencing wholeness and transcendence as equal players with predictability and determinism. We need philosophies and tools that help us with these seeming contradictions. Arthur’s use of geometry to explain oppositions and complementarities, linked with more awareness of the role of mental models and metaphors in perception and action, promises some hopeful ways forward. I intend to pursue these paths.

Meeting Arthur M. Young was a turning point in my life. Not a day goes by that I don’t feel grateful for that lunch with Jack Saloma.