Upward Spirals 🧬

As someone who’s worked at several startups, been involved in DAOs, and seen market cycles, for some time, I find the concept of Upward & Downward Spirals to be very profound.

This post leans heavily on this post: Upward Spirals - bootstrapping systemic change in an organization.

Its worth reading! I will provide a TLDR below:

Downward Spirals

The downward spiral is a metaphor for decline, a self-reinforcing process that depletes something of value

It can be described as a cycle of disinvestment or deterioration, as players withdraw resources from a system, an action that reduces its performance and prompts further withdrawals down the line. Unfortunately, when we are part of a downward spiral, we almost always find it difficult to see a way out because the incentives in the situation often reward narrow, short-term thinking.

For example: A company cuts maintenance budgets due to financial pressure, which results in more breakdowns and lower quality, rising costs and lost customers, and eventually even greater financial pressure.

Upward Spirals

The Upward Spiral is the inverse of the downward spiral. The upward spiral is a metaphor for regeneration & renewal. A self reinforcing process that accretes something of value.

The spiral is simply the shape created by a self-reinforcing growth process. By definition, a spiral winds around a center, in a progressive expansion or contraction, a rise or fall. What we see is the accumulation of changes as the system iterates over time. We tend to associate an upward spiral with growth, development, and evolution, as reflected in the architecture of spires and towers. Thus, I have begun using the metaphor of the upward spiral as a meta-model for systemic change. I define the upward spiral in this context as a metaphor for growth or “mutually reinforcing change that creates or regenerates something we value.”

How to reverse a downward spiral?

With Heroic Change, change is likened to a journey or “trip to the moon.” In practice, it generally involves a strategic injection of resources and energy to orchestrate a “trip” from the old way to the new way. The drawback is that it is resource intensive, so we may find we do not have enough fuel to get to our destination. If we have not reached our goal and have bulldozed past opposition, the system may swing back toward the other pole, stuck in oscillation rather than advancing

By contrast, with Grassroots Change, we think of change occurring through “ripple effects.” It relies on many small-scale efforts, gradually winning converts until the new way replaces the old. This approach allows for creative emergence, yet can fail to take off if it does not engage structural barriers that limit progress or if local efforts do not build on each other. If our experiments run out of energy, or if we have excluded important opposition, the system can swing back again toward the other pole.

The upward spiral approach enables us to bootstrap change out of many small efforts.

The CPIRAL Model: Six Principles for Mobilizing an Upward Spiral

  • Center on the Asset
  • Prime for Potential
  • Invest in Increments
  • Approach at the Right Angle
  • Signal Through Action
  • Listen and Amplify

Center on the Asset

The first step in building an upward spiral is to ask, What do we want to grow? The answer is usually some kind of asset that enables us to generate the results we want. (An asset refers to any enabling resource, infrastructure, or stock – physical or intangible.) For example, Jake decided that he needed to drastically expand the team’s capability to deliver – the know how, systems, resources, and practices that enabled them to deliver high quality at a fast pace – if they were going to meet the deadline.

Prime for Potential

The second step is to activate hidden potential in ourselves and others by asking, What might help us see ourselves and each other anew? What are we truly capable of? A fresh look provides the inspiration to invest new energy in a situation with negative history. For example, Jake brought in benchmarks from his prior assignments showing how a few changes to work practices can multiply productivity. “Do you think we could apply those ideas here?” he asked the team. They wanted to try.

Invest in Increments

The third step is to decide: How big a step should we take next? The ideal next step contributes to the core asset, yet is within the scope of what you can manage. For example, Jake used the team’s willingness to try something different to get agreement on three small but radical changes. First, he insisted that all team members be assigned to the project full time (rather than several people part time). Second, he insisted the whole team travel to attend a kickoff so they got on the same page. And third, all developers and managers would review issues on joint weekly calls. Developers would fix their own bugs instead of handing them off to junior programmers to fix. These few changes ensured that 100 percent of team members only wrote code that fully met the client’s specifications, drastically reducing rework and waste. Despite the surface inefficiency, these practices virtually multiplied the team’s capability without adding staff hours.

Approach at the Right Angle

The fourth step invites us to set our “angle of approach”: Where do we need to differ from expectations or reach out across lines? Where do we need to say “no”? For example, Jake included downstream departments in team meetings. He vigorously resisted staff reassignments. And he disciplined his team not to write any code before the specifications were finalized. In this way, he ensured that the team only wrote code that fully met the client’s specifications and was consistent with the deadline. If we do not diverge from the default pressures on the system, nothing will actually change.

Signal Through Action

The fifth step advises us not to start with talk, but to ask ourselves, How can we signal our commitment through action? For example, Jake simply showed up at the client meeting with a list of draft specifications, then said, “Rather than give you a blank sheet of paper, we thought we’d give you something to react to. Could you review these and tell us where we’re wrong?” This helped focus the client’s input, demonstrated that the team was on top of things, and showed a commitment to customer satisfaction. If they had waited to talk through the best approach, they might not have gotten started.

Listen and Amplify

If bootstrapping change requires many small, reciprocal actions, then we can drastically accelerate that process by paying closer attention to what is already underway. We can simply ask, What can we build on? How will we know when to take the next step? For example, after a while, Jake noticed that the joint team reviews were not producing new insights. Instead, he switched to a monthly check-in, which won him kudos with the team and sparked even more productivity. Many leaders dramatically accelerate progress by watching closely as their team’s capability grows and adapting in response.


Whether your organization is in an upward spiral or a downward one depends on the balance between growing and depleting flows.

We can tip the spiral by increasing the growing function or reducing the depleting function. In this way, a small action can transform the functioning of the system as a whole.

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This post leans heavily on this post: Upward Spirals - bootstrapping systemic change in an organization. Go check it out!