Adult Development, Self-Transforming Systems, and Reflection for Transformation

Hamish Lindop
6 min readJun 11, 2021

The consciousness and meaning making systems of humankind is evolving. Kegan’s theory of adult development is a useful way to describe this.

Kegan’s orders of mind

Some features of these orders of mind in Kegan’s model:

Socialised mind (58% of Adults(?)*): The individual defines their values, sense of worth, and identity in relation to others, groups, communities, etc. that they belong to. They are able to understand the needs of others and cater to them, but have a hard time deciding what they think, need, and want, question authority or act independently.

Self-Authoring(35% of Adults(?)*): The individual has a clear sense of self, self-worth, values, and identity. They can question authority, think critically, and act independently. Able to engage in mutual collaboration and negotiation with others “on an even footing”.

Self-Transforming(1% of Adults(?)*): The individual becomes aware of the “nestedness” of their self and their perspective within groups, organisations, community, society, etc, as well as the composite nature within their self; the many identities, parts, dominant and subordinate features that compose their identity. They become able to see their perspective alongside many other perspectives, and constantly adapt their worldview which they understand is always an approximation of reality that can be nuanced.

*Figures for proportions of adults at different stages sourced here, but from reading around there doesn’t seem to be rigorously verified/up to date research to back this up (would love to be corrected on this, let me know if there is!)

The notion of presencing suggests that the micro and the macro are fractal representations of each other; groups, organisations, societies, policies, practices, power dynamics, and more, reflect the mindsets and meaning making systems of the collections of individuals that constitute and create them. The “waters of systems change” model shows some of these layers. Perhaps under mindsets we could place “meaning making systems” as a more fundamental source of generation.

From The Waters of Systems Change

Many recent practices in social innovation such as systems thinking, theory U, co-design and co-production seem to emanate from a self-transforming meaning making system; they take a holistic perspective and ask participants and practitioners to see themselves as parts of a whole, incorporating many perspectives, needs, and interests.

The Participatory City Approach is a good example of a “self-transforming” systemic design. It provides a proof of concept for community services as “participation platform”, which provide the support to grow an ecosystem of many citizen co-produced participation projects which weave community together.

Entry Points for Participation from Tools to Act Report, with approximate “orders of mind” mapped by me along the bottom

Reflecting on the Participatory City Approach in relation to Kegan’s Theory of Adult development, it’s interesting to note how the participation system seems to have entry points for people with any level of time, energy, confidence, and at any developmental stage. And the system is designed to include everyone in participatory community development, hence the pilot project name “Every One Every Day”. The participant’s journey that has been mapped out by talking to many participants demonstrates how people are supported to grow and develop.

From Tools to Act Report

Piloting and developing the Participatory Approach within Auckland Libraries, I’ve also seen how our kaimahi(staff), engaging in co-production make developmental progress as they learn to collaborate more dynamically with their team-mates. It’s interesting that kaimahi at different developmental stages can actualise more of their potential by working in systems, or with practices that emanate from a self-transforming order of mind.

It’s also interesting to note how this ecosystem of participation projects and activities, many of which individually are small, can collectively produce significant outcomes for people and the environment.

Outcomes Framework from Tools to Act Report by Participatory City

The Transformative Role of Reflection

According to Natali Morad in part three of her excellent series on Kegan’s Theory, a neccesary condition for personal transformation through developmental stages is psychological and emotional safety:

At least one source of psychological and emotional safety. This can be a person (a partner, friend, therapist) or group of people (in a retreat setting, etc.) where you feel seen and safe enough to fully express what we’re thinking and feeling without judgement. I’m not talking about sharing opinions about a movie or a daily life update. I’m talking about being able to share hard, painful and uncomfortable thoughts and feelings without being afraid of the response.

This type of safety is critical to our development because growth requires being vulnerable and owning our stories, which can often be very uncomfortable. And we need sufficient forms of support in order to continuously push our comfort zone and question our long-held thoughts and beliefs. It’s very difficult to sustain prolonged periods of discomfort without this kind of support.

I just completed the excellent “Design for Equity and Intergenerational Wellbeing” course facilitated by Auckland Co-Design Lab, and an insight that this helped me to have was about the transformative role of reflection in safe spaces of belonging and connection. Our society, and our organisations have an enormous focus on activity, but reflection is almost non-existent. But action and reflection actually play equally critical parts in social change. in Radical Help Hillary Cottam describes well the catalytic effect creating reflective spaces has for the people that she’s working with as well as the “helpers”. When we do things differently, reflection allows us the space to process how we might change our stories about ourselves, others, and community.

Notice Rory reflecting here on how he is developing agency: “It’s nice to share my passion with other people who want to learn”; “It’s nice to see how my Pokemon idea as an idea and then it really came true”. What might be the effect of this experience and reflection upon it in Rory’s life?

If spaces, habits, and practices for reflection are so undernourished in our society, communities, and organisations, to the point of feeling like some sort of anemic vestigal organs, but in fact reflection really is “half the battle” of social change, how might we strengthen and plentify them?

Some great starting points I’ve discovered:

The Circle Way: a lightly structured, peer facilitated method to create spaces for belonging, connection, reflection, and shared personal transformation

Growth Edge Coaching: a coaching technique underpinned by Kegan’s Theory of Adult Development. The coach works with coachee to explore the coachee’s “meaning making system”, and the edge of their understanding, their “growth edge”, which allows the coachee to see next steps for themselves.

Coaching Circles: Peers take turns to share a personal challenge and then hear reflections from other members of the circle in a safe space with a sense of belonging and connection. This can help us see “blindspots” in our perception or meaning making systems, which can spur personal transformation and development.

Reflective Practices described in “Radical Help”: Hilary describes some great practices for shared, relational reflection between workers and communities they are working with.

How do you grow reflective, regenerative spaces in your work? I’d love to hear your reflections!



Hamish Lindop

Sharing insights from community building and social innovation, and reflections on ways of (well) being