How Do We Grow Vertically?

Different colored doors open and shut along an upward trajectory, indicating vertical development and growth.

Vertical development requires the right conditions and experiences, which we can find ourselves in and also create for ourselves when we want to grow.

Key Takeaways:

  • Growing vertically means we move forward through the seven stages of vertical development, finding and working through our limitations to expand our thinking
  • Often unplanned life experiences push us to grow
  • We can also create the right conditions for vertical development by:
    • Having heat experiences
    • Engaging in elevated sense-making with others
    • Understanding the four key ways to grow vertically

Life is full of learning moments that lead to growth. Sometimes, our circumstances and experiences are enough to push us through the stages of vertical development. 

We may go through a significant shift in our lives that forces us to reevaluate our belief systems and ways of thinking. We realize how limiting our ideas have been, and we’re able to move to the next stage to solve for limitations of the previous stage.

Other times, we seek out these situations ourselves because we want to prioritize personal growth. Vertical development is possible in both cases. The conditions that allow us to expand our capacity may look different for everyone. 

For example, the pandemic created circumstances that challenged most of us in some way or another. Many leaders were forced to unmake and remake their beliefs about how work could be done remotely. And now that we are through the worst of it, leaders are again being asked to integrate remote and in-person work to strike the right balance and get the best results. Nobody asked for a pandemic, but in many regards, it created conditions that could lead to vertical development.

What does it mean to grow vertically?

Vertical growth is the forward movement between the seven stages of vertical development:

  1. Opportunist
  2. Conformer
  3. Expert
  4. Achiever
  5. Redefining
  6. Strategist
  7. Alchemist

While most people move past the initial Opportunist stage, only about 20% of people move into the post-conventional stages, which begin with Redefining. Many people experience a “good fit” between an earlier stage and what they experience in life, so there’s not an urgent need to grow. They may also have less of an orientation to growth and change, and stay in relatively the same developmental stage for that reason.

But leaders in particular benefit from growing vertically. The world is increasingly complex, and leaders must be able to do things like juggle multiple perspectives and grapple with opposing ideas. They need to learn that the world isn’t just black and white, and not all questions have straightforward answers. Business leaders benefit from creating a company that embraces vertical development. 

Moving through the vertical development stages means we take apart key ideas and beliefs and put them back together. A great way to understand this concept is to see how thinking about the individual and the collective evolves as the stages progress. We start, in the Opportunist stage, worrying only about ourselves and getting our immediate needs met. Then, when we figure out that we really do need other people, we move into the Conformer stage, where we build a group identity with others. Then, we go back inside ourselves as Experts, concerned about being unique and exceptional at something. In this way, the stages alternate between a “me” and “we” focused orientation as we grow, including and transcending what came before.

This pattern continues through the seven stages and across multiple ideas and beliefs. We continually break things down and rebuild them as we grow vertically. Those who reach the later stages have significant capacity for thinking in increasingly complex and interdependent ways. 

Creating the conditions for vertical development

We know that sometimes we can create the conditions for vertical development, and sometimes they just happen to us through the course of daily life. For example, a major life event such as losing someone close to us or moving to a new country where we don’t know the language can put us “in over our heads” – a phrase coined by Robert Kegan – which can spark vertical development. 

We may also see ourselves as being on a journey of growth and development in life, and recognize the value in putting attention and energy toward self-work. We may take on challenges or deliberately put ourselves in new and different circumstances to invite or support our growth. There’s even a growing trend of people experimenting with psychedelic drugs to facilitate new awareness!  

Everyone is different. But if we want to grow, sometimes we need to seek out the right conditions. Here are ways to create the right conditions for vertical development: 

Three conditions for vertical development

Nick Petrie puts forward three conditions for supporting vertical growth. The first of these is heat experiences. These are experiences that put us in over our heads and challenge our current way of making sense of the world. As a result, we’re invited to unmake and remake the relevant beliefs to make better sense of what is happening. We can think of this as disrupting or dislodging someone from their current state. A very common heat experience is when someone takes on their first people leadership role.

The second condition is colliding perspectives. This is when we are exposed to different perspectives and beliefs, be that from experts, mentors, educational experiences, and so on. Our own beliefs are challenged and our ability to view the world through multiple lenses grows.

Lastly, elevated sensemaking refers to integrating our heat experiences and colliding perspectives to establish ourselves at a later stage of development with more sophisticated and complex thinking. This is often achieved with the support of a coach or mentor who is at a later stage of development than we are.

Four upgrades for vertical development

Another way to think about growing vertically comes from Karen Boston and Richard Ellis in their book Upgrade. They outline four strategies known to promote vertical development.

  • Navigating complexity: Seeing and making sense of, and not ignoring, the complexities all around us.
  • Shifting perspectives: Developing the ability to recognize, appreciate, and hold more than one point of view.
  • Self-reflecting and adjusting: Noticing, evaluating, and adapting our thinking and behavior increasingly in real time
  • Opposable thinking: Holding seemingly contradictory ideas at the same time.

There are a number of activities under each of these strategies that enable targeted effort toward vertical development. We can pull them into our daily lives and challenge ourselves to prioritize them.

Getting help with vertical development from The Sparks Group

Sometimes the missing piece is finding the right coach to guide us through vertical development. It helps tremendously to have an expert who helps us integrate all of this information and empowers us to grow into a new stage of vertical development.

When you’re ready to pursue the right conditions to grow vertically, The Sparks Group is here to support you. We help you understand what stage you’re in, the benefits of developing upward, and how to push yourself to get there.

Contact us now to set up a free 30-minute discovery call.