What if Maslow was a circle instead of a pyramid?

Maybe thinking in hierarchies, linear development, is the root of the problems we have today. Maybe we need to redesign our mental models to solve the wicked problems of our age. I am also guilty of thinking in hierarchies. Articles I wrote like What is at the top of the UX pyramid and How to get to the top of the UX pyramid are examples of hierarchical thinking. The UX pyramid is loosely based on the most famous pyramid of needs, the one from Maslow. It seems he himself did never present his needs in a pyramid form, but that is how things go. I have been fighting against this hierarchical thinking for a while and trying to find new models. In more recent articles like A new model of the design process, I am testing out new models that are not hierarchical. In it, I don not put strategy above beauty when it comes to design. I hope they create new mental models. They do for me.

Today, I read a great article by Janne Baetsen in which she posed the following question:

“What if his theory was presented as a circle instead. Or no shape at all? How might that have influenced our perception on innovation, our behavior towards success and change, or even how we design our systems for (human)development?”

The theory that she talks about is the hierarchy of needs by Maslow. This is such a pervasive mental model. It underpins the way we think about progress, about what is good, about UX design, about marketing, about success. The growth model that it creates is the very thing that is destroying the planet. Self-actualization of the human race is destroying the climate. There must be another way. I like the idea of re-thinking our needs. I am known to draw a diagram or two, so I immediately fired up my iPad and started drawing in the same mental model that I used to recreate the model of the design process:

Maslow’s needs as a circle

I started to think in circles and overlaps between circles.

  • I started with the 3 biggest needs: basic survival needs like food, water and shelter, connection needs like love and friendship and personal growth needs.
  • The overlap between the basic survival needs and the connection needs seems like a logical place to position the safety needs like housing and income because you need to relate to other people for that.
  • The space between connection needs and personal growth needs seems like a logical place to put the usefulness needs like recognition and being of service to others. Maslow calls this esteem, respect, status. I think that is a little to ego driven, so I re-named that towards service to others. Especially if you see this as the overlap between connection and personal growth. It’s how your personal growth manifests towards others.
  • The last overlap is an interesting one. Because Maslow only has 5 needs and this diagram asks for a sixth. I call this one better world needs. If you combine personal growth and basic things we extract from the earth like food and water and shelter, the way personal growth should manifest is that we take care of the earth that provides food and shelter.

All things are connected. A couple of interesting mental models arise from drawing Maslow’s needs like this.

Systems thinking

First of all, it’s no longer a hierarchy of needs. It’s a system in which things are connected and things overlap and influence each other. One is not more important that the other. Systems thinking is the only way to solve problems in complexity so mental models like this are much more useful than the hierarchical, linear models that are so prominent in scientific management thinking and the world at large. It’s useful to cut things apart but we also have to stitch them back together again and see the whole.

Reframing

The model also re-frames the way people see the needs of Maslow. The body (basic survival needs), heart (connection needs) and mind (personal growth needs) work together to create a good life for yourself, your environment and the planet. It put a bigger emphasis on love for me, the need to connect to others. But it balances that with the courage to stand on your own, your personal growth. I’ve always found esteem a negative need: the need for status, recognition. We all have egos and this need is a powerful one but if we reframe that as service to others, you can connect love and personal growth in a more productive way.

Better planet

One of the things that should also be a human need which it totally absent from the original model of Maslow, is taking care of the planet, our ecosystem. To live in harmony with nature, to feel part of nature. Once you get to higher levels of personal growth and follow a spiritual path, a feeling of wholeness with the planet and other people arises. Then you start thinking differently about the basic survival needs like food and shelter. You start to see that eating and building in a way that destroys the planet is not in the best interest of us as humans. The need to be in balance with its environment is a basic need of any animal. There is no animal that destroys its environment, except for a virus.

First sketch

This is only a first sketch. I don’t know what would happen if this were the mental model we have in our heads instead of the pyramid. It might let us see our basic survival needs in a different light that is more attuned to nature. It might let us think differently how we think about connecting to other in relation to our own personal development goals. It might let us see the negative effect of our ego and see progress as a collaborative effort. Who knows what would happen? If we move from hierarchical thinking to system thinking, only good things can happen. We need new models for new leaders.

I think it also creates a mental model to understand how the less is more idea could work. If you come from personal growth and love to the the basic survival needs and usefulness needs, you see that consuming less is more, that eating less meat is more, that eating less sugar is more. The highest version of you doesn’t need status and recognition but want to be of service and want the planet to thrive not die. Basic survival needs become about health, not wealth. If you look at the bigger system, overconsumption and bad habits don’t only hurt the health of our planet but also of us….enough stuff to think about.

“If all the beasts were gone, men would die from a great loneliness of spirit. For whatever happens to the beasts, soon happens to man. All things are connected.”
Chief Seattle

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, don’t forget to hit the clap button so I know I connected with you. Let me know what you think in the comments. I will dive deeper into the topics of Design Leadership in upcoming articles. If you follow me here on Medium, you will see them pop up on your Medium homepage. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn to see new articles in your timeline or talk to my bot at dennishambeukers.com :) You can also find me on Instagram. When I am not blogging about Design Leadership, I work as a design strategist and project manager at Zuiderlicht.

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Dennis Hambeukers

Dennis Hambeukers

3.7K Followers

Design Thinker, Agile Evangelist, Practical Strategist, Creativity Facilitator, Business Artist, Corporate Rebel, Product Owner