Reinventing Organizations

Photo by Renzo Borgatti, Creative Commons

In advance of OuiShare Fest in May I finally got around to reading Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux, the book everyone had been talking about since the 2015 edition of OuiShare Fest, where Laloux was also a featured presenter.

It was back in 2009 that I discovered Integral Theory and Ken Wilber‘s work, which builds on the work of philosopher Jean Gebser in the 1940s and 50s and psychologist Clare Graves in the 60s and 70s, both positing that our species has been transitioning through stages of consciousness (awareness), calling this process Spiral Dynamics. As a new stage emerges, it transcends and includes the previous waves, which can also be accessed as needed, hence the central spiral metaphor.

So as I read Laloux’s first chapter, explaining the Evolutionary stage (or “Teal”– the stages get assigned colors),  I was like: who is this French (or Belgian?) dude writing like he invented Spiral Dynamics? But the genius of Laloux, beyond the poetry of his writing, is to apply the model to organizational/institutional development, and ask what a company or other organization looks and functions like, when it reaches the Teal stage.

Powerfully, he introduces a new central metaphor for organizations. Rather than the machine metaphor we once used, or the metaphor of family we have also employed, Teal organizations are imagined as organisms or living systems.

“Change in nature happens everywhere, all the time, in a self-organizing urge that comes from every cell and every organism, with no need for central command-and-control to give orders or pull the levers…Self-organization is the life force of the world, thriving on the edge of chaos with just enough order to funnel its energy, but not so much as to slow down adaptation and learning. For a long time, we didn’t know better and thought we needed to interfere with life’s self-organizing urge and try to control one another. It seems we are ready now to move beyond rigid structures and let organizations truly come to life.”

So self-management, wholeness (integration) and deep purpose become the defining characteristics of this kind of organization. He describes how these manifest–on every level, from staff functions, to workflow, to hiring, evaluation and firing, to compensation, etc.–using a number of real companies both large and small as his examples.

“They are not structures along the control-minded hierarchical templates of Newtonian science. They are complex, participatory, interconnected, interdependent, and continually evolving systems, like ecosystems in nature. Roles are picked up, discarded, and exchanged fluidly. Power is distributed. Decisions are made at the point of origin. Innovations can spring up from all quarters. Meetings are held when they are needed. Temporary task forces are created spontaneously and quick disbanded again.”

“From an Evolutionary-Teal perspective, the right question is not: how can everyone have equal power? It is rather: how can everyone be powerful? Power is not viewed as a zero-sum game, where the power I have is necessarily power taken away from you. Instead, if we acknowledge that we are all interconnected, the more powerful you are, the more powerful I can become. The more powerfully you advance the organization’s purpose, the more opportunities will open up for me to make contributions of my own. Here we stumble upon a beautiful paradox: people can hold different levels of power, and yet everyone can be powerful.”

SPLENDID. No wonder it’s become a touchstone across so many sectors.

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