Re-Inventing Organisations

by .

Neal Lawson give his thoughts on Frederic Laloux’s book ‘Re-Inventing Organisations’

After the general election, which sorry was always going to disappoint, and against the backdrop of Greece and the Labour leadership election, political life feels pretty gloomy.  But then up pops this book – and suddenly the sun comes out.  Each page radiates warmth and hope.  Here is why.

Reinventing Organisations (RO) is a cross between a spiritual self-help manual and the best of enlightened management theory – but both on steroids.  The book doesn’t say we wont have to struggle, or that other things wont happen – it does tell us that a different and better world is desirable and feasible – because its hear.

The essence of RO is about the rise of self-management as the new and possibly dominant form of organizational structure, behavior and culture.  This is not to say that self-management doesn’t have a past, rather that in a messy but obvious process of organizational evolution, self-management could now become acknowledged as the next paradigm for organizational models.

But the book isn’t just about organisation but the nature of humanity and how we think about ourselves and how we create things together.  In terms of its epochal sweep Laloux echoes Marx and others, but links what we think about ourselves and our relations to organizational form throughout history. But where Marx goes for the economic base determining the super-structure – to which there must be at least some truth – Laloux looks at human behavior and culture as the driving force of organizational form. There is no simple answer to how and why organisations develop as they do but Laloux’ historic analysis is very helpful and chimes with the kind of thinking I think we are interested in.

He identifies six historic stages of development – all are present today in some form but there is a clear sense of evolution from ‘Red’ to ‘Teal’.

The issue of leadership is key – in particular the rejection of ego.  We are all leaders. It is about believing the best of people and building organisations accordingly – rather than the worse and basing the organizational form around that. It re-enforces the mantras that ‘all of us are smarter than any one of us’, the need to meet ‘complexity with complexity’ and the fact that there are ‘no short cuts to success’ – just an ongoing journey in which how we treat each other matters most. It is when we try to stop controlling each other and allow all talents and views to flourish that we reach the next stage of human development.

Laloux answers many of the obvious questions – how are conflicts, pay and quick decisions dealt with in self-organizing entities?  Most of the answers are common sense once you start to adopt the above principles. Laloux is clear though – this is not an anarchic free fall all or about reaching consent – instead there is an ‘advice process’ – whereby any one can make a decision but it must be based on advice from all affected and any exerts in the area. All information is shared and there is no right answer – only the best answer given the context. All are obliged to intervene if they see something needs to be done. In Teal there tends to be no or few job titles.   Competitors are embraced to pursue purpose. We are guided by intuition and doing what fees right. It is about thriving in chaos.

Laloux uses a series of well-researched examples to help us understand the meaning of Teal. Buurtzorg the Dutch community nursing organization is now quite well know, as is the Berlin school ESBZ which teaches its people to be humans not exam fodder, but there are private sector exemplars such as Favi a manufacturer in France and Sun Hydraulics based in the US.

The necessary conditions for being Teal is that owners and top leaders want to be or are Teal. Laloux believes that without these conditions evolution to this stage is impossible. Interesting?

The ‘benefits’ of becoming Teal are potentially enormous. Laloux uses the examples of penguins – ungainly and awkward on the land but fast and nimble in the water.  He quotes Joel Barker as saying “What is difficult or impossible in one paradigm is easy even trivial in another’.  Given the challenges we face this is the kind of leap we need to make. The fictional example that sprang into my small mind is Neo – the Keanu Reeves character in the Matrix – always a favourite reference point in Neal’s head.

Are we on the cusp of a revolution in which we are only free to reach our potential when all are free to reach their potential too? The book dips into issues of the ‘soul’ and ‘spirituality’ – uncomfortable ground for some left rationalists – but essential terrain, I feel, to help find answers to the emptiness and anomie of modern life. As Laloux says “extraordinary things begin to happen when we dare to bring all of who we are to work’.

Instead of ‘hollow work’ we work with meaning to produce goods and services of meaning – the implications are transformative – the possibility of zero growth and closed loop economies, alternative consumerism and monetary systems, global communities, the notion of stewardship and the end of work as we know it.

Little if anything is said about the forces that could act against self-organising and little is said about ownership and RO in terms of whether employee, community or social ownership are preferable to for profit ownership? And frustratingly none of the organizations featured equates to membership organisation – can RO work where the affiliation is not related to work but to volunteering and activism? Laloux doesn’t tell us.

But that is being picky. I value the book for what it does do, not what it doesn’t. And what it does is give me the confidence that our instincts are right – people can be trusted and we have no choice but to let go and to cooperate, to trust, to experiment and be driven by the highest possible goals – that of the fulfillment for all humanity and the whole of the planet. A critical shard of light in a bleak world.

In striving to be more Teal that Red – I am grateful to Frederic for his work and humbled by the books insights and power.

You can find Re-inventing Organisations by Frederic Laloux here

Sign up to be kept up to date