"…this book is...a book that helps shift the conversation from what’s broken to what’s possible. A book that shares how some companies have found ways to be truly powerful, soulful, and purposeful…and that invites you to imagine a new future for your organization."
The original and more conventional version of this book was published in 2014. It’s a 378-page book that presents, through case studies of twelve organizations, the possibility that organizations can operate from a qualitatively different worldview than the one we operate from today.
The book got great press and, within my network at least, came up in conversation quite a bit. The ideas are provocative. Laloux is both realistic in describing where we are and optimistic in charting possibilities for the future. I read part of the book and then got busy with something else…planning to come back to it soon. And then, a few months ago, Laloux published this book, which is a little over 150 pages and full of pictures! So, I took the original off the top of the pile on my bedside table and started this one.
While I’m sure I’ll make my way back to the full-length version (there’s a lot more there,) I feel as if I got a good introduction and an invitation to dig deeper. Laloux suggests that this version can be read in not much more than a sitting. I don’t agree. There’s still a lot here—and it’s worth taking the time to digest it.
With that as an introduction, let’s dive into what’s in the book.
The Big Idea
The Essential Metaphor of Teal
"Imagine what organizations would be like if we stopped designing them like soulless machines. What could organizations achieve, and what would work feel like, if we treated them like living beings, if we let them be fueled by the evolutionary power of life itself?"
Drawing on a theory known as Spiral Dynamics, based in the work of the psychologist Clare Graves, Laloux describes the historical evolution of the world, people and organizations. Before you get to Teal, which is where most of the book focuses, there are four stages: Red, Amber, Orange and Green.
Red is premised on impulsivity and brute force. Amber is based on conformity driven by guilt and shame and fitting in. Orange is based on achievement and reflected in the scientific and industrial revolutions. It’s also where most corporations and governments are today—think Wall Street. The dominant metaphor is the machine and the key breakthroughs are innovation, accountability and meritocracy. Green moves towards a pluralistic worldview with empowerment, values-driven culture and stakeholder value being the key breakthroughs.
Keep in mind, there’s nothing wrong with orange and green—and even red and amber have their place. Each represents a critical evolutionary stage (personal, organizational and societal.) However, evolution continues. We have (and require, in our complex world) even greater potential. And that’s where Teal comes in. Teal’s worldview is evolutionary. Its metaphor is not a machine, it’s a living organism. Teal is about true interconnectedness, a desire for wholeness, and allowing emergence. Teals’ breakthroughs are self-management, wholeness, and evolutionary purpose.
This might sound a little, well, ungrounded. That’s why the examples of organizations experimenting with and building organizations based on Teal are so important. This book really is an invitation—to consider the possibility of Teal and begin to think about how it might emerge—even in small ways.
Self-management is Natural
"Not a single complex system works with a pyramidal hierarchy, because such hierarchy breaks down in the face of complexity. "
At the core of the Teal organization is the breakthrough of self-management. To be honest, I still find it a bit daunting. So, I found it really compelling to think about nature and realize that there are many natural models of distributed authority. And when we think about the organization as a living organism, we would do well to realize that it’s not really so strange and therefore, not necessarily so difficult.
If you think about it, the entire global economy is run without a boss. It’s too complex for that. The human brain is another example of a complex system without a “CEO”—but rather a distributed network. The examples abound.
With that frame of reference, the stories of Buurtzorg, a home care non-profit in the Netherlands, and FAVI, a major automotive supplier in Germany, start making sense. Both operate without traditional CEOs and management teams, and both are achieving incredible results for their people, their customers, and their bottom line.
In each of these organizations there are decision-making processes that allow anyone to initiate a decision—and there are structures for how they need to seek, gather, and use advice for making the decision. Reading about that decision-making—or advice—process was when I started to see the possibility that this wasn’t just idealism—that it could genuinely be actionable. It made sense and felt practical. It’s also when I saw that it goes far beyond empowerment—in which one person grants another power. That is part of a hierarchy. This is not.
Bringing All of You to Work
"There is a sentence I heard over and over again from people working in Teal organizations. “Here I can be myself.” "
Laloux explores, in some detail, the masks we wear at work. He demonstrates that we ultimately bring a small part of ourselves to the workplace. If and when we can change this and bring our full selves to work, we can set free enormous energy. Instead, most workplaces are afraid of the mess.
The Teal organizations that were studied put in a lot of practices—deliberate ones—to support people’s ability to feel safe enough to be themselves—and actually explore new facets of themselves. Some of these are literal—at Patagonia there’s a Child Development Center and parents can pick up their kids and bring them to lunch in the cafeteria and up to their offices. “It is not uncommon to see a mother nursing her child during a meeting.”
These organizations also establish and live by clear ground rules that support dealing with conflict gracefully and respectfully, and creating a space where people can safely speak up. These ground rules and other practices show up in meetings which are structured to ensure that speaking up is safe and that people bring their whole selves. Several meeting ideas in the book feel pretty practical to me and potentially could be first steps at embracing these breakthroughs even in a more traditional organization.
I know, as does Laloux, that many organizations are not yet ready for this kind of rethinking and reorganizing. And that’s it harder to transform an existing organization than start from scratch. Nonetheless, I’m excited by these ideas and challenged by them—and do believe that we can, in small ways, start thinking and acting differently—and slowly shifting our traditional organizations. If you see this book as what is billed to be—an invitation—then accepting that invitation is as simple as beginning to contemplate the possibilities described here.