Frederic Laloux’s book “Reinventing Organisations”” is inspiring. The new illustrated version puts across the key concepts with even greater simplicity. It is truly wonderful to see how many people and organisations are feeling the pull of “next-stage organisations”. The core breakthroughs of Wholeness, Evolutionary Purpose and Self-management are also simple, elegant concepts. But chainsaws and shotguns are also simple, if perhaps less elegant. Perhaps the simplicity should come with a health warning: Naïve implementation of these approaches may be harmful to your business.
Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” The three breakthroughs are an example of the other side. They offer a sense of what is beyond the complexity and a guide for the way through. They do not offer a way to simply ignore it. Chainsaws, Teal and shotguns are powerful tools for their various purposes but all require training and guidance for the novice user.
A recent blog from Leo Wildritch, COO of Buffer provides one illustration of this. Buffer is self-evidently a successful and dynamic company filled with very smart people. When changing their organisation, they made the choice to move to a perfectly flat structure. No hierarchy at all. As Leo then says of the result:
“The way I would describe it is that the amount of freedom people had, with absolutely no guidance, expectations or accountability, was pretty overwhelming.” In hindsight he can now say “I now believe that, for us, seeking a flat structure was a misperception of what self-management means.”
Buffer’s conclusion? The need to embrace the reality of hierarchy. That doesn’t mean going back to old ways. It is a recognition that at different times, for different purposes, some roles need to have a hierarchical relationship with others. In the Teal world those relationships can be very flexible. They have nothing to do with status or job title and are not even necessarily tied to particular individuals. The keynote is functionality.
The problems with Holacracy
Other organisations have described their experience with implementing holacracy, or had the press do it for them. One organisation discovered that holacracy didn’t fix the underlying problems they had been struggling with. Go figure! Apparently, if you don’t have the right conversations outside of holacracy, they don’t magically migrate to within holacracy. That is a bit like blaming your oven for the fact that you didn’t put the eggs in your cake mix.
Others have complained that implementing holacracy seemed to take the human-ness from their organisation. That might mean that they are not having their human conversations outside of holacracy meetings. Or it might mean that they are addicted to feelings and processing rather than getting the job done. Either way, it is not holacracy’s fault. Don’t use a chainsaw if you don’t want to crown-lift or thin the tree. And this quote from David Allen is spot on. “If you don’t mechanicalize the mechanical, you’ll mechanicalize your human relationships“. Processes have their purpose and their place.
Making an evolutionary leap is difficult
It is not quite as difficult as for the first sea-dwellers that became amphibious. But I use that image to give a sense of the magnitude of the shift to self-organisation. After Ford introduced the production line, did it become a doddle for everyone else? Of course not; industry spent decades refining that new paradigm. Just because next-stage organisations are presented invitingly and elegantly doesn’t mean it works by magic. Some people will fail because they were about to fail anyway in the old paradigm and Teal doesn’t guarantee viability. Some will fail because they are not competent at whatever they do. Don’t blame the next-stage paradigm for that either. But it will be really sad if organisations don’t recognise that this is a big change that requires effort and benefits from expertise. And if they fail through not getting the support that they need.
Organisations don’t think twice about outsourcing their legal advice or the architecting of a factory extension, so it is dangerous to assume that they can become Organisational Development experts, even with a Wiki. The above examples could all have turned out better, and a gram of prevention is worth a kilogram of cure.
Drawing on self-management techniques
As noted in a recent HBR article on Holacracy Hype: “We’d be surprised if more than 20% of the Global 1000 looked “teal” in 2030, to use Frederic Laloux’s term for “whole,” evolutionary, self-managing organizations. But we’d also be surprised if more than 20% didn’t significantly draw on some of the techniques within their corporate frameworks.” The article also went on to observe that “the next generation of self-managing teams is demanding a new generation of leaders—senior individuals with the vision to see where it is best to set aside hierarchy for another way of operating, but also with the courage to defend hierarchy where it serves the institution’s fundamental goals.”
Here at Future Considerations, we are exploring this new territory with clients who are either firmly in the “teal” world, need help to accelerate their personal journey to the next level of potential or just dipping a toe in the water. Last month, my colleague Jackie Thoms and I ran a one day public programme exploring both the organisational and personal experience of the journey towards “teal”. Our feedback tells us that participants left with greater clarity and more helpful questions about their life conditions and organisations, plus a much clearer sense of the context they and their organisations are in.
If you would like to know more about our thoughts on next-stage organisations, get in touch or comment below.
Jon Freeman is an Associate of Future Considerations and specializes in systemic organizational redesign in support of conscious, values-led and purpose driven culture change. He is also a Spiral Dynamics trainer and practitioner, and author of “Reinventing Capitalism”: How we broke money and how we fix it, from inside and out.