Reinventing Our Collective Selves

July 30, 2014 1 Comment

“Re-examine all that you have been told . . . dismiss that which insults your soul.”

– Walt Whitman


Developmental theory is the source of some good healthy discussion within the Interaction Institute for Social Change.  On the one hand, some point out that the notion of “stages of development” has been used to classify and oppress people, especially when theories come from privileged and powerful purveyors, are overly deterministic and linear, and do not account for cultural location and variation. On the other hand, some point to the “empowering” notion of evolution and development that can help liberate people from fixed and mechanistic views of the world and humanity.  I had this all very much in mind as I read Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux.  Laloux brings developmental and so-called “integral theory,” including the work of Ken Wilber, into the palpable realm of organizational practice and through his research, posits an evolutionary trajectory from aggressive (Red) to bureaucratic (Amber) to achievement-oriented (Orange) to culture/empowerment-oriented (Green) to self-actualizing/authentic (Teal) organizations.

It is a provocative read, with some interesting and concrete case studies of organizations from different sectors and countries that fit the Teal profile.  These organizations apparently did not know much about one another prior to Laloux’s study, and were united in their orientation towards a deeper “evolutionary purpose” that realizes greater human potential.  Curiously, many are characterized by very similar kinds of organizational practices that the author catalogues robustly throughout the book and in a helpful summary chart in the appendix.  Generally speaking, Laloux highlights three core “contributions” of Teal organizations that are striking in their alignment with network thinking and doing, including:

  1. Emphasis on self-management (self-organization) over fixed hierarchical command and control.
  2. Embrace of wholeness that looks at the fuller spectrum of gifts that people bring to the organization – rationality and intuition, resolution and doubt, head and heart.
  3. Commitment to evolutionary purpose that is endemic to the organization and that is to be collectively “presenced” rather than forced by a single leader.

On the self-management front in particular, the book is full of helpful examples of structural design and operational practices including rotating roles (no fixed titles), distributed authority (holacracy, for example) and adaptive planning.  Importantly, Laloux notes that these practices have to align with an organizational culture that trusts in the capacity and appropriateness of self-organization and bringing more of our selves to work.  I can see where these practices may be more comfortable for some than others and more appropriate in some contexts than others.  And I have questions about how power dynamics play out around different dimensions of difference within Teal organizations.

That said, the book is not meant to be a prescription for what organizations should become, but rather fodder for a response to Walt Whitman’s exhortation above and Margaret Wheatley’s call to become more conscious of and intentional about how we organize ourselves . . .

“It is time, I believe, to become a community of inquirers, serious explorers seeking to discover the essence of order—order we will find even in the heart of chaos. It is time to relinquish the limits we have placed on our organizations, time to release our defenses and fear. Time to take up new lenses and explore beyond our known boundaries.”

—Margaret J. Wheatley, “Chaos and Complexity: What Can Science Teach?” 

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