Important Read for School Leaders: “Reinventing Organizations” by Frederic LaLoux

What would we think if our school leader stood up and admitted, “We have always said we really trust all of our faculty and staff, but the fact is that we don’t”? What if our schools are fundamentally organized in ways that conflict with our most basic wishes and aspirations?  What if we knew that other organizations had discovered this dissonance and developed new models of organization that support, rather than conflict with, our vision, our passions, our soul? Would we have the courage to make foundational changes in how we operate? Give up power? Toss out job titles? Vest real authority in our colleagues? Build an organization based on trust, rather than traditional hierarchy?

These are fascinating questions, and many of the schools with whom I have visited and are working are knowingly or unknowingly screaming out the dissonance that surfaces from questions just like these.

imgresI am only halfway through Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux.  Respectful of my readers’ time, I have tried to generally keep my posts short. This won’t be one of those, so I have put this short teaser at the top, the body of an email I sent out to about 25 school leaders yesterday:

…a potentially important read for you, and possibly your faculty and staff. It is a well-researched articulation of the history and current evolution of organizations. I intend to incorporate key elements into my workshops to help school teams understand some of the framing conditions that apparently frustrate our efforts to change.

 What screams out to me in this book relative to schools is that many successful organizations are realizing the dissonance between who they think they are or want to be…their vision and soul…and the management, leadership, and organizational structures that evolved in pursuit of a very different set of goals.   I am reminded of comments by several of you over the years: “I don’t think we can get there from here”, and I think this understanding of organizational imperatives is another reason why we feel this frustration.  The good news is that we can, in fact, get “there” from “here”; other organizations are leading the way and we just have to extrapolate from those experiences.

In the early chapters, Laloux traces and summarizes the evolution of organizational development throughout human history.  I have limited background in this science, but it appears from the citations that there are some basic agreements about these stages, and in the fact that they reflect similar stages of cognitive development in terms of increasing complexity and the ability to manage abstract ideas.  A short hand color code has developed over time to differentiate these stages; here is the short summary Laloux provides of 100,000 years of organizational evolution:

  • INFRARED organizations: Small bands of people with limited development of the individual ego.
  • MAGENTA organizations: Tribes of a few hundred people; magical/mythical understanding of the world around them.
  • RED organizations: Constant exercise of power by the chief to keep troops in line.  Fear is the glue of the organization. Highly-reactive, short-term focus. Typified by gangs, Mafias, and tribal militias.
  • AMBER organizations: Highly formal roles within a hierarchical pyramid. Top-down command. Stability valued above all through rigorous processes. Future is repetition of the past. Typified by Catholic Church, military, most government agencies, public school systems.
  • ORANGE organizations: Modern; goal is to beat the competition; achieve profit and growth; innovation is the key to staying ahead. Typified by multi-national companies, charter schools.
  • GREEN organizations: Post-modern; within the classic pyramid structure, focus on culture and empowerment to achieve extraordinary employee performance. Typified by culture-driven organizations (Southwest Airlines, Ben and Jerry’s)

Like so much else in the world around us, the rate of change in organizational evolution has dramatically increased in the last several generations.  Human societies were formed in the Infrared and Magenta phases of organization for the better part of 100,000 years. We now are in an era where individuals may well be exposed to two, three, or more utterly different organizational imperatives in just their lifetime.  As both organizational leaders and educators, that fact alone demands our attention.

Like Laloux, I focus my attention on the most recent stages, as those are the most dominant in the societies of the developed world.  And with particular respect to schools, nearly every school I have ever visited falls somewhere in the Amber-Orange-Green spectrum. A few are verging on what is the main focus of this book and where many schools WANT to be…a TEAL organization. And while I believe just a few actually embody this organizational style, MANY self-express Teal-type goals for their school.

According to Laloux, Teal organizations, like many schools, view themselves as places of deep introspection; sharing; consensus and approval; collegiality; trust; passionate commitment to the development of character and wisdom; the strength of personal connections more than a fountain of dogma.  This profile means that where we WANT to be as school organizations is somewhere in the Green-Teal end of the organizational spectrum.

Where are we in actuality?  Most schools are somewhere in the Amber-Orange-Green spectrum.  This is neither bad nor good, it just is a fact of their organizational DNA.  When (hopefully) you digest this book, you can honestly identify where on this spectrum your school lies; it would make an outstanding all-school discussion activity.

The balance of the book describes and provides case study evidence for this new Teal stage of organizational evolution: the “self-actualizing, authentic, integral, organization.  From my work, this is where many schools want or imagine themselves to be, at least in theory.

 In Evolutionary-Teal we shift from external to internal yardsticks in our decision-making. We are now concerned with the question of inner rightness: does this decision seem right?  Am I being true to myself? Is this in line with who I sense I am called to become? Am I being of service to the world?  With fewer ego-fears, we are able to make decisions that might seem risky, where we haven’t weighed all possible outcomes, but that resonate with deep inner convictions.

In Teal, life is seen as a journey of personal and collective unfolding toward our true nature.

imagesIt is in this Teal-like organization that Laloux finds that organizations cross the chasm from an industrial model to one that looks and acts very much along the lines of natural ecosystems.  I have proposed this same bounding condition: that our schools will not be successful at change until we understand the fundamental difference between a machine-like system of education and an ecosystem of learning. In my new book, #EdJourney, I devote two chapters to defining the difference between machine-like systems and ecosystems within the context of schools.  In Reinventing Organizations, Laloux reflect on this same industrial/ecosystem transition, and goes deeply into detailed descriptions and case study solutions from both the for-profit and not-for-profit worlds. While others have used the word “ecosystem” carelessly, Laloux reveals case study-supported details of how an ecosystem actuates within large human organizations. Teal organizations are viewed as a “living organism or living system”.

Organizations evolve over time for the same reasons ecosystems do.  Some succeed and others die out or become highly marginalized. Laloux cites work including studies by Clare Graves that shows that “within an organization, the higher people have traveled on the developmental ladder, the more effective they are”:

The (Teals) find unbelievably more solutions than all others put together. They found more solutions than the Red plus Amber plus Orange plus Green.  I found that the quality of their solutions to problems were amazingly better.

The balance of the book is a detailed inspection of how Teal organizations are different, and how they work, down to a very granular level, using a number of case study examples. Some of it is almost surreal; though I have read about and reported on management practices at companies like Sun Hydraulics and Morning Star, it is still hard for me to wrap my “Orange-Green trained” head around some of their remarkably quirky, yet successful business practices.

Should all schools immediately try to adopt Teal best practices? My sense is that the answer to that is “no”. First, this is a major cultural change, too large a chasm to jump in a single leap, especially for established organizations.  It is easier to start from the ground up with a new company in this kind of culture.  Second, there may be good reasons (and again, this may just be my own limits talking) for a hybrid Orange-Green-Teal model as the basis for effective schools going forward. I am going to be stewing and working on this for a long time.

Here is a bottom line: we have to be true to ourselves.  We cannot say “this is who we are and want to be”, and hope to achieve those goals while operating within a framework system that is antithetical to those dreams and aspirations.  If we say “we trust all of our employees” but the evidence from our daily activities proves that we trust them with 5-10% of what the school actually does, we are working against ourselves.  If we say we want the organization to evolve through empowering leadership at all levels but maintain a highly vertical chart of authority, we are working against ourselves.  The school-relevant examples in this book are almost endless.

We can get “there” from here if we understand the basic differences between these organizational “operating systems” (my quote), and reprogram our schools to use an operating system that is attuned to our vision and our soul, instead of the vision and soul of institutions that have very different goals.

This is a book that I will refer to many times; I will skim my highlights and add them to my slide deck.  I have already had a communication with Laloux, and promised him that he will find some examples of Teal-leaning schools in my upcoming book, #EdJourney.  Maybe he and I can collaborate in the future on just how this evolution might/will take place within K-12 education. I have sensed this world of Teal-leaning organizations for some time; it is exciting to name what we knew was there all along!

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