Frederic LaLoux’s Reinventing Organizations – Book Review

“When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” – Wayne Dyer

How do we create changes in behavior across a distributed organization with many people and many moving parts?  There are as many organizational development consultants as there are people asking this question—and then there is LaLoux’s recent book “Reinventing Organizations” which has some powerful, counter-intuitive answers and examples.  I have devoured this book for any insights on LaLoux’s insights about the paradigms that shape so much of organizational and societal problems — and Laloux believes that the dominant paradigm is gradually changing.

At Magenta, we see the failure of a broken system in an organization not so much in the system itself but instead in the mindset that created the system in the first place.  The paradigms — what Emerson called “master idea reigning in many persons” (see his 1838 essay / lecture called War for a masterful description of this idea).  This is equally true for all the social and environmental “wicked” (meaning hugely complex) problems you’d care to name.  The sources of such wicked problems are not really found in the social and environmental systems themselves, so to speak. They’re invisible, rooted firmly in the ideas that once fashioned and today still sustain those systems.

And herein lies the key challenge with all significant change: unless and until enough people change the way they think — even the way they construct reality, their innermost beliefs and assumptions — any efforts to change that organization or system are met with resistance. Another excellent read on this, by the way, is Donella Meadows’ Places to Intervene. It’s a short, eloquent foray into why systems like organizations and societies take the shape they do as a direct embodiment of human thinking. The challenge with changing mindsets is that people have to 1) awaken to their unconsciously held mindsets/beliefs before they are able to 2) entertain any other kind of reality, and then finally 3) change their mindsets.  This can seem a nearly insurmountable challenge because that level of change occurs within each individual, in an interior plane that is subject to many influences.  Problems stemming from view of reality cannot be “solved” in the ordinary sense. Left to their own devices, changes in mindsets and paradigms happen very slowly.

This is one reason why so much change work amounts to planning and tinkering.  Compared to actually changing the root causes of dysfunction, planning is relatively easy. it’s theoretical, hypothetical, on paper. Tinkering is harder; that requires that you get out there and actually try to change something — a policy, a rule, an incentive — something lower down the list in the Meadows’ article just mentioned. The problem is, the sources of the problems aren’t changed by plans or tinkering.  Picture the act of mowing weeds: you do nothing to the roots, so they come up again and again.  The real causes are in the mindsets, the “interior” dimension of the organization or society. Systems that are so resistant to change because in general, change leaders have so little skill in changing mindsets — in themselves, to be sure — and then, at larger scales.

So, about the book.

LaLoux’s voice is one in a global clarion call to wake up and understand why world is falling apart socially and environmentally.  He offers insights into people who have already instigated organizational structures and practices that show what “being awake” looks like, and what amazing things are possible.

The book mostly revolves around comparing and contrasting what he calls “Orange organizations” to “Teal organizations”—the essential difference being that orange is hierarchical, ruled by a mindset that believes that “mankind is essentially bad” — a hierarchy of top down, command control, rigid accountability, standardization, and other instruments of compliance.  Teal, by contrast, is defined by a mindset that believes “humanity is essentially good,” and proposes a flat hierarchy and self-organizing principles.  And, while we understand the limitations of Laloux’s “evolutionary framework” set forth in part one (see Zaid Hassan’s critique, for example), most of the book is a series of observations that we find highly interesting and potentially useful — potentially. And that’s the question.

Frederic LaLoux

In Laloux’s teal organization, trust is implicitly assumed; teams create their own mandates; accountability is a personal responsibility; and sales targets and other such devices of control are nearly non-existent.  Teal organizations have high learning capacity, are highly adaptable to our modern world of constant flux, and usually highly successful.  So why don’t all organizations eagerly embrace a teal approach?  As it turns out, there are many reasons.

Simply stated, mindsets that create and sustain “orange” organizations cannot easily be shifted into something more generative. Mindset change is not a matter of flicking a switch; it is an inner change — a shift in priorities, values, beliefs, and identity. If we collectively believe certain things and we don’t question our beliefs, we have an inherently closed loop, a binding situation.  “This is just the way things are, and it will never change.”

But an even stickier problem is probably in the implementation of teal practices.  It can, evidently, be rather disruptive, and not at all generative, as this article about the shift at Zappos suggests.

I caught up with Zaid Hassan recently to discuss his thoughts.  His main gripe with Laloux’s indications is that they are not workable in practice.  It isn’t sufficient say some practices are orange; others are teal.  Such classification can too easily be merely intellectualized and thus not truly lived.  To live something deeply is to do it intuitively; to find one’s way with it—to make it genuinely one’s own. Here again is the genuine inner shift. When “principles” aren’t lived from within, dissolved conceptually in the act of living them, so to speak — well, something else happens. “teal” (or any other principle) becomes something imposed from without, not brought to life from within. It is possible, in other words, to be “orange” with “teal” — to contradict oneself in the act.

Clearly, we must address the mindsets driving our systems if we wish to be effective change leaders. And while this seems, in many contexts, an insurmountable challenge, it’s quite possible — so long as we are properly equipped.  We need examples; we need stories — but most of all, we need thorough understanding of the needed inner shifts and the know-how and methods to bring them about. With that know-how, we can build capabilities and capacities for compassion, connection, and trust that underlie a wiser set of disciplines and practices at personal, team,  organizational, and eventually societal levels. Capacities for healthy society at any scale. Those can be defined conceptually, but they don’t take root in the mind and heart just by reading a book.

So stay tuned.  We appreciate Laloux’s effort to collate and focus on the leading edge of organizational forms. And at the same time, we are cautious about the applications of his system — and of any system, really — because we know from experience what it actually takes to build capacities from within, both as individuals and as teams or organizations.  Changing mindsets comes with suffering through real processes of inner metamorphosis.  When they’re canned, well — they’re not lived.  That metamorphosis is possible, as I say, when we are properly equipped.

More about what being equipped means in future posts!

1 Comment

  1. Thea Maria Carlson on December 3, 2015 at 2:53 pm

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this powerful book! At the Biodynamic Association we have been transforming our work over the past year, inspired by Reinventing Organizations. We have found the process to be highly generative, as I shared in a recent reader essay for Kosmos journal:
    Getting from theory into practice is challenging, but definitely possible and worthwhile.

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