Why you should read LaLoux’s Reinventing Organizations, even if you’re not an organizational consultant

“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 “master idea reigning in many persons” (Emerson).  It’s 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.   Another way of saying this is that systems set up yesterday but broken today are symptomatic of outdated, widespread, and largely unconscious mindsets.  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, or if they are, they’re invisible, deeply buried in the mindsets that create and sustain the systems.

The problem 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.  The central challenge in broken systems is a change indeed in the “master ideas.”  And mindset change is a seemingly nearly insurmountable challenge because that level of change occurs within each individual, in an interior plane that is subject to many influences.  It can’t be, you could say, “solved.”  In ordinary life, changes in mindsets and paradigms happens very slowly, and not without suffering.  It’s the school of hard knocks, writ small for individuals, and writ large for organizations and societies. 

By contrast, much of the social change work we see going on in the world today amounts to planning about tinkering with systems.  The problem is, those sources aren’t changed by plans or tinkering.  At best, it’s like mowing weeds: these approaches do nothing to the roots.  The real causes are in the mindsets or even the inner lives of the organization or even the population.  So we get systems that are resistant to change because we have no skill in changing mindsets en masse.

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.  But wake up, how?  LaLoux’s book 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”—thus the hierarchy of top down command, accountability, standardization, and other instruments of fear and control.  Teal, by contrast is defined by a mindset that believes “humanity is essentially good,” and structures accordingly with 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.  If they’re applicable.  And that’s the question.

Our answer: it’s all in the how.

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 if such success is a common tendency?  As it turns out, there are many reasons, but I have a main takeaway from LaLoux’s book.

The prevailing mindset that creates and sustains “orange” organizational tendencies cannot be shifted into something more generative very easily, if at all.  If we collectively carry a mindset that believes certain things and we are unaware of these beliefs, we have a binding situation—full of self-fulfilling prophesies—and that, in turn defines our views of reality.  “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.  When principles aren’t lived from within, dissolved conceptually in the act of living them, so to speak, something else happens.  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 make a dent.  And while this seems like, in many contexts, an insurmountable challenge, I do believe its possible so long as we are properly equipped.  We need examples; we need stories.  But the capacities for compassion, connection, and trust that underlie a new set of disciplines and practices at an organizational level—these don’t come from 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.  Of any system, really.  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.

And that, my friend, is why we started Magenta.  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: http://www.kosmosjournal.org/reader-essay/managing-an-organization-like-a-biodynamic-farm/
    Getting from theory into practice is challenging, but definitely possible and worthwhile.

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