A couple years ago, I was recommended to take a look at Reinventing Organizations, a fabulous study from Frederic Laloux. I read it when I joined Sketchfab, understood how important it could be in my life, and bought two copies, one for each bookshelf of our two offices.
Since then, I had the chance to observe Sketchfab's dynamics and advise on its operations and organization design. Along the way, I figured I could leverage more Laloux's takeouts, and that I needed to carefully read it again.
This time around, I was amazed by how strongly it resonated with me, in light of my experience in this 30-people organization, which I like to see as a living system and organizational lab. With now some failures and bright initiatives behind me, and thus a bit more background in organization design than when I joined, as well as probably more personal courage than a few years ago, I'm commited to promoting practices and inspiring a culture that sees the world with more complexity, in the spirit of fostering true fulfilment of my teammates and the whole ecosystem around us.
Thus, I figured sharing a brief summary of Frederic Laloux's study of the different stages of human consciousness, and how it translates into organization models would help my current and next teammates, at Sketchfab or elsewhere, understand and accept there is an evolution in human consciousness, and hopefully plant the seeds to a more complex worldview and profound changes in the way we behave as a living system.
Frederic Laloux introduces that each time we, as a species, changed the way we think, we have come up with more powerful types of organization. And today, many different are coexisting. He describes the process of human evolution through different stages of consciousness, and associates a color to each of them.
Before diving in, some clarifications are needed in order to avoid common misunderstandings:
• This discussion of stages and colors is simply a map to better understand the complexity of reality, and doesn't intend to reproduce it in its tiniest details
• Later stages of consciousness are not “better” than earlier stages. They simply highlight there are “more complex” ways to deal with the world, and that each stage is more adapted to certain contexts
• Human beings can't be reduced to a single stage. At best, a person will “operate from” one type of perspective at a specific moment
• Talking about an “Orange organization” for instance doesn't mean that all daily interactions in that group are consistent with this model, or that all the people in it operate from this perspective. Laloux makes it clear that it never happens this way
How the shift from one stage to another happens?
On the individual level, facing a life challenge that cannot be resolved from our current worldview seems to be the common way to incorporate a perspective from a later stage, but it can't be forced onto somebody.
Also, the stage an organization operates from at a given moment is aligned to the stage through which its leadership tends to see the world, which means that an organization can't evolve beyond its leadership stage of consciousness. A solution is to create environments that promote behaviors inspired by later stages: an organization leadership can create a structure, set of practices and culture that helps its members to adopt behaviors of a more complex paradigm, even if the members themselves have not fully embraced this new model on an individual level. This is the beauty of organizations: they can lift groups of people to achieve outcomes they could not have achieved on their own.
Now let's dive into Frederic Laloux's analysis of human evolution.
Until 50,000 BC, bands were formed of a few dozens people and thus no proper organization model was needed and existed.
Around 15,000 years ago, small family bands shifted to tribes composed of a few hundred people. Cause and effect being poorly understood, the world appeared as magic, and people lived in the present with little capacity to project toward the future.
Current examples are mafia, street gangs and tribal militias.
Around 10,000 years ago, humankind evolved to a point where people ego is fully developed, making role differentiation possible, while orientation remained mostly short-term focused and in the present. People organize as wolf packs, the glue being fear and the continuous exercise of power. No formal hierarchy or job title is required for these impulsive and highly reactive groups striving in chaotic environments, which makes them rarely successful at scaling.
Current example are the Catholic Church, the military, most government agencies and the public school systems.
Around 4,000 BC, humankind disidentified from impulsively satisfying its needs. Cause and effect start to be understood, as well as the past, present and future, making projections possible. Humankind also develops a better awareness of others' feelings and perceptions, changing the Impulsive Red “my way / your way” to “us / them” which leads to design organizations as definitive silos. Authority is no longer based on the powerful personality of the “lead wolf” but tied to roles, in a static and stable worldview of immutable laws where change is seen with suspicion – groups eye each other across silos. To feel safe in a world of causality, linear time and awareness of others', people seek for order, stability and predictability.
The first breakthrough of this paradigm appears with the invention of processes, which enable paste experiences to be repeated, making it easier to take on long term projects. Future is a repetition of the past.
The second is the stability brought through formal titles, rigid hierarchies and organizational charts. Strict pyramids are designed with a cascade of formal reporting, in a context where planning and execution are strictly separated: the thinking happens at the top, the doing at the bottom. Workers are viewed as dishonest, lazy and in need of direction, and individual talent is neither discerned nor developed. The wolf pack turns into an army.
Social stability comes at the price of rigorous processes and wearing a social mask, learning to leave behind our feelings, needs and desires.
Compared to organizations operating from an Impulsive Red model, who are missing formal structures and thus can't scale, people operating from the Conformist Amber perspective internalize group norms, can make projections to the future and take on large long term projects. But change and individual talents are still seen with suspicion.
Current examples are multinational companies and chartered schools.
In the Achievement Orange paradigm, humankind disidentifies from group norms: there is no right or wrong anymore, even though some things work better than others, which makes questioning the authority and status quo possible. Authority is not considered to have the right answer, experts do.
As change is not seen with doubt but now as an opportunity, the first breakthrough of this paradigm is innovation. The pyramid structure still holds, but cross-functional initiatives, experts functions, and internal consultants are introduced to foster internal communication and innovation.
The second is accountability. Organizations operating from an Orange perspective understand the value of leveraging all their brains, and thus aim at giving room to maneuver to larger parts of the organization. Management by objectives is introduced, the top of the pyramid formulating an overall direction and arranging down goals and milestones to reach the desired outcome: to beat competition and achieve profit and growth. Even though freedom is real, leaders in practice fear to give up control, fail to trust, and continue to make top-down decisions that would be better handled by people lower in the hierarchy.
The third is meritocracy. It is a breakthrough in social fairness: people should be positioned in the organization where they can best contribute to the whole. Identity is defined by being seen as competent and successful, prepared for the next promotion.
This worldview is highly materialistic, and individuals should be able to chase their life goals, and the best should make it to the top. People effectively live in the future, filled with things they need to do to reach their goals, but hardly manage to enjoy their new freedom in the present.
But in a model where the organization is seen as a machine – the engineering jargon we still use today reveals how deeply we hold this metaphor (layers, inputs and outputs, moving the needle, scoping problems and scaling solutions, human resources...) – and where dispassionate rationality and absence of emotions is valued, questions of meaning and purpose feel out of place, and organizations can feel lifeless and soulless.
Pluralistic Green sees the “what works and what doesn't” split of Achievement Orange as too simplistic and insists that all perspectives deserve equal respect, and seeks fairness, equality, harmony, community, cooperation and consensus.
The first breakthrough is empowerment. Anyone can now make significant decisions without management approval, which means that top and middle managers are asked to share power, abandon some control, and act as servant leaders.
The second is a values-driven culture and inspirational purpose. While strategy and execution are placed above anything else in organizations operating from the Achievement Orange paradigm, company culture and an inspirational purpose are the keystones of Pluralistic Green organizations. Promoting the values and culture is the CEO main task. The HR director acts as advisor to the CEO, and heads a large team that orchestrates significant investment into employee-centric processes and to guide managers to become servant leaders.
The third breakthrough introduces that there should not be any hierarchy among the stakeholders: investors, customers and suppliers, employees and management, local communities and the society at large as well as the environment have to be equally taken into account in every decision.
The dominant metaphor of the machine is replaced by the family. Relationships are valued above anything else, thus bottom up processes, gathering input from everyone and trying to reach consensus from opposite point of view is promoted. But finding consensus among large groups of people is rare, and almost always leads to endless discussions and the emergence of power games behind the scenes to try to get things moving again.
Even though Pluralistic Green is powerful as a model to take apart and analyze old structures, it is often less effective at formulating practical alternatives.
People shifting to the Evolutionary Teal paradigm can now accept there is an evolution in human consciousness.
This shift happens when we learn to disidentify from our own ego and thus don't let our fears control our life. Fear is replaced by a capacity to trust the abundance of life. Dealing with adversity is thus a lot easier. With the ego under control, we now fear more to not try than to fail. Life if seen as a journey of discovery, and we think there are no mistakes but experiences that drive us to a better understanding of ourselves and the world. We embrace the possibility that we play a part in the problems that occur, and tend to make frequent small adjustments.
Our wisdom goes beyond rationality: we tend to develop a holistic approach to knowing. As we are less attached to outcomes, we more easily deal with the sometimes unpleasant truths of reality. Cognition at this stage taps into a broader range of sources to support decision-making: analytic approaches, emotions, intuition as a muscle that can be trained, as well as reasoning in paradox to find answers in the AND, not in the OR, are all insightful (https://write.as/louis/the-answer-is-and-not-or).
We don't base our decisions on external elements (such as a conformity with social norms, success in business, or belonging to a community) but on an inner rightness. We ask ourselves, “Is this in line with who I sense I'm called to become?” We pursue a life well lived, where the ultimate goal is to become the truest expression of ourselves and to be of service to humanity and the world. We see our life as a journey of unfolding toward our true nature: we are not problems waiting to be solved, but potential waiting to blossom.
We strive for wholeness, and can transcend the Achievement Orange judgment and the Pluralistic Green tolerance in our relation to others with non judgment, being able to examine our belief and find it to be superior in truth but yet embrace the other as a human being of equal value. In our relation with life and nature, we tend to pursue a simpler life.
The translation of the Evolutionary Teal model in organizations is striking. Researchers have proven that the higher people have gone on the consciousness stages ladder, the more effective they are. The more complex our perspective and cognition is, the more adequately we can deal with issues we are facing.
When trust replaces fear, the relationship to power is fundamentally transformed: there are much more straightforward and easier ways to run an organization. And some are already operating from this Evolutionary Teal paradigm, giving us living examples to duplicate in our own organization.
In the rest of his book, Frederic Laloux studies the structures, practices and culture of organizations currently operating from the Evolutionary Teal paradigm, as well as presents the necessary soil and steps to take in order to start or guide ours. A read full of hope.