the future of organisations


I would make a lousy teenager. Or at least I would be a pretty boring one. I know too much about the way the world works to make the choices that made being 16 so much fun. Then again, my teenage self in this stage of life would be a frightening prospect too. Thankfully those scenarios are mostly the preserve of B grade comedies.

We know a lot about how we develop as we move through the different stages of psychological development, from new born through teenage years, mid life and to old age. And via similar analysis, we know an increasing amount about how societies have developed over the centuries. Researchers have different ways to describe the progression, but as with developmental psychology there are common patterns. Our collective consciousness has evolved over time to keep pace with the opportunities and challenges humans have faced collectively. As new environments emerge, we develop new and sometimes surprising perspectives which eventually become normalised.

For example, the feudal system was never going to support the economic development that flourished as monarchies rose and then democracies. It would have been inconceivable as a peasant in a feudal environment to imagine the mindsets that would be commonplace in later societies. Or more recently, a paper based system would never have supported the access to banking services experienced in developing economies today. Even Mr Jones, (or Fruitcake as we affectionately called him) the geeky computer science teacher at my high school when there was one computer in the whole school, would have had no skerrick of an inkling of the empowerment we experience as citizens via our connected devices.

The mainstream thinking in any society is bound by the dominant worldview. So much so that we tend to believe what we have is ‘better’ than what has come before, and for most of us, we are sceptical of future predictions because our view of the world is deeply rooted in the prevailing wisdom of the time. For example, how many of us can genuinely conceive of a system of governance that offers more than parliamentary democracy?

My consciousness as a middle-aged adult is not better than what I had as a teenager. Rather it is fit for purpose. Our society is changing rapidly and we need new ways of being. The new ways are not ‘better’ in an absolute sense, they are simply ways that are able to respond to the opportunities and challenges of the world we live in now. (I do not mean to imply that the social gains are not improvements. It’s just that we always view the past with the benefit of our current consciousness.)

A relatively new book applies this logic to organisations. Frederic Laloux’s somewhat benignly titled Reinventing Organisations brings together into one text so much of what I have been observing, experimenting with, advocating for and curious about over the last 15 years. Laloux maps different organisational practices to the evolution of human consciousness.

The book is mainly about what is to come. But to appreciate the trajectory we are on, Laloux outlines the key breakthroughs of the dominant organisational paradigms that have shaped our history up to now. I include a simple table below as a taster, starting with the most recent models. (Please note that the idea is not that an organisations always fits neatly into a model. Organisational consciousness is a complex mix of intelligences and trajectories. However, my experience is that we can easily recognise the dominant paradigm in actuality and intention.)

This table is an adaption of a table on page 36 of Laloux’s book.

Reinventing Orgs RED-GREEN table

William Gibson (who also incidentally coined the term cyberspace) is famously quoted as saying that “the future is already here, its just unevenly distributed”. So in his book Laloux researches organisations that appear to be giving us a glimpse of the future. Of course we cannot predict the future, but we can get a sense of where we are going.

The most insightful thinkers at the turn of the 20th century predicted that the car would take over from horses as civilisation’s main form of transport. But few could have foreseen the infrastructure development (sealed road networks etc) that evolved in the succeeding decades. In the same way, who knows what the key breakthroughs Laloux identifies will ultimately facilitate in the development of our consciousness and practice in the coming decades? Not me, but I’m looking forward to seeing it.

The three breakthroughs in evolutionary TEAL organisations might not sound particularly radical. However, as these new ways of thinking and being become normative, our workplaces and lifestyles will change dramatically. Most of my current work by the way, feels like helping organisations shaped by ORANGE practices move to more GREEN practices. I hope I am working long enough for most of my work to be to helping teams and organisations transition from attitudes and behaviours that reflect GREEN to those associated with TEAL. My observations are that the future is already being shaped by organisations that are intuitively operating with TEAL practices. I fear for those who are stuck in ORANGE. Many of them have forward thinking leadership, but the organisational paradigms and related systems are deeply imbedded.

The three key breakthroughs of TEAL organisations, according to Laloux’s research are:

  1. self-management
  2. wholeness
  3. inside out purpose

These words don’t convey much, but I am enjoying thinking about what this might look as illustrated by organisations that are already doing it, and will include some thoughts in upcoming blogs.

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