03 October 2015

Reinventing Organizations -- Hoping and Working towards the Soulful Workplace

I am a very slow reader and some months ago when I was job-hunting, I saw this among the requirements of a company: Must have read Reinventing Organizations. I hadn’t read it, of course, and was instantaneously disqualified, but the book did intrigue me: What did it talk about that made it so important as to be a job qualification? I went straight ahead and bought it.

And, I must thank the company – Buffer – for making me discover the book.
Reinventing Organizations is that rare kind of book that inspires and opens your mind up to seemingly impossible and new ideas.

The subject of the book is modern organizations, whether they be for-profit, non-profit, or even educational institutions. I’d never have bought such a book of my own volition – am pretty much the last person to be interested in management-speak. But right from the start, Frederic Laloux speaks about the moving force behind each organization: human beings.

This is how he begins:

“Can we create organizations free of the pathologies that show up all too often in the workplace? Free of politics, bureaucracy, and infighting; free of stress and burnout; free of resignation, resentment, and apathy; free of posturing at the top and drudgery at the bottom? Is it possible to reinvent organizations, to devise a new model that makes work productive, fulfilling, and meaningful? Can we create soulful workplaces—schools, hospitals, businesses, and non-profits—where our talents can blossom and our callings can be honored?”

“Guy must be nuts,” I thought. I mean, workplace and soulful? C’mon. Maybe for someone running a resort in the foothills of the Himalayas, but not for someone braving the commute in Bangalore or any other Indian city and getting to work at a place where they didn’t feel stressed and burned out. All my managers quickly paraded through my mind. Luckily for me, most were good, interesting human beings, but a few here and there liked to control the hell out of me and even laughed at me or ignored my presence totally. I’ll not get into the details for the simple reason that there are perhaps gorier stories out there.

My point is, what was this man talking about? Has he even worked in an office? Still, I bore with him and trudged along. 

And, I am glad I did.  

As I read on, Laloux started linking the steps in the evolution of organizations to the evolution of human consciousness itself. I became fascinated by his mere attempt to do so, because it seemed to be such a great mix of breakthrough intelligence and childlike simplicity.

Basically, Laloux talks of five major steps in human consciousness and how it influenced the kind of organizations we built at those stages. The five phases are: Red, Amber, Orange, Green, and Teal. He does talk of two stages preceding Red, but they’re from a very long time ago, going back to 100,000 to 50,000 BC and 15,000 years ago, when our sense of community did not exist beyond small tribes of up to a few hundred people.

Red or Impulsive-Red is when we start growing fiefdoms and proto-empires and it dates to about 10,000 years ago. This stage is marked by “hostile environments, combat zones, civil wars, … or violent inner-city neighborhoods.”

Organizations that are still at this stage of consciousness are the street gangs and mafias.

Next, is Amber or Conformist-Amber. This is when people started settling down, thanks to agriculture. Roles are strictly defined and conformity is by default. There are only a handful of truths out there and you’re expected to swallow them whole.

The Catholic Church is the best example of an Amber organization, Laloux says. The strict stratification introduced at this stage brings about the first true divide between planning and execution. That is, planning happens at the top and the plan is executed at the bottom.

In Achievement-Orange, rights and wrongs are not so absolute any more, but it doesn’t completely do away with some beliefs held at the Amber level. It does believe that people should be free to do as they choose, that everyone should be accountable, and that if anyone has made it to the top, it is because of meritocracy, and as such hierarchical structures need to be maintained.

Pluralistic-Green is not so comfortable with power and hierarchy, and likens organizations to families.

Evolutionary Teal uses a completely new metaphor than any other stage of human consciousness: it likens organizations to organisms. And, this is the fascinating part of the book, where it talks of actual companies that are operating from this paradigm. Organizations that belong to this stage operate like, well, organisms. No one person or group tells the other person or group how it must react in a given situation.

Instead, they self-manage, follow the advice process, and take decisions as a group, according to their knowledge and expertise, the data that they have at that point and trust each other to do the right thing. There are no managers or job titles, yet it’s not anarchic.

My description of Teal is very simplistic and short. And, to get a real understanding of what self-management is, what is the advice process, and other processes and structures (yes, they do have structures, just not the strait-jacketed ones we’re used to. They’re more like networks.) of Teal organizations, you must really read the book.

What makes Teal work is that it recognizes us as human beings and operates on basic assumptions of trust and respect. We need to trust each other to do the right thing. Yes, people may make mistakes, may get selfish, or try to cheat. But such acts are exceptions and such wrongdoings are easier to catch when all of us act as colleagues rather than mere cogs in a stratified organization, where we’re certain no one is going to listen even if we raise the alarm.

Naturally, this way of operating organizations demands that such beliefs actually go beyond the organization itself. That’s when the future starts to get interesting.  

I am not doing justice to this book by ending the review here, but this is part of my weekend writing project, where I only give as much time to writing as my daughter deems it fair. So, though there’s much, much more that can be said about the book, it’s best that you explore it for yourself. 

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