Book Review: Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux

Book Review: Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux
Reinventing Organizations
Genre: Management

Hardcover | 382 pp. | Nelson Parker | | 1st Edition
Buy on Amazon
4.0 rating

Reinventing Organizations is, for sure, a milestone book for many. This review is somehow a bit of a different one, as I had read this book already a couple of years ago, but felt I needed to cover this book on the blog, especially in line with my post about organisational models. I start with a warning, though, despite the profound interest that this book raised, I did not fall in love with it. With so many reviews around that are focused entirely on “celebrating” this book, I’ve decided to give a bit more critical reading. Still, I do consider this book key in driving a lot of the discussion on new organisational models, and a “must-read” for many of the suggestions it delivers.

Note: With this post, I start for the first time on this blog to use annotation of references. It is because I have received much feedback from some university students about how to do this, and also to keep a better track of the sources I am referencing. Have started using MyBib for this, I use the Harvard notation, and notes appear at the end of the post in a References section.

Structure of the Book

The book is structured in three parts, each focused on a specific aspect of the topic.

  • Part one examines the evolution of organisations. It links the development of organisational models in line with the shift of humanity to a new stage of consciousness, a concept derived from Integral Theory. The key idea here is that for each stage of human development, a model has been established that was more “productive” for that particular stage of consciousness. Laloux uses a colour-coding to identify the different stages.
Fig.1 - Evolution of Organizational Paradigms. (Gerndt, 2014 - Source)
Fig.1 – Evolution of Organizational Paradigms. (Gerndt, 2014 – Source)
  • Part two examines some case studies that should demonstrate the value of the “Teal Model”. Examples include organisations of all types, such as AESBuurtzorgFAVIMorning StarRHDSun Hydraulics, and Patagonia. The author describes the organisation of these companies and how they operate, deriving some rules that he allocates to this new, emerging Teal organisation model.
  • Part three examines the conditions needed for these types of new organisations to thrive. What is required to start on this new model, is it possible to transform existing organisations, and how are some of the questions that Laloux tries to examine.

Reinventing Organisations: three critiques

As I read through the book, the first aspect that did not fully match my way of thinking and experience, was the idea that humanity evolves in stages. As I drove more attention to other aspects of my work, and organisation design specifically, I also found that the rules “extracted” from the case studies where not always genuinely relevant. Despite the substantial work that Laloux has done in documenting these organisations, the problem is that he derived rules that are not truly universal. But probably the most significant critique today is not directly linked to Laloux’s work, but instead to what happened after. Conferences and workshops have started popping everywhere, suggesting “Teal” as a full organisational model (Laloux always spoke of emerging practices), thus forming a kind of “new-age” movement that often presented even the most relevant ideas in shapes and forms that are truly difficult to implement.

But let’s see these aspects in detail.

Laloux Model and the Stages of Humanity

In drawing its evolution of organisations model, Laloux drives many of its ideas from the work of the so-called Integral Theory outlined by Ken Wilber and Don Beck. The concept of a staged model of human evolution based on values and drives was not new: a first article was published in 1970 (Graves, 1970). This constituted the basis of the first colour scheme, adopted by Don Beck and Chris Cowan, in their book Spiral Dynamics (Beck and Cowan, 1996). This theory was then discovered by Ken Wilber (Wilber, 1996), who first collaborated with Beck, establishing the Spiral Dynamics Integral concept (Beck, 2001), and then produced his work (Wilber, 2006) with the colour-coding that Laloux has used.

One of the issue with these concepts (except the first article of Graves), is that both Integral Theory and Spiral Dynamics are extra-academic movements around a single or small groups of authors (Visser, 2014) which have attracted a large number of followers that keep protecting their cherished body of ideas, which is why some have attacked Laloux himself for concerns of Plagiarism (Laloux, 2015).

In any case, the concept of Stage of Humanity, despite being appealing in terms of how it is put, does not have a reliable scientific basis, except for Psychology where stages of development are found (you can also see the book of Robert Kegan we have reviewed already).

There is unfortunately no scientific basis for the arguments made in this book. No, not even a little.

Zaid Hassan, Is Teal The New Black? Probably Not (Hassan, 2015)

The issue is also that Wilber’s work is often adopted in a way that is an almost “ideological”. There’s not much critique on his work, also because of the reaction of many of his followers.

A second issue with Laloux’s concept is related to behaviours. Aren’t human behaviours context-dependent? If this is true (and is a generally accepted principle today by most thinkers), and behaviours are not just linked to some kind of biological evolution. How does a person decide to join the Mafia or Ben & Jerry? This will depend widely from the context in which the person finds itself in.

In summary, my first issue with this book is that the basis used for the core theory proposed is a little bit too rooted in theories that can at most be defined as “new-age”, without an adequate discussion of the scientific research that should support this.

Teal organisation as an anecdotal evidence

When examining the organisations used as an example, Laloux derives several “universal rules” that seem to characterise the work of Teal organisations. The issue is that these cannot be traced universally even in the cases analysed. There’s an excellent article by Corporate Rebels on this (Corporate Rebels, 2017), so I don’t want to repeat too much of its arguments.

After visiting many of the case studies in Laloux’ book, we want to caution against the dogmatic interpretation of “teal”

Corporate Rebels, Bursting The Bubble: Teal Ain’t Real (Corporate Rebels, 2017)

The main point is that Laloux has developed a theory, and then looked for several companies that (somehow) supported this theory. Unfortunately, this is a common trend in many management authors. The evidence presented is very anecdotal (nothing wrong on this; the problem lies when one evidence is raised as a universal truth). Laloux himself concedes towards the end of the book (page 345) that “it could well be that only particularly successful organisations caught my attention “However, this caveat is not sufficient, especially when noting the exploration of the actual case studies. Corporate Rebels, for example, points out that two of them (Patagonia and Morning Star) simply do not fulfil the full list of requirements of Teal organisations, and are entirely on opposing terms.

I would suggest we take all these unorthodox management models on a case-by-case basis and evaluate them against all the available evidence—while refraining from absolute and categorical statements.

Frank Visser, Frederic Laloux and his critics, (Visser, 2014)

In a nutshell, my second issue is that this book provides a “dogmatic” view not (yet) rooted in really concrete examples.

Teal as a “religion”.

The third issue (and probably the biggest) has more to do with the followers of Laloux work (that some label Lalouxnatics (Nixon, 2017)) than with the book itself. It is partly linked to the theoretical framework the book uses and that we have already mentioned: Spiral Dynamic. The issue is that this model (and by reflection also Laloux’s one) create a feeling of superiority and inferiority. They create a misplaced belief that some are more evolved than others (Corporate Rebels, 2017). But also explains the semi-religious nature of current “Teal movements” that are preparing themselves for the “next step”, “big jump”, “great shift” or “momentous leap” which supposedly lies ahead of us all (Visser, 2014). This very “spiritual” aspect, despite being an added value for some, immediately pushes the entire concept of Teal into the world of Ideology, something that is not acceptable in my point of view.

It’s a model of sociology that’s been applied to commercial institutions with a handful of cherry-picked case studies. It’s an optimistic read, but it is in no way a blueprint for how to run a company.

Bud Caddell, The Fatal Gap Between Organizational Theory and Organizational Practice,(Caddell, 2016)

Conclusion: Reinventing Organizations

Reinventing Organizations comes with a lot of excellent ideas and smart observations. The problem lies in the link that has been made with a pseudo-scientific theory, supported by anecdotal evidence that is “forced” to fit a model that, in reality, does not fully exist.

In many ways, I agree that many ways this theory reflects the ideas and life of its creator (which in many ways has a definite “spiritual” side of his life (Corporate Rebels, 2016)). Probably it’s this spiritual lens that delivers a unique cut in the way this book is written.

With all these critiques, why did I still give this book four stars? Well, the reality is that I agree with the importance of most characteristics of the Teal organisation. Self-Management, for example, is a crucial attribute of many successful models, same as Evolutionary Purpose. And I still see this book as a breakthrough in raising the bar of the discussion, also thanks to its high diffusion. The case studies analysed are great if we don’t pretend to derive universal lessons. Plus, Laloux himself is not the critical propagator of a lot of the ideas derived from his book (those aspects that I have defined as more ideological and that unfortunately affect many proponents of models derived from Laloux’s work). It’s interesting to notice that Laloux has created a Wiki that supports the ideas of the book, but that also in many ways mitigates a lot some of its more critical aspects. For example, there is a section that addresses the apparent superiority of one model over the other.

Any Organisation Model suggestion that is “ideological” is flawed. This is the main conclusion I draw from experience and observing many organisations. There are models that are more or less consistent, and more supportive to help support the Strategy and the Business Model of an organisation. We can appreciate the positive impact that human-focused organisation models have, and we should all insist on a more relevant role of the Purpose. But again, any dogmatic approach will result immediately in some kind of misleading reading, and can cause harm if the model is imposed to an organisation that is not ready or adapt.

I’m sure this review will trigger some different reactions. Feel free to post directly on the comments of this article, or also reach out directly on my social platforms.

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Reinventing Organizations
Genre: Management | Rating: 4/5
By Frederic Laloux
Hardcover | 382 pp. | Nelson Parker | 20/02/2014 | 1st Edition
ISBN: 9782960133516
Buy on Amazon

Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux GoodReads Reviews

Reference List

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Beck, D. (2001). SDI – Spiral Dynamics in the Integral Age. [online] Integral World. Available at: http://www.integralworld.net/sd-i.html [Accessed 19 Feb. 2020].

Beck, D. and Cowan, C. (1996). Spiral dynamics : mastering values, leadership, and change. Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell Business.

Caddell, B. (2016). The Fatal Gap Between Organizational Theory and Organizational Practice. [online] NOBL Academy. Available at: https://academy.nobl.io/holacracy-boondoggle/ [Accessed 19 Feb. 2020].

Corporate Rebels (2016). Experiencing Wholeness with Frederic Laloux: Every Theory Reflects Its Creator. [online] Corporate Rebels. Available at: https://corporate-rebels.com/experiencing-wholeness-frederic-laloux/ [Accessed 19 Feb. 2020].

Corporate Rebels (2017). Bursting The Bubble: Teal Ain’t Real. [online] Corporate Rebels. Available at: https://corporate-rebels.com/teal-aint-real/ [Accessed 19 Feb. 2020].

Gerndt, U. (2014). Frederic Laloux„Reinventing organizations“ – Excerpt and Summaries. [online] Available at: http://www.reinventingorganizations.com/uploads/2/1/9/8/21988088/140305_laloux_reinventing_organizations.pdf [Accessed 19 Feb. 2020].

Graves, C.W. (1970). Levels of Existence: an Open System Theory of Values. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, [online] 10(2), pp.131–155. Available at: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/002216787001000205 [Accessed 19 Feb. 2020].

Hassan, Z. (2015). Is Teal The New Black? Probably Not. [online] Social Labs. Available at: https://social-labs.org/is-teal-the-new-black/ [Accessed 19 Feb. 2020].

Laloux, F. (2014). Reinventing organizations a guide to creating organizations inspired by the next stage of human consciousness. Brussels Nelson Parker.

Laloux, F. (2015). The Future of Management Is Teal. [online] strategy+business. Available at: https://www.strategy-business.com/article/00344?gko=30876 [Accessed 19 Feb. 2020].

Nixon, T. (2017). The systems thinking blindspot of Reinventing Organizations fans. [online] Medium. Available at: https://medium.com/maptio/the-systems-thinking-blindspot-of-reinventing-organizations-fans-2d9f9b423c8c [Accessed 19 Feb. 2020].

Visser, F. (2014). Frederic Laloux and His Critics, Finding Middle Ground Between Skepticism and Belief, Frank Visser. [online] Integral World. Available at: http://www.integralworld.net/visser117.html [Accessed 19 Feb. 2020].

Wilber, K. (1996). A Brief History of Everything. Shambhala.

Wilber, K. (2006). Integral Spirituality: A Startling New Role for Religion in the Modern and Postmodern World. Shambhala.

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