When I started reading about teal organizations, I had what I think is the most common reaction: fear.
On the one hand, teal sounded like the thing I’ve been longing for all my life from the time I started having group assignments in school. But I couldn’t get past the feeling that it was all an utopia, an impossible perfect way of looking at organizations from a perfect world with perfect humans. We’ve all had that one schoolmate that just wouldn’t do anything, that would delay the whole project and that you’d end up just ignoring and doing their work for.
In my years discussing teal organizations I’ve seen this reaction from almost everyone. The initial excitement of new possibilities is quickly overshadowed by the fear of human nature: will people take advantage of something like this? What makes you think they’ll take responsibility? How can this possibly work?
The short answer to that is: workflows. But let’s start from the beginning:
What do we mean by teal organizations?
It was around 2015, I was working for an enterprise software company, and the Buenos Aires team was starting to get very into agile methodologies and ways of thinking. My coworkers and I attended agile conferences and learnt about companies that had very different structures from what we usually consider a classic organization chart: some companies would equally divide their shares with all their workers, some would encourage their members to fill different roles in different projects, some would have no bosses at all. Can you imagine a world with no bosses? I guess now it seems easier as more and more companies dare to change the way they are structured, but for me, the experience was eye opening.
Back in our team we already had a very good understanding of workflows, how to design them to make them useful, reduce human error, and make tasks more efficient for everyone involved, while at the same time not creating extra friction for workers.
We introduced some agile exercises, experimented with kanban boards, and slowly created our own mechanisms with what fit best from both worlds. But the wandering eye never left us, we all now knew that much more was not just possible, but actually happening not that far away from us.
So in 2017, when our regional leader (and my personal one), Leandro Caniglia, proposed we read the book Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux, my world opened up to what an ideal job could look like.
I really recommend you read the illustrated version of the book, it’s short, very well written, and truly eye opening. But, in case you are in a rush, I’ll give a very brief summary of what teal is:
Frederic, based on his studies, other authors, and the personal experiences of companies all around the world, analyzes the evolution of organizations into five great phases, and names those by colors.
Although these structures were of course affected by social and historical context, all of them still remain to this day.
The first evolutionary stage is called Red, and it responds to mafia-like structures, where all power is condensed into one person or a very small group of people, who make all decisions and reprimand those who fail to follow their orders. Personal relationships with those at the top of the power scheme can have great effects over the work environment. They are based on division of labor and top-down authority, and came from the necessity of getting people to work together to reach bigger objectives by using fear or punishment.
Amber organizations still maintain a very pyramidal structure, but the fear tactic relates more to that attached to religion: you are not just scared of those above you; you also have faith in them. Workers in these organizations might be unaware of what anyone in higher positions are doing, but they tend to trust that they are doing the best they can. Everyone knows and is expected to respect their place, and workers limit themselves to do what they have to do.
Their principles are stability and certainty, and they intend to build stable organizational charts. These organizations come hand in hand with the goals of religion, reducing violence in some ways and injecting self discipline and self control to ensure order.
Orange organizations come from a more scientific worldview: humans now see themselves as powerful beings that can control nature around them, build technology to achieve what magic and religion couldn’t, and perfectly understand and follow precise directions. They tend to see themselves as machines, where workers are engine parts, and each piece has to run smoothly for the whole thing to work.
Their values are innovation and meritocracy, and workers are expected to take accountability for their actions.
Green organizations are the more modern ones, they come from the feeling of wanting something more, and the longing to come back to a more human way of coexisting. You can recognize them because they see themselves – and many times call their members – as family. They tend to emotionally involve workers, and expectations are set at a personal level. They try to make decisions based on consensus, but it is unclear where consensus is in fact reached, or if the boss ends up taking the lead.
Their principles are empowerment, and a value-driven culture. Personal fit is very important.
And here, the author introduces the new evolutionary phase to which more and more organizations are stepping in: Teal organizations.
These organizations see themselves as alive organisms that should grow, learn, and change dynamically. Team members are expected to show up in a human, vulnerable way. They tend to use roles rather than fixed positions, understanding that interests and focuses may vary and change over time, and encourage everyone to find their purpose and make it visible as part of the organization.
Their principles are self-management, wholeness, and evolutionary purpose. You can read a short poem we wrote about the organizational structure evolution if you are more into artistic communication – and don’t miss the chance to test how teal your current organization is!
So, the more you read about Teal, the more you might start to feel a deep desire to change your work environment. But how can you do it while eliminating the fear that your team won’t step up to their new roles and responsibilities? How will you, yourself, commit to allow everyone to show up in a true way and care about what you all are doing?
This is where we combine teal principles with reliable, well designed workflows. And these are five of the reasons that you should too – even if you are not yet ready for a full teal structure!
1. Fix the workflows rather than blaming the person
When something goes wrong it’s very easy to focus on finding the culprit and making them pay for their mistakes (both in organizations and generally in life!).
This brings many negative consequences: it will scare people into just doing exactly what they are told to, instead of encouraging them to come with new ideas, critiques, thoughts. It will also reduce the chances of them showing up as the vulnerable people they are, so they probably won’t let you know when they are having an off day and might need a little help from a teammate, or when they are feeling a call to do something more meaningful for them inside the organization.
It is a known fact that happier people work better and smarter, so personal offense is never positive in the workplace. It doesn’t really solve the problem, and it brings less creative, more alienated versions of people to work.
When you rely on workflows that are designed to have comprehensive revisions and involve different people on the same task, problems are never really a matter of personal fault, but a misdesign in the workflow. So, whenever an issue arrives, the team will focus on bettering the workflow rather than on finding the guilty party.
Why did this fail? Did the workflow contemplate the adequate review state? Was it creating too much friction, and therefore people stopped using it in their favor? How can we make it better?
2. Create common achievements rather than ego driven races
Ownership over a certain task can have both positive and negative effects on different people. Some will pride themselves over a well done job, others will not really care. Some will really be fearsome of showing a product made purely by themselves.
Even for the more competitive workers that might be lighted up by showing off what they are capable of, this, as many individual goals, will not be as long lasting or as fulfilling as well managed group works where ideas are brainstormed together and every piece of work has had many brains looking to producing the best outcome.
I relate this to veganism: it is known among vegans that people who come into veganism as a diet, as a way of introducing personal gains (feeling healthier, looking better, etc.) are much more likely to leave veganism after a couple of years than people who went vegan for the animals or the environment.
Why? Because projects that transcend us, involve us with goals much bigger than ourselves, make us feel part of a community that really cares about something, and make our actions and ideas much more worthwhile for the greater good.
In a similar way, workflows help involve our work into a group effort, where everybody helps to create the best work possible, and where personal ownership is not as satisfying as relying on a team of people who care about the same things you do. No matter how good or bad you execute an idea, you know you count with others that will put their best efforts into taking that idea and task to its full potential.
3. Stop caring about what you need to do, and start caring about how you do it
We’ve all seen it many times: during a meeting everyone participates, and even when teammates come up with great ideas and projects, and everything seems to reach a natural plan, once the meeting is over nobody really knows what they are supposed to do.
If you start your workday with no clarity at all on how things are advancing, what you should be focusing on, whatever happened to the tasks you had planned, you will start to lose interest as time goes by and nothing seems to progress.
Momentum needs to be followed, because as with most other human emotions, it can be the energy you need to grow toward your goals. If people are excited about a project but become really lost in how to translate it to action, they will slowly but surely leave that excitement and become frustrated, preventing them from showing up as creatively or bravely to the next meeting or brainstorming session.
Well designed workflows functioning with tools that help them reduce all friction (we’ve used Target Process and Jira, but are also working on a new Teal tool specially made for teal organizations that want to design workflows), give a super clear view of specific things you are responsible for at this very moment.
Teal organizations tend to set roles rather than fixed job positions, so for them, having a dashboard with only current responsibilities is that much more important. You might have to write an article, then review a design, and afterwards draw some ideas for a new web layout.
The best way we’ve found until now to design workflows relates the current card state with a responsible role. What we call cards is what you might know as issues if you work with Jira. Roles are spaces defined by a group that fill certain responsibilities and necessities. And states are exactly that, where the card is at this moment in its workflow, from open to done.
Personal dashboards eliminate the problem of now knowing what to do, and lets teammates focus on creatively working toward objectives. Organizational dashboards that are publicly shared in an organization (or, why not, maybe even to the public!) provide everyone with a rapid way to see how things advance, how the ideas they were a part of developing are progressing, and how many people have participated in said idea.
4. Introduce a new way of documenting without any extra effort from anyone
I’ve come to realize that documentation is key in making any team work more deeply and efficiently.
Deeply, because the act of documenting allows us to analyze what we’ve done from another perspective. This can lead to understandings and ideas that could never arise when the whole focus is on doing rather than thinking about what we’ve done. Similarly to how you learn some things when teaching others that you could never learn just by studying, you can learn things while writing a document that are harder to understand without writing about them. Documentation organizes your thoughts and provides the time and the space to reflect.
Efficiently, because you will be less prone to re encounter issues if you’ve written about them, documented the causes, and the ways to change them. Moreover, workflows that are designed to involve more than one person in the documentation process, will make all of them aware of existing problems, analyzed solutions, and general thoughts about situations.
Because teal is all about growing organically and changing strategies dynamically, documenting becomes very valuable to understand the ways in which an organization needs to evolve.
Tools that allow us to design the best workflows automatically generate a new kind of documentation: the history of a card.
Action logs (how the card went from a state to the other, who filled each role, etc.) and comments, are an automatic and frictionless way of documenting who a team develops a task from beginning to end. The better the workflow structures are, the more information you’ll have with no extra effort: workflows can keep track of whether an idea came from a user request, whether it belongs to a greater group of tasks (for example User Stories), where they went wrong or at what point they evolved into a greater project, etc.
5. Change the way you think
Finally, being able to design and enhance workflows as a team will also allow you to think about how you work in a totally different way.
When you collectively learn to design smarter workflows, you become faster in understanding the steps and roles of a new activity, and you also do that from a communal sense: you already have in mind who can fill each role taking into account personal abilities, interests, and desires, which in turn ensures everyone will interact with that workflows in a meaningful way and feel they are the best person for that specific role.
Desisgning workflows makes you think holistically: it promotes looking at every side of the development of an idea, revealing the needs to take it to the best outcome, and involving everyone from a place of true collaboration.
Workflows are crucial for any group of people. Don’t limit yourself to what you think about when you think of organizations: I’ve experimented with teal principles and workflow design in various activities and it always makes everyone happier, teams more effective, and results better and better.
My favorite one: theater companies! I’m an actress and trust me when I say the difference between theatrical projects where before and after I discovered teal and workflows is drastically different! Personal issues dissolved, the feeling of some people bringing more to the table than others fixed itself as it became very clear and everyone was free to call for a meeting to fix the workflow, and no friction was introduced except for the initial effort of designing and sharing the first workflow (which coincidentally I love to do!).
Of course, I’m not trying to say following teal principles is the easiest route: it is true that some people are just not built for that, and workers are not to blame for straying away from bringing their true selves to their work environment after so many decades of exploitation. But teal organizations will open up the necessary discussions, and people who don’t fit will, in the collected experience of Reinventing Organizations and our personal one, just leave themselves rather than bring problems to the whole team.
So, until we can truly change the system and maybe (dare I say?) abolish the concept of “work” altogether, let’s dare to design better organizations that allow people to feel alive while they are doing what they have to do for a long portion of their day.