Organizational paradigms

In Frederic Laloux’s excellent book Reinventing Organizationshe outlines several stages of organizational growth.  Studying the development of organizational paradigms with an anthropological mindset, Laloux has identified several key developments over the course of human development.  Today, organizations around the globe operate across these different levels of consciousness.  Individuals also operate from these different paradigms.  By understanding the levels of consciousness, we can better understand individual and organizational motivations.  It an also help us understand how we would like to be operating and spark a discussion about how to evolve our ways of operating.

Levels of organizational development

Levels of organizational development

Levels of organizational development

Impulsive Red

An impulsive red organization operates like a wolfpack.  There can be a strong man or woman leader, but the leader’s hold on their role at the top is tenuous at best.  At any moment a bigger, stronger, smarter member of the organization may challenge the leader.  Criminal organizations are perhaps today’s most clear example of impulsive red organizations.

The impulsive red paradigm brought advantages over previous stages of development.  By having clear roles in the wolfpack a red organization can provide a division of labor.  Although the leaders role may not be held for a long time – there is a leader.  This provides the organization with a single point of authority.

Conformist Amber

The next level of organization is the conformist amber level.  In this paradigm individual members have well defined roles and responsibilities, and they are not at the same risk of replacement as in the impulsive red paradigm.  The dominant metaphor of the conformist amber paradigm is the army.  Everybody has a formal role and this provides stability.

Conformist amber organizations provide the stability that impulsive red organizations lack.  By having stability the organization can plan ahead.  Early breakthroughs into the amber paradigm in human development would have allowed for planning crop rotations a year in advance.  The red paradigm did not provide the stability year over year which would allow for that type of forward thinking.

Individuals acting from a conformist amber perspective value stability, process, and formal roles.  Formal process and roles provide comfort to the amber mindset.  Today’s military organizations, public schools, and most government agencies are primarily amber organizations.  The Catholic Church with all of its formal roles is a classic amber organization.

Achievement Orange

The achievement orange paradigm is the next level.  The dominant metaphor of the achievement orange organization is a machine – optimally a well oiled machine.  Achievement orange values results.  Organizations in the achievement orange paradigm also value innovation and meritocracy.  In an orange organization positions, rank, and rewards are earned by results – not by the conformity valued in amber organizations.  Orange also provides accountability that was not prevalent in the amber paradigm.

Achievement orange is the dominant organizational paradigm of the capitalistic world.  Organizations are goal oriented, seeking growth and profits.  Pick a publicly listed company at random and you’ll almost certainly find an organization that primarily acts from the orange paradigm.

Pluralistic Green

Pluralistic green thinking rejects the machine metaphor and embraces a different one: the family.  In the pluralistic green paradigm, consensus and inclusive participation is valued.  The win at all costs mindset of orange is rejected, and a values-driven culture replaces it.

In pluralistic green organizations individual empowerment is also prized.  Employee engagement is a primary motivator.  While an achievement orange organization may compromise on values to achieve results, a pluralistic green organization will remain firm on its values.  The green paradigm seeks to provide belonging and harmony within the organization.

Evolutionary Teal

The primary focus of Laloux’s work is the evolutionary teal paradigm.  In the evolutionary teal organization the metaphor is the organization as one, whole living organism.  Leadership is distributed throughout the organization, with self-management replacing hierarchy.  The organization focuses on its evolutionary purpose and has confidence that seeking it will deliver results – without compromising on values.

Teal organizations have a high degree of trust and empowerment.  The default footing is trust.  Decisions are made by individuals and groups most directly affected by the decision.  Discussions are open and honest, and advice is shared willingly.  The teal paradigm also maintains responsibility and accountability.  Individuals keep each other accountable with thoughtful and respectful feedback and effective conflict resolution.

In a teal organization individuals are respected as whole individuals.  The organization does not only value a sub-set of an individual – i.e. their “professional abilities.”  Instead, an individual brings their integral self to the organization and the evolutionary teal organization seeks to satisfy all facets of the whole self.

How it matters

Today many people are seeking a greater connection to their values and purpose from their career.  Evolutionary teal organizations offer an exciting path forward in creating a compelling value proposition for employees and other organizational stakeholders.  Companies that embrace self-management and present a compelling evolutionary purpose may become the innovative, successful, and sought after workplaces of the 21st century.

How do you operate and in what situations?  Have you seen organizations operating in these different paradigms?

Additional reading

This presentation provides a more detailed look at the levels of organizational development.


One comment

  1. Pingback: Every kid gets a medal | tealagile

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