“Teal” is a hot topic these days. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that everyone wants to be Teal, but it’s definitely something on a lot of people’s minds. Frédéric Laloux’s excellent book, Reinventing Organisations, has inspired many to meet the challenge of our times, and to create new kinds of organisations. The tech scene, as usual quite willing to experiment with new things, is intrigued, particularly given recent high-profile cultural car crashes like Uber.

No one wants to build the next Uber, culture-wise.

This leads to something that I’m very familiar with, having spent about 3 years in that phase, which is the desire to “be Teal”. Given that society tends to be organised in a top-down, traditional, closed “Orange” way, the natural first step was rebelling against the current order. We saw being Teal as being not-Orange, and so shunned anything that looked like a traditional management structure, because clearly it “wasn’t Teal”. Being more Teal mostly meant avoiding the trap of being Orange (i.e. top-down, traditional, closed) by shunning anything that looked like a traditional management structure, because it clearly wasn’t Teal. We even had a Hipchat & Slack (we transitioned during that period) emoji, “:orange_creep:”, which we used to flag to each other in a light-hearted way when an Orange concept was creeping in.

At the beginning of this phase, in late 2013, inspired by Ricardo Semler’s books, we first dissolved the link between Directors and specific areas of the business, eventually doing away with the concept of Director completely. People at GrantTree had no bosses. For a long period they had no job descriptions either. Everyone participated in decision-making (via a sort of consensus process). Yet things kept moving along, growing, developing.

Frustrated by the slowness of consensus decision-making, I looked for more information on how to build the kind of company culture we wanted. I found Laloux’s book, and upon reading it realised “aha, we’re actually Green right now, we need to be more Teal”. Fascinated by Laloux’s descriptions of Buurtzorg, FAVI, Morning Star, and other miraculous companies he called Teal, and in particular by how everything just seemed to work by itself if you removed the structures that were in the way, we continued our structureless journey, waiting for Tealness to emerge1. Some minimalist processes did come into place because we really couldn’t live without them, like a dismissals process and a pay process, but each of those stood kind of alone and was developed independently. Each process also seemed aimed at one thing in particular: protecting individuals from Orange-like authority.

This “we’re trying to be Teal” phase ended only in late 2016, when we decided that the structures of the business weren’t serving its needs and started putting the right kinds of structures in to serve the business as a whole. We stopped being terminally afraid of hierarchical structures and instead looked to get their benefit without their drawbacks.

People who have been on this journey may recognise that throughout this “let’s be more Teal” phase we were actually simply going through our Green (unstructured, consensus-based, egalitarian) journey, digging further in that direction. From today’s perspective I feel somewhat frustrated at this, and I choose to think that perhaps this was a necessary part of the learning journey, though at the same time I imagine it could have been shorter somehow.

Another consequence of this recent phase is that I’ve started to look at “Teal” as a somewhat suspicious term, one that doesn’t really serve our purposes very well. Ironically, I think this is a sign us being more like the companies in Laloux’s book than we were before. They don’t call themselves Teal: they are just structured in a way that makes sense for them.

Being Cool

There’s an interesting parallel between Tealness and Coolness.

Every teenager goes through a phase of wanting to be cool2. At first, wanting to be cool happens because they see someone else who is cool and they want to be like them. But of course, the way for them to be “cool” is just to be themselves – authenticity is what may lead to “coolness”. That’s pretty hard to do when they don’t know who they are (a common case for younger humans and organisations). If they don’t know themselves, the way to coolness is to work on finding themselves, and removing from their life things that stop them from doing this, rather than specifically on trying to be cool3.

Which is not to say that the desire to be cool or teal doesn’t serve any purpose: it does, in both cases. Similarly to a Zen Koan, each quest serves to highlight its own futility.

We can only “be cool” when we’ve stopped pretending to be someone who we think is cool, and are actually being ourselves, without all the bullshit and pretense, including the superficial desire to “be cool”.

We can only “be Teal” when we’ve stopped trying to adopt practices that we think are Teal, and are actually just being true to the purpose and context and work of the organisation without all the bullshit and pretense, including the superficial desire to “be Teal”.

Who cares about “being Teal”? Do you wanto to build a successful business with a clear purpose and motivated, happy people? Then work towards that rather than towards conceptual Tealness. If you wouldn’t define your mission as “being a cool business”, don’t define it as “being a Teal business”.

Thanks to Andrew Ormerod for the many discussions about the ideas in this article!

  1. Sadly, this is an easy thing to take away from Laloux’s book that is false: self-management does not emerge naturally from the removal of management any more than agile development emerges naturally from the removal of waterfall planning. Both take discipline and great structures.

  2. Sometimes in a very circuitous way, by denying they want to be cool at all, and hoping that’s the path to coolness.

  3. And of course this is not a quest with an end point: you don’t suddenly “become yourself” and then stop changing).