Making magic work part two: Leadership without ego – the Teal journey

Written by Liz Hill-Smith on 21 January 2015

In my December Blog, I explored at a high level Frederic Laloux’s idea of Teal organisations – those that are moving beyond what spiral dynamics enthusiasts would call the “Orange – Achievement” paradigm based on scientific and industrial principles, or the more recently evolved “Green – Pluralistic” paradigm based on collaboration and knowledge. Some strong examples of this new Teal paradigm are now emerging and Frederic Laloux’s excellent book – Reinventing Organisations – describes the successes and challenges experienced by these early pioneers. Interestingly these organisations took Laloux some seeking out as they don’t, by the nature of the paradigm, have PR departments espousing their brilliance.

What strikes me from his research is that although this is a fundamentally different way of thinking about organisational life, it is coming about in small ways in various organisations with which we are familiar. The three core underpinning concepts: self-managed teams, a clear focus on having an “evolutionary purpose” defining the organisation and wholeness – bringing the whole authentic self into work, are starting to be powerful components of many of the development interventions we are bringing to our currently “Orange” and “Green” clients.

In this blog, I want to explore a deal breaking factor highlighted by Laloux’s research. That is the importance of having a CEO and a significant proportion of the Board absolutely getting the concepts required by Teal and being able to live and role model the key principles and paradigm. Without this, it is virtually impossible for the new paradigm to take hold and sustain.

So what are some of these essential characteristics so demanded?

Firstly, there is no place for any smidgeon of ego in this paradigm. The purpose of the organisation is paramount, and this defines the organisation, its structures, and its ways. It is a product of ongoing dialogue, challenge and reflection. It lives and evolves through everyday actions and ongoing decisions.

To create purpose in this way demands that senior leaders put to one side their desire for bigger and more expansive and focus instead on what really serves. It also requires being able to hold the space for that ongoing and evolving debate, being able to listen to and hear challenge from wherever it comes and to address this in a way which engages the whole organisation. It demands mindfulness of bias, prejudice and the courage and wisdom to reinforce the agreed approaches and ways of working as that purpose evolves.

In terms of development, this means substantial self-awareness, mindfulness, wisdom and courage. In our parlance, we call these qualities “capacity” and distinguish them from what we call “capabilities”, such as technical ability and analytical skill, for example. All these are essential but need to be strongly supplemented by the components of capacity. Harder to develop but as agents of change in organisations we find it very rewarding to work in this space. To work alongside leaders as they develop their emotional awareness and intelligence, clarify their sense of purpose and align their ability to bring more of their whole selves to their endeavours is a real privilege.

I’d like to share the example Laloux cites of Buurtzorg, a Dutch provider of community nursing. Led by a former district nurse who became saddened and disillusioned by the “Orange” mechanistic paradigm dominating his work, he set up a small experimental organisation based on 10 people working as a self-managed team providing care to a defined community, as per the contract they won a chance to deliver on. Previously, nursing time was allocated by the upper echelons of the hierarchy based on the skill set of team members, 10 minutes for this dressing, 20 for that, etc. resulting in fragmented and disjointed care. Buurtzorg declared its purpose as “helping people to live meaningful autonomous lives” and nurses would spend what time was needed with someone to meet the medical needs, and to meet wider needs, engaging neighbours, family, and even the fridge, as key resources.

The continuity of care and the switch in focus built self confidence in the patients, and rebuilt connection with their nearest and dearest. It meant that people could stay at home for longer, needed fewer hospital admissions – ultimately saving around 40 per cent of healthcare costs which Buurtzorg shared back with its commissioner, the government. So successful has the model been, that Buurtzorg now holds the contracts for 60%, and rising, of community nurses in the Netherlands. The idea is being explored in the USA, UK, and other countries, with the key principles of self-managed teams of 10, supported by not much more than a bit of coaching from the central team itself, the evolving purpose, and the guiding principles of ways of working. The goal of founder, De Block, is not to grow his organisation, but to enable the purpose that defines both him, his teams and Buurtzorg, “to help people live meaningful autonomous lives”. He openly and willingly shares the principles and learning from Buurtzorg with competitors.  

In next months blog I will look in more detail at the individual development journeys required to move to Teal.

Liz Hill-Smith is a senior consultant at DPA 

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