Travelogue Part 3/4: Search for Wholeness

Here you can read part 1/4 and part 2/4.

“Search for Wholeness” is the aspect of the Teal Organization which sounds a bit esoteric to me. It’s not as easy to grab as self organization. However, it’s all the more important and a key part of our success. When I say success, I don’t necessarily mean the economic figures, but the joy we’ve developed at work.

Wholeness is best expressed with a quote from one of our contributors Karl, who recently joined the team: “I soon realized, at /gh, I’m not only considered a human ressource, but a whole human being – the company culture allows everyone to unfold. Besides exciting projects, I can also grow as a person.”

Wholeness means that we strive to integrate the whole being into working life. This includes feelings, needs and the resulting doubts, moods and contradictions. In contrast, in orange, performance oriented organizations, only the rational part of the human mind is appreciated. This leads to a culture in which people wear a “professional mask” and hide other parts of themselves. This sucks a lot of energy, and neglects an important part of human intelligence.

At first I thought we haven’t had much progress for this aspect of the teal organiaztion. At a closer look, however, I’ve discovered a few qualities of our culture which I think belong into the category of “wholeness”.

Here is what I found:


Values are rather part of the green aspect of an organization. We work with shared values since years. I want to mention them in the context of wholeness anyhow, because values can be an important guide along the way.

We identified our shared values with the “Mountains and Valleys” exercise.

These are our shared values:

  • Openness
  • Simplicity
  • Pioneering
  • Learn-To-Fail
  • Mutual Trust
  • Happiness

These values aren’t just a nice buzzword to be posted on the wall. We refer to them often in day to day work decisions and they provide guidance whenever we need orientation.

Appreciation Round

Every three weeks, we have a so called “meta meeting”. We start this meeting with a kudos round in which we openly share appreciation for one another. It’s not about praising people. It’s about what someone has done, that has helped me or the team. This is invaluable feedback by which we learn how we can enrich each others lives.

For me, these are the best ten minutes. Time and again, I’m impressed how supportive the team is and how much energy is unlocked by expressing gratitude and apperciation.

Non Violent Communication

Non violent communication has become more popular recently in business. This doesn’t surprise me, considering that it can be a very effective way of communicating. For us, it became more than just a means to an end. It’s an attitude, that deeply changes how we relate to each other and our customers.

The basic assumption of non violent communication is that our behaviour is driven by our needs. Unconsciously, we apply strategies to manipulate the world, so our needs are going to be met. These strategies are often ineffective and create unnecessary harm and suffering.

If we recognize, that all human beings are happy to contribute to one another’s well being, we can spare all the strategizing, trying to force people to do what we want, and learn to ask instead. This is much more direct and joyful.

This form of communication requires a lot of practice and change of attitude. Sometimes we seek support from an external NVC coach. Also, in case of a larger conflict, a mediator trained in NVC can be helpful.

Safe Space

If we communicate non violently, a safe space arises. Safe means, we can express ourselves without being afraid to be judged by others. This is a basic requirement for us to be able to drop our professional masks. In many work environments, these masks are worn to protect oneself. Everyday work is often experienced as a sort of “fight”.

Safe space also means that one is being heard. When someone raises an issue, the meeting facilitator makes sure the group is staying with the person’s issue and others don’t distract with their own agenda. Being truly heard is rare in a world of perpetual distraction. When meeting participants aren’t distracted with their own agenda, the intelligence of the whole group is focused on the person’s issue.


Retrospectives in combination with safe space are very powerful. We know retrospectives from Scrum, a framework for agile software development. We use Scrum for larger software projects since years.

During a retrospective, we reflect about the process and see how we can improve it. It’s important to be willing to learn from failures and don’t take them personally. This is a lot easier in a safe space, where one is not judged for mistakes. Failures are more considered an opportunity to learn and grow.

What’s next

We have a lot of ideas regarding wholeness which we haven’t tried yet. For instance, we have been talking about a sort of peer mentoring program, in which the team is mentoring one another in a more formal manner. If you have ideas on how to bring more wholeness into working life, please let me know on twitter.

Travelogue Part 2/4: Key Principles of Self-organization

Read part 1/4 here.

Self-organization sounded like chaos at first. Everyone is doing whatever comes to mind. But the chaos we had already. So we couldn’t lose anything and were keen to try something new.

Self-organizing companies are like ecosystems. There is no central place, in which all the decisions are made. Let’s take a forest, for example. There is no CEO tree making all the decisions. A forest may seem chaotic, but at a closer look, it’s a balanced ecosystem.

Now you’d think that a small agency with just ten employees can’t be all that complex. In reality, the opposite is true. The complexity starts within every one of us, with all our contradictions and fluctuations. In the daily business of an agency, every project and client is different. We don’t sell a mass product, and that’s why a one size fits all approach doesn’t work.

There are well refined and field-tested frameworks for self-organization, such as Holocracy®. We have decided to develop our own system step by step. This has the advantage that we can adjust things to our needs and don’t have to switch everything from day one. Going one step at a time allows us to gradually catch up with our minds, behavior, and culture.

With software development, it’s the same, by the way. I can take a ready-made system such as Ruby on Rails. However, if I have requirements that go beyond, the framework can be quite limiting.

The balance in the forest is based on principles. So we need strong principles for self-organization to work too.

Here are the three most important principles we’ve already implemented:

The Advice Process

A common misunderstanding of self-organization is that we have to take all decisions democratically and with consensus. That’s not the case, because consensus and democratic decisions are slow, inflexible, and hard to scale.

Instead, we make decisions where they need to be taken by the contributor who wants to bring about change. However, it’s essential to ask for advice and make use of collective intelligence to make the best possible decision.

That’s why the Advice Process is at the core of self-organization, and this is how it’s defined:

Any contributor can make any decision after seeking advice from 1) everyone who will be meaningfully affected, and 2) people with expertise in the matter. Source: Reinventing Organizations Wiki

Sounds simple, but in reality, it’s not easy to implement, because the old thinking that we learned in life “To ask for permission” is so deeply rooted. It takes patience to unlearn it.

Even today, two years after introducing the advice principle, I see it happening that we wait for permission, or there is disorientation because it’s not clear who makes the decision.

The contributor who sees the need for change needs to make the decision. As a contributor I propose change and ask for advice to refine my proposal to make the best possible decision.

Full Transparency

Next, we need full transparency for self-organization. To make the right decisions, the team needs access to all information. As a small business, we didn’t have much to hide. We rarely talked about finances, however. How much profit did we make? How much of that goes as dividends to the shareholders, and how much is reinvested?

It’s important to not only make information generally accessible, but make it visible, so the team looks at it regularly. The raw data often doesn’t help much. If the team needs to decide whether they can hire a new employee or not, they need to know the company’s financial situation. Just checking the account balance won’t do the job.

That is why we have a few KPIs which we check regularly. We are working on a dashboard to make this information easily accessible to everyone.

Circles & Roles

As a small business, we need to handle a broad and diverse range of tasks with just a few people. That means, as part of the team, I take a wide range of roles instead of just a particular one like in an orange organization, at the production line, for example. For that, we use the concept of roles and circles.

A role pursues a defined purpose and has clear accountabilities. As part of the team, I’m taking various roles, some of them long term, some temporary, e.g., in a meeting. As a project coordinator, for example, I coordinate the project’s budget and schedule, and as the Product Owner, I represent the customer internally and manage the product’s requirements. Both roles can be taken by the same person.

The Product Owner role, we already know from Scrum, a framework for agile software development. That’s why the concept of roles isn’t new to us. The difference is that we now apply this to the whole company and add a process to refine the roles as needed.

In addition to the roles, we also have circles. You can call it a team or a task force if you will. Just like a role, a circle has a defined purpose and accountabilities. Circles can also be long term, for Marketing, for example, or temporary, to push a project. Every two weeks, we meet in the meta circle to chat about each circle’s progress and assign new tasks and projects.

As a contributor, I can freely decide which roles to take on and in which circles to participate. That allows us to react very flexibly to new challenges.

Example: Self-setting salaries

How we are setting our salaries serves as an excellent example of all three principles.

Setting salaries works like any other decision. The salary is self-set and follows the Advice Process. We had considered using a formula like the startup Buffer is doing, for example. That didn’t work for us, though. Salaries are way too complex to break it down into a simple formula. This example demonstrates how powerful the Advice Process in combination with full transparency is in dealing with complexity.

Here is how it works: when I want to adjust my salary, I create a salary change request. The request is a sort of open letter to myself. I have a few guiding questions to help me reflect on it and find a good salary. The letter helps me and others to get a feel for how I’ve come to a decision. I can see change requests of other contributors, too, and set it in relation. I also have an insight into company financials and can get a feel for whether we can afford the raise or not (Full Transparency).

I’m sending my salary change request to the salary circle (Circles & Roles), which meets to consult about the request to give me advice (Advice Principle). Possible, that I have a bit exaggerated with my raise or perhaps I was too modest. Important to note is that this is just advice to help me as a contributor taking the right decision. In the end, I’m making the decision myself. Once I’ve made the decision, I inform the salary circle as well as the role responsible for payroll accounting to make the change.

So far, we have had three change requests, and things are working well.

In the next part 3/4, I’ll be reporting on our progress in the “Search for Wholeness”.

Travelogue Part 1/4: On the Way to become a Teal Organization

This year, we are celebrating the 10th anniversary of our digital agency /gebrüderheitz. I often feel lucky that our company is still alive after all the ups and downs we had along the way. In this article, I’m telling our story and relate it to Frederic Laloux’s book “Reinventing Organizations” and the “Teal Organization.”

A Journey

I love to travel. About five years ago, we decided to go fully remote. That has allowed me to follow my passion for traveling extensively. I like to see the development of a company as a journey. When I travel, I go out to explore, adapt to new environments, self reflect, and learn new things. The same is true for us as an organization. We explore new technologies and find new and better ways to serve our customers, constantly adapt to a fast-paced industry, self reflect in retrospectives, and learn new things. The organization is like a living being, growing, and embarking on a journey.

The organism is used as a metaphor for the “Teal Organization,” as defined by Frederic Laloux. The color “Teal” describes a stage in the development of human consciousness. We develop in stages, and in each stage, there are significant breakthroughs in all areas, from technology to human collaboration. The Philosopher Ken Wilber describes these in the Integral Theory. Frederic Laloux is building up on that and applies this theory to management and human collaboration. He studies the radical change, that we can already witness in a few pioneering companies around the world.

Orange: The Organization as a Machine

On our journey as an organization, we’ve gone through ups and downs. My brother and I founded the company in 2010. He’s an engineer, and I’m a Designer. It was a good fit, and we already had a few clients from our previous freelancing careers. We soon wanted to extend the team and found people who were curious to join us on our journey.

When you start hiring people, a lot of things change. We were confronted with questions like who’s taking which decision, and how do we organize ourselves? Who’s going to take care of things like HR, Marketing, and Sales, which is becoming more important as we grow. An organizational structure is necessary, and leadership skills are required, which I hadn’t had acquired during my time as a freelancer. I was curious, wanted to learn, and started reading management literature.

In traditional management literature, companies are often considered a machine. It needs clearly defined processes, and everyone in the team has to fulfill a specific function. Frederic Laloux describes this as the orange stage, emerging from a modern, performance-oriented worldview.

As the CEO, I have the responsibility to coordinate things. If something goes wrong, I have to fix the machine. I’m fine with the processes. I like it when things are well organized. It meets my need for security. What didn’t work for me was the idea that I thought I had to take full responsibility as the CEO if something went wrong and was solely responsible for fixing it.

In hindsight, I know that, in the role of the CEO, I can’t know all by myself what’s best for the company. The team knows that much better.

Green: The Organization as a Family

I doubted myself as a “manager” and entrepreneur. The way I thought I had to run a company just didn’t suit me. I was close to giving up. This inner conflict was leading us into a downturn, and we announced to the team that we wanted to close the business.

Instead of closing, we scaled down to a team of four. With this size, we were agile and didn’t need much structure nor management.

We made it through the valley, and after a year, things have been picking up again. This time it was different. The machine metaphor didn’t work for us, so we unconsciously went back to the family model. We are a family run business, after all.

Frederic Laloux describes this with the green stage, which is based on a postmodern, pluralistic worldview. I felt much better; it was my comfort zone. Flat hierarchies released some of the burdens I felt before in the role of the CEO. Our team trusted me, and this has helped me to overcome my self-doubts.

Happiness was one of our core values, and the well being of each team member was important to us.

Old Problems, New Ideas

We were growing again, and with the growing team, the old problems came back. Soon, we’ve been overstrained, and our highly valued happiness was in danger of being lost.

During this time, in the role of the CEO, I considered myself a service agent. It was my job to serve the team and remove all their impediments so that they could work effectively. That worked quite well, as long as everyone knew what needed to be done. However, there was a lack of orientation, and the anti-authoritarian attitude was leading us into chaos. That was slowing down our growth again. We didn’t know how to make decisions effectively, so we avoided them.

The search for orientation began once again. After months of growth pain, my search ended when a good friend recommended me the book “Reinventing Organizations.” I watched the introductory talk on youtube and got instantly excited.

For the first time, I heard about a new way of running organizations that felt right to me. That is how I had hoped to run companies, and somebody put it into words and prove it with real-world examples.

I felt deeply understood. The self-doubt vanished. I was encouraged. I wanted to go into that direction and told my brother Claudius about it. A few weeks later, we had our first workcamp, where we announced this new direction to the team.

It was one of our core values, the “Pioneering Spirit,” which was the main driver for this change. We were keen to try something radically different in the way we worked together.

The business model of a digital agency is quite boring. There is not much innovation to find. Only in the way, how we work together and serve our clients, we can make a difference.

Teal: The Organization as an Organism

The teal stage emerges from an integral, evolutionary worldview. The organization is seen as a living system, with its own will and a purpose that it likes to express. As a business founder, I don’t oppose my will on the organization but rather listen to what it wants.

The teal organization is based on three disruptive ideas:

  1. Self-organization: how can we distribute authority, work effectively and use our collective intelligence, without the need of a top-down hierarchy?
  2. Search for wholeness: how can we create an environment in which we can be whole, including our feelings and needs, and integrate the wisdom emerging from that in our work?
  3. Evolutionary purpose: how can we create an environment where we can express our purpose and stay open to let it evolve?

In the following three articles, I will describe how we’ve developed in each of these areas, what we have learned along the way, and what we plan to do next.

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