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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