The systems thinking blindspot of Reinventing Organizations fans

There’s a certain subset of over-zealous, dogmatic Reinventing Organizations fans I affectionately like to call Lalouxnatics. To them, the concept of ‘Teal’ is like an unquestionable gospel.

Lalouxnatics tend to be fans of systems thinking but they miss a vital understanding of one of the most powerful concepts in systems thinking: the ability to transcend paradigms altogether.

To explore this, let’s refer to a true hero and legend of systems thinking — the late, great Donella Meadows.

In Meadows’ wonderful (and mercifully easy to read for ordinary-sized brain people like me) book Thinking in Systems: A primer, a highlight is her list of ways to intervene in a system to change its fate.

These leverage points are ranked in order of their potency at driving deep change in systems. Here are the top three:

Three: Changing the purpose or goal of the system

This is an easy one for Lalouxnatics. Moving from a fixation on profit or consensus to an evolving purpose which responds to needs in the world is an incredibly powerful way to change a system like a company. [side-note: watch out for the problems with ‘evolutionary purpose’]

Two: Changing paradigms

This is the nub of it for the Lalouxnatics. Changing the organisational paradigm to Teal is their key to unlocking better outcomes.

Many challenges to the Teal paradigm are met with self-referential criticism like ‘Ah but if you think that then you are really Orange not Teal.’ A criticism which only holds up if you accept the Teal paradigm, which is the thing in question. They’re missing the next level-up.

One: Transcending paradigms

The most powerful way to change a system is to transcend paradigms altogether. It’s about uncovering and questioning the fundamental assumptions which lie deeper than our values and paradigms.

Ironically, the paradigm of Teal was only envisaged by questioning basic assumptions about organisations so it’s strange to see it held so tightly by so many followers.

We can move beyond a fixation on Teal, or even other, futuristic new organisational paradigms that might lie beyond it. When we enter this deeper realm we can question:

  • What are organisations? Do they even exist?
  • Is it essential or useful to consider an organisation as a thing — an entity in its own right which has some kind of edge?
  • What if it’s not about ‘reinventing organisations’ but transcending organisational thinking altogether and looking for deeper, more fundamental models of how humans can collaborate to realise ideas in the world?

What new vantage point might questions like these get us to?

When we fully transcend our paradigms, we are left in a state where we can deeply understand the world and at the same time accept that we don’t really know anything at all. When we get there and bathe in the paradox, Meadows likens it to what ancient wisdom cultures might call enlightenment.

Having met Frederic Laloux I believe he’s a deeply wise soul who understands all of this. Towards the end of Reinventing Organizations he speculates what might lie beyond Teal and makes reference to questioning paradigms.

Unfortunately this has been lost on many of his followers. I cringe every time I see consultants going so far as to include the word ‘Teal’ in their company name, as if Teal is the final destination, or the thing to be focussed on.

So don’t be a Lalouxnatic. Hold the Teal paradigm lightly. Embrace it, hack it, and critique it. Be ready to transcend it and look for more fundamental paradigms. And begin to transcend your paradigms altogether. It’s all deliciously complex out there.

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