Beginnings of a book group: first session on Frederic Laloux’ Reinventing Organizations

Originally posted by Nick Wilding here

Reinventing Organizations cover

Last Thursday, nine of us – a mix of folk from across the third, private and public service sector – met to talk about Frederic Laloux’s book Reinventing Organisations (see

This was the next in a few ‘ideas’ events we’ve had as part of the Skilled Workers, Skilled Citizens initiative of Scottish Leaders’ Forum. I hosted the session in Victoria Quay (Edinburgh) – hoping that some of my new colleagues from Scottish Government might be able to join (and many thanks to those who found the time…).

As this was the first time we’d met as a book group, we started with a check-in about how we felt about reading books in general.

It turned out that

  • Some of us haven’t ever really read much – but were up for the challenge
  • Some of us are already part of other book groups and love debating ideas
  • Some of us feel swamped by other things and rarely get the chance to read a book properly – so it felt like a ‘luxury’; and
  • Some of us are writers and are interested in why some books get noticed…

I then explained I’d suggested this book as a starter because:

  • Three people told me to read it last year. I also saw that lots of different networks are talking about it;
  • When I got round to reading it over Easter I couldn’t put it down. The ideas/stories/examples in it are inspiring/provocative, the tone and language is easy to engage with… it’s a good read; and
  • It gave me some ideas about how to go about bringing together stories and ideas from SWSC pioneer sites into a toolkit/resource/publication.

Before we got together, most of us had emailed a quote from the book that jumped out at us (see these at the bottom of this blog). This turned out to be a great way to discover what others are seeing in the book and why and helped get the conversation started. We agreed we’d try the same approach next time too.

One person couldn’t be there, so I read the quote she’d sent in:

“Crashing through the woods is how we have learned to be together in organisations.  All it takes to scare the soul away is to make a sarcastic comment or to roll the eyes in a meeting.  If we are to invite all of who we are to show up, including the shy inner voice of the soul, we need to create safe and caring spaces at work.  We must learn to discern and be mindful of the subtle ways our words and actions undermine safety and trust in a community of colleagues.”

This was from Chapter 2.4 – ‘Striving for Wholeness (General Practices)’. I’d suggested we all read that chapter because so much of what it contains seems in tune with what pioneer sites from Skilled Workers, Skilled Citizens are already doing – practical ways to try to put relationships and trust are before targets and tick-boxes. I also really liked the focus in this chapter on practices – that is, the practical things that –according to Laloux’ in any case – seem to be having some remarkable results in making what he calls ‘teal’ organizations more effective than other types (‘orange’ and ‘green’) that have gone before – there’s a neat animation giving an overview of this thinking here:

Our conversation really livened up when we realised that some of us absolutely loved the book – and others had some real concerns.

For example, earlier on in our conversation some we talked about Laloux’ key ideas that pioneer organizations focus on creating the conditions whereby people can be trusted to such an extent that small self-managed teams can render traditional HR, target-setting, and other forms of managerial control redundant.

We had talked through some of the innovations in feedback and decision making that – according to Laloux – help make this possible: practices like ‘non-violent communication’, dialogue, coaching and ‘holacracy’ (many of which are already familiar to folk involved in Workforce Scotland’s current offers).

But then one of us said: is it really that helpful to take away these controls – for example all the gains that HR has made in ensuring equality of opportunity – for example in recruitment, or through redundancy processes? At a time of austerity?

This was a great challenge. It really helped us to begin to dig into the meat of Laloux’ narrative: he is making a provocative and strong case to show that different types of organizations exist according to the paradigm – or consciousness – of the CEO and governing board. Although pioneering innovations originating from more ‘enlightened’ mindsets can flourish under the radar, or in pockets, for a while… Laloux’ argument is that they cannot survive unless they are embodied and modeled consistently from the top – because the transition to a ‘teal’ approach needs a constancy of commitment, awareness and skilfulness to stay the course of the transition from old habits that can too easily snap back into place – like an addict craving familiar patterns – with any setback.

From my perspective, this clarity seems really helpful. I have heard over and again over the past two years – listening to many pioneers across Scotland’s public services – that there are indeed many examples of under the radar enlightened practice; pocketed across the vast and varied landscape of Scotland’s public services.

The most convincing stories I’ve found have – however – been in places where that ‘top cover’ has been present in the form of leaders who are genuinely willing to walk the talk of more participative, compassionate, self-aware and collaborative leadership practice. To let go of a professional identity based primarily on being an expert – or the person to ‘sort’ something… to being someone intent on creating, modelling and guarding enabling organisational structures and practices that are fit for the purpose of enabling everyone – workers and citizens alike – to grow in confidence and ability to re-invent our services together.

For me, the quote about ‘crashing through the woods’ underlines this: it points to ways in which almost all of us have learned to protect parts of ourselves from the sometimes bruising experience (especially in the past) of how public services have been run. For some of us, our original motivation for deciding to spend our working lives in public service  can seem too far away from the everyday reality of unhappy workplaces.

To recover our sense of connection to ourselves, our colleagues and most importantly all our fellow citizens on whose behalf we work…. It makes sense to me that we need books like Laloux’ that makes a strong case for a combination of conscious leadership, innovations in the ways organizations are structured, and large-scale up-skilling in the kinds of practices that might help us all – whether we’re in a community organization or a public sector monolith’ – from ‘crashing’ towards ‘going lightly’ through the woods so we can actually hear each other as we travel, and come to know in intimate detail the uniqueness of every place and person.

And it was also brilliant to have a chance to talk all this through with the voices of caution from colleagues in the book group – for my money, this is about the only way to stay honest in trying to help with this complex, challenging and also inspiring job that the we – the people of Scotland – and through Scottish Ministers – want to see done.

Now, those last three paragraphs are my take on the conversation we had – and I make no claim to them being the views of those who were there. But in writing them out, I’m hoping some others might also like to break cover and write up some thoughts (perhaps as a comment on this post)?

We’ve agreed to meet up again – and it’s an open invitation, so please do come along if you can make it to Edinburgh and will have a chance to read the next book. We agreed that every 6 weeks or 2 months seemed about right.

Quotes that participants in this group pulled out of Reinventing Organisations before the session:

  • “Einstein once famously said that problems couldn’t be solved with the same level of consciousness that created them in the first place.  Perhaps we need to access a new stage of consciousness, a new world view, to reinvent organisations.
  • What do organisations moulded around the next stage of consciousness look and feel like?  Is it already possible to describe their structures, practices, processes and cultures (in other words, to conceptualise the organisational model) in useful detail, to help other people set up similar organisations”
  • “the organization (is) no longer (viewed) as property, not even shared property in service of its different stakeholders. The organization is viewed as an energy field, emerging potential, a form of life that transcends its stakeholders, pursuing its own unique evolutionary purpose. In that paradigm, we don’t “run” the organization, not even if we are the founder or legal owner. Instead, we are stewards of the organization; we are the vehicle that listens in to the organization’s deep creative potential to help it do its work in the world.”
  • “as human beings, we are not problems waiting to be solved, but potential waiting to unfold.”
  • “Crashing through the woods is how we have learned to be together in organisations.  All it takes to scare the soul away is to make a sarcastic comment or to roll the eyes in a meeting.  If we are to invite all of who we are to show up, including the shy inner voice of the soul, we need to create safe and caring spaces at work.  We must learn to discern and be mindful of the subtle ways our words and actions undermine safety and trust in a community of colleagues.
  • “Unencumbered by deep soulful questions, our ego reaches the peak of its dominance at this stage [achievement orange] as we invest it with all our hopes of achievement and success”
  • “RHD, like AES and FAVI, is explicitly founded on a number of basic assumptions about people and work— in the case of RHD, that 1) all people are of equal human worth , 2) people are essentially good unless proven otherwise , and 3) there is no single way to manage corporate issues well . Each of RHD’s programs is run by a self- managing team, with an average of 20 and at most 40 to 50 people. Units, as these teams are called within RHD, are encouraged to develop their own sense of purpose, pride, and identity.”
  • ‘Wisdom traditions affirm that when we act from deep integrity, the universe conspires to support us’