Moving to Teal Is Harder Than We Thought

Written by Helen Sanderson and originally published here.

“We are skilled communicators and I don’t know why we are forcing ourselves into this unnatural, rigid structure to make decisions!”

This was the feedback from one of the team after our first Governance Meeting last week. The comment echoes the frustrations at the beginning of Harvard Business Review article ‘Beyond the Holacracy Hype’. The authors describe the progress and challenges that Zappos is making, and this made me reflect on our journey so far.

Although the discomfort and frustration my colleague expressed was clear, there were several other team members who commented favourably on the meeting structure:

“I like the way that we hear from everyone in a focused way without general conversation.”

Jo, who facilitated the meeting, reminded us of the reassuring quote in the Holacracy book by Brian J Robertson stating that this level of frustration is part of the process of learning the language and process of Holacracy (but don’t get our speech and language therapist started on the inaccessible language!)

Reading the HBR article made me pause to reflect on our experience of Holacracy so far, since we implemented the change towards teal in March. Five of us are training to be Holacracy practitioners, and we have fortnightly coaching sessions with an experienced consultant to enable us to implement practices both thoughtfully and correctly. I don’t expect us to implement the whole Holacracy process, and we have not adopted the constitution. However, I think the tactical and governance meeting processes are powerful and efficient, and we have introduced these, and the clear description of roles. From talking to the people who deliver Holacracy training in the UK, it is not designed as a pick and mix approach; there is no ‘Holacracy lite’, yet the HBR article concludes with:

“Most organizations, particularly large corporations, should adopt these techniques in part, not in whole. We’d be surprised if more than 20% of the Global 1000 looked “teal” in 2030, to use Frederic Laloux’s term for “whole,” evolutionary, self-managing organizations. But we’d also be surprised if more than 20% didn’t significantly draw on some of the techniques within their corporate frameworks.”

Holacracy offers one approach to the ‘self-managing’ element of teal. This is what adopting Holacracy looks like ‘in part’ to us.

The structure of teams

In Holacracy teams are called Circles, in other places ‘pods’. In our team we don’t have a term that we are using consistently although sometimes team members refer to them as blobs or jelly beans. I will use the term ‘teams’ here. This is what our new organisational structure looks like.



You can see that several people are in more than one team, and can have multiple roles across different teams, for example Ben contributes both to the Integrated Personal Commissioning Team, as well as the Adult Social Care one. Each of the teams has a lead. The lead does not have any managerial responsibility, or additional authority over resources. Her role is to co-ordinate our contribution, for example, when a programme requires the input from multiple team members.

We are not using the Holcracy roles of lead links and rep links, as this does not feel necessary. As well as being in one or more teams, each team member has a ‘support and challenge’ buddy, usually from a different team. This is instead of a traditional supervision arrangement. The buddies decide how they use their time, and how often they meet. The purpose is that our buddy is our first call for individual support, and a safe place to offer challenge.

The self-managing process

We made the decision to move towards teal in March, and our new ways of working have been emerging since then. We have weekly Tactical Meetings on Fridays via Zoom (video conferencing). Everyone is welcome to attend these and the leads are always present.

We had our first Governance Meeting this week and will use this process as and when we need it, rather than scheduling a standard monthly meeting.

The whole of H S A comes together for two days every two months (we’ve always done this). We now start this with a Tactical Meeting, and then use the rest of our time to work on the tensions or development ideas that arise from this. We could add a Governance Meeting as well if needed. In June we had our team meeting and used a Tactical Meeting at the beginning and this was a very efficient way to identify what we needed to collectively work on. We then spent two hours looking at creating blended learning opportunities and exploring business to customer offerings.

The self-managing process requires transparent information. All team members have a monthly summary of performance (against our success indicators), our finances (including outgoings, debtors and what is in the bank) as well as social media information (followers on Twitter, Groupsite members, etc.). We also have a tracker of the work coming in. Having full information of where we are as an organisation is critical to enable everyone to contribute fully to decision-making.


We have moved from standard roles of consultants and trainers, to a range of roles that reflect our particular skills and interests, and how we are working at the moment. Each team member was asked to describe their roles, and we have refined them over the last few weeks. They are visible to everyone and held on a shared Google drive.

Here are four of mine:

Role name Purpose (essence) Accountabilities (what you can expect of me)
Scanner Finding opportunities for us to share what we are doing Identify the most relevant speaking opportunities for me and the team
Possibility maker Finding and creating opportunities for innovation and change through partnerships Develop partnerships with people and organisations who can help us demonstrate what is possible or how we can support others to achieve this
Developer Co-designing demonstration projects to show what good looks like Develop a range of projects that demonstrate what good looks like
Spokesperson Building and contributing to a range of ways for us to share who we are and what we do Build a range of opportunities to share who we are and what we doContribute to Groupsite, blog, Twitter, FB, e-lists to share what we are thinking, doing, learning

To us this process formalised the flexible way that we work to our strengths. Other organisations that have introduced Holacracy have created ways to enable colleagues to share their strengths, for example Zappos is starting to use ‘badges’ as a way to identify who has what skill or experience. We use our one-page profiles to communicate this information. The Colleague Letter of Understanding (CLOU), used at Morning Star, takes this further. A group of us have started to use Colleague Letters of Understanding in a particular project group.

As clichéd as it sounds, this is a journey. I am sure we will become more comfortable and practiced in using the Holacracy practices of Tactical and Governance meetings. I can imagine us using CLOU in the future to build on our roles and make even more explicit what we can expect from each other, and how this can be measured. In three months’ time, the organisational diagram above may look different again.

‘Moving to teal was much harder than I expected,’ observed Michelle last week. I agree. I had assumed that as we already worked together as a person-centred team, and were self-managing in several ways, that it would be easy. However, stepping up to fully embrace self-management was still a big step, and a step worth taking.

Featured Image/graphic link added by Enlivening Edge