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InfoQ Homepage Articles Robot Says "Culture" - Moving towards Teal

Robot Says "Culture" - Moving towards Teal


Key Takeaways

  • Teal is a colour within a sequence of colours that have evolved over time, which represent the predominant state of consciousness of the organization
  • Each colour paradigm had significant breakthroughs which enabled an evolutionary leap in thinking; the teal breakthroughs are self-management, evolutionary purpose and wholeness
  • Your own journey towards teal-type working should be your own. Look to others for inspiration, but don’t copy them as they are not you, and you have your own individual challenges and needs
  • Teal is analogous to culture, therefore there is no end state; culture is something which needs to be cultivated as it continually adapts to changes within the organization
  • Implementing teal-type working can lead to significant productivity and profitability gains

Most organizations are currently stuck.

Their energy is spent propping up legacy systems held together with chewing gum and sticky tape, or if they are "innovating", they mostly are just trying to play catch up with newer, faster competitors.

The reason that they cannot progress from this stuck position is not a question of resources. I’ve worked with some of the Goliaths of this world who had all the people, money and technology they needed to dominate their markets once again, but just could not turn this size advantage into a competitive advantage.

The underlying reason for their stagnation is a matter of organizational culture.

"Culture eats strategy for breakfast" said Peter Drucker, and I firmly believe in this statement.

If you have a great strategy but a poor culture, then your people will be at the mercy of the dysfunctions in the culture and will not deliver on your strategy as they work in self-interest and are guided by invisible and often destructive cultural rules.

If you have a great culture and a poor strategy, your people will work together to support the purpose of the organization and create a better strategic approach, as they feel connected to each other and to the organization through more than a payroll number.

What is Teal?

Teal is still just a colour. It is one of a set of colours which represent the pre-dominant state of consciousness of an organization.

Influenced by Ken Wilber’s work on Spiral Dynamics, Frederic Laloux helped us reach a deeper understanding of the Teal state of consciousness in his book "Reinventing Organizations".

Laloux shows how this state of consciousness has morphed over time with breakthroughs achieved at each stage enabling new methods for working which were not possible in the previous paradigms (colours).

Even though the colours appeared over the course of time, this does not mean that one colour replaces another when a new shift occurs. Often, organizations get stuck in one predominant style of thinking due to it being deeply set within its culture, and this is where most organizations find themselves today- stuck.

  Colour & Metaphor

  Defining Traits

  Breakthrough Enablers

  Example Organization


  (Organization as a





  Top Down Authority

  Division of Labour

  Early Settlements



  (Organization as an Army)




  Replicable Process

  Defined Roles

  Catholic Church



  (Organization as a


  Formal Management

  Profit Focused


  Innovation Accountability   


  Large Organizations

  Public  Universities


  (Organization as a Family)



  Customer Focus


  Values-Driven Culture

  Stakeholder Value

  Ben & Jerry’s

  Southwest Airlines


  (Organization as a

  Living Organism)

  Higher Purpose

  Distributed Decision-Making


  Evolutionary Purpose



  Morning Star

The Teal Breakthrough Enablers

The breakthroughs at each stage are the enablers of the ideas that made this new state of consciousness successful.

The enablers for the Teal paradigm are:

  • Self-Management
  • Evolutionary Purpose
  • Wholeness


Self-management is replacing the practice of directed-management or even micro-management.

In his book "Turn the Ship Around", Captain David Marquet told us:

"The way it works in most organizations is the people at the bottom of the organizational chart have the information but not the authority to make decisions. We create systems so that they can channel the information up and then it comes back down and they get to execute."

In his book "Drive", when talking about autonomy, Dan Pink helped us understand:

"Our self-direction is a natural inclination."

Including multiple layers of management and authority in an organization severely impedes progress. Some examples of this are:

  • The speed of decision making is much slower as it goes through multiple layers of approval.
  • The quality of decision making is worse, as when the information travels upwards through the layers of the organization and is filtered through people’s own understanding of the problem and how it serves their self-interest; leading to the problem and the urgency of it being distorted and leading to ineffective resolutions.
  • The people in the process do not feel ownership of their work, as they do not feel they have enough influence over their work to be truly committed to it, leading to a lack of engagement and general disaffection in the workplace.

Reinventing organizations suggests that the advice process is the key enabler to self-management. The advice process in summary, is a process which is designed to empower everyone within the organization to make the decisions that they feel need to be made (including spending the money they need to support those decisions). However, before making a decision, the individual should seek advice from others in the organization who have a perspective on the problem, and advice from those that will be impacted by the decision to inform their choice. Once they have this additional information, they are then empowered to act.

Matt Black Systems, a UK-based aerospace engineering organization, has been operating as a self-managed entity for over 10 years. They suggest that individual accountability and the systems and data which support individual accountability are the key enablers that allow them to be successful in working this way.

Evolutionary Purpose

Evolutionary Purpose is replacing the concept of the five-year plan, and the confinements of classification (i.e. we are a shoe repairer; we are a phone manufacturer).

Reinventing organizations describes the teal state of consciousness as a "living organism" and encourages us to "listen to where the organization needs to go".

Our fixed notions of what an organization is, and what rules govern it and its growth, limit our visions of it’s true potential. Additionally, if any key strategic decisions are made, they will typically be made by a few people at the top of an organization who have limited information and limited visibility of the impact of their decisions.

Our people are our best and most direct sensors for what the market wants from us, and should be empowered to act on what they are hearing and seeing in order to respond to customer’s true needs. This idea of sense & respond allows us to transcend any limitations we have of what the organization is, and enables us to be responsive to what the world is calling for us to be.

There are great examples within Timpson’s (Shoe Repair) and Buurtzorg (Health Care) where ideas which came from those working directly with customers, acting on what they heard, led to beneficial additional services for customers, increased revenue and profit for the organization, and a positive shift in the organizations direction. These ideas were not on a road-map or apart of some strategic plan; they were enabled through a culture of empowerment and a mindset of sense and respond.

At Buurtzorg, a Home Care organization based in the Netherlands, the CEO teaches his competitors Buurtzorg’s secret sauce. Buurtzorg has a noble mission (one that transcends the business goals) which is "Patients should lead rich autonomous lives". When you have a noble mission, one that is truly in service of others, then anyone that is on the same mission as you is an ally and supporting them supports your mission, irrespective of who gains more market share.

Steve Jobs, with his noble mission to "Remove the barrier of having to learn technology" has allowed Apple’s purpose to transcend, dominate and even create industries.


Wholeness replaces the notion of the corporate mask, being a team player or the more traditional concept of the company man, all of which involve having to adopt a different persona within the organization for you to be able to fit in, the implication being that if you don’t "fit in", then you may be pushed out or marginalized in some way.

Throughout our day we switch the mask we are wearing to fit in with our surroundings. We traverse societal culture and corporate culture changing like a chameleon in order to survive another day. It’s exhausting and disorientating, often leaving us with no real sense of our own self and who we truly are anymore.

This point is articulated (and illustrated) excellently in the illustrated version of reinventing organizations. Laloux shows us how organizational culture values such things as ego over our deeper-self, masculine traits over feminine traits, and by the time this reconfiguration of our personality happens, we are left with merely 1/16th of our true-self showing up in the workplace.

I believe that this inability to be ourselves, our whole-self, our authentic-self, is one of the key reasons we have seen such a steep rise in mental health problems in recent years.

Modern culture encourages us to look externally for validation (e.g. using social media to validate our life choices, even down to a level of asking others to validate our meal choices and how beautifully presented they are). We are so focused on this external validation, it stops us from taking time to reflect inwardly and understanding our own self, our own needs, our own purpose.

If we were more connected to our deeper-self, we would then be able to act more in line with what our own evolutionary purpose is and be able to make the decisions both in work and life to support that purpose.

Moving towards Teal-Type Working

Self-management, evolutionary purpose and wholeness; these are our goals. There is no single way to get there, no formula for you to follow; no book and no consultancy can tell you the "right way" to do this.

Which one do we start with, how do we start, where do we start?

  • We can hold an open and honest all-hands approach as a call to action for the whole organization, or we can have a quiet revolution.
  • We can construct the environments and practices which will see positive change, or we can deconstruct the environments and practices which exist today that are leading to destructive behaviour.
  • We can start with the one of the three goals that we feel is most valuable and will enable the other goals, or we can try to implement parts of all three simultaneously.

There are many ways to start, and none of them is the "right way".

If you look at the case of Best Buy (a US electronics retailer), they implemented the all-hands approach, made everyone in the organization accountable for their part in the change and focused heavily on wholeness at work, deconstructing negative culture and banning thinly veiled negative comments (which they refer to as "sludge"). So their approach was focused on deconstructing the negative.

Looking at Heiligenfeld (a German mental health and rehabilitation care), they have focused on building positive practices which are largely focused on wholeness, encouraging their staff to be their authentic self at work. Heiligenfeld offers meditation classes, regular coaching, and physical spaces to encourage vulnerability and humanity at work so their staff can connect with each other at a deeper level and know how to support each other better.

Laloux believes that the effort will not truly be successful without the full support of the board and the CEO, and I agree with him. After leading many large-scale change programmes and being told I had board level support, I went on to see programmes implode as the corporate anti-bodies designed to protect the existing status-quo within the culture came out to attack and ultimately kill many of those change programmes.

Laloux also warns that this support must be authentic. If the support is there, but only because the CEO/Board are motivated by a belief that the change in working practices and culture will lead to increased profit, then they will never truly support you; and while good may come out of it, true change will always be hindered by this lack of authenticity in support.

My concern for teal is that like agile before it, it will become commoditized in a way that supports teal as a product, something to be delivered, leading to the repeated road-trip question on our journey of "Are we there yet ... are we agile yet ... are we teal yet". Whilst books will provide information and clarity, and even courses have their place to help you get started with your first step, do not seek teal as a destination. A healthy culture, one that makes your people feel engaged in what they are doing, is what you should be focusing on, with the advice regarding teal acting as training wheels or a guide rope to support the first steps of your journey.

I see teal as analogous to culture. Culture (as with teal) is not an end state in itself. It is something to be cultivated, something which will grow and evolve and must be cared for and nurtured; it is a living organism which will be constantly adapting and changing so needs to be cared for constantly. Your culture does not have to be the same as Google’s, Facebook’s or anyone else’s culture. Your culture is unique to your organization.

Most organizations today are stuck in an orange state of consciousness and culture. The journey from orange to teal will not happen in one leap; it is a journey of many steps, over rocky terrain, following a meandering and unseen path. Many of you embarking on that journey may never see enough change to classify your organization as a teal organization, but you may be able to move it from an unhealthy orange to a healthier orange, which in itself will bring many positive benefits.

There will be strong resistance along the way as the corporate anti-bodies are powerful, so start where you can be successful. Look for the changes that you can make without having to alert those on the lookout for threats to their kingdoms. Find those that believe what you believe and collaborate with them to align on changes that you can support each other with.

Simon Sinek tells us in Start with Why to "Focus on the people who believe what you believe." When you do this, things become infinitely easier to achieve. 

If we start where we can be successful, working in alliance with those who believe what we believe, then positive change will happen, and once we build momentum towards this positive change, then even the anti-bodies, the kingdom builders, and the disengaged and disaffected will take notice of the change that is happening, the tipping point will come and a new culture will emerge.

Be deliberate with your culture, understand what healthy and unhealthy looks like and actively work to build environments that support positive behaviours and allow humanity back into the workplace. Looking at the example of Heiligenfeld (mental health and rehabilitation hospitals in Germany), it is considered normal that within the day there are moments for employees to pause, reflect and share their struggles with colleagues so they can support and learn from each other. Four times a year Heiligenfeld has a mindfulness day in which staff and patients spend the day in silence, as it forces us to be more aware of non-verbal cues and to listen and observe more intently. 

In a U.S. Gallup Poll from February 2017 it was recorded that only 30% of American workers felt engaged in their work – this is reflective of global trends too. I believe that deliberately focusing on culture will activate the vast majority of the disengaged; this means that the return on investment for culture improvements could be the most significant investment that any organization can make today as it can reclaim the lost productivity from the 70% of disengaged people within their workforce.

Of all the work you did last year on your 2020 strategy plan, how much of it was focused on a strategy for improving culture?

I can’t remember- did I already tell you that "Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast" is a true story, dont y'know?

About the Author

Ash Sheikh is an executive agile coach & culture coach. He creates positive culture and delivers successful outcomes for the world’s largest enterprise organizations across a multitude of industries including finance, telecom, airline, music and motor sport. Ash believes that Change needs to be implemented in a way that the people in the organisation can accept and welcome rather than resist. He is an expert in creating change which is both holistic (so that we are creating healthy change) and accepted (so that the change, and your investment in the change, sticks). Underneath all of that, Ash is  you, he is just another human making his way around this rock of ours. He believes in helping others overcome the challenges we all face, both organizational challenges and human challenges, he does that by talking and writing. You can read his writing about Organizational and Human challenges here.

"Gaining knowledge is the first step to wisdom, sharing it is the first step to humanity." - Unknown

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