The Most Dangerous Notion in “Reinventing Organizations”

by Jessica Prentice

A home burns in the background as the Valley Fire rages on Cobb Mountain (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2015

It was a warm and dry September day in 2015 when I drove from the San Francisco Bay Area up to Clear Lake, California, to visit a friend. That afternoon, as we swam in the lake, we noticed across the water a strange billowing cloud. By evening, the sky had turned an eerie orange. A quick internet search revealed that there was an un-contained wildfire and 10,000 acres of land had already burned. Middletown, which I had driven through earlier that day, was being evacuated. The next morning, my car was covered with a layer of ash which needed to be hosed off. When I drove home, via another route, the smell of smoke was thick in the air. With such a visceral awareness to the intensity of the nearby fire, I found myself thinking about it in relationship to two very different books I had read during the previous year (both of which had had a profound effect on my thinking), namely, Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux and Tending the Wild by M. Kat Anderson. As different as their subject matter might appear, each of these books felt immediately relevant to origins of the catastrophic fire I was witnessing.

In Reinventing Organizations, business coach Frederic Laloux describes what he considers a newly emergent social organization model, which, in his color-coded developmental model, he refers to as “Teal.” He profiles a range of organizations, from schools to manufacturing companies, from tech startups to neighborhood nursing organizations, that all have certain things in common. Namely, they are decentralized and adaptive, exhibiting a “sense and respond” approach to problems rather than the “predict and control” mode common to many modern bureaucracies or hierarchies. They are places where people bring more of their whole selves to the organization, and the organizations encourage people within them to be present and authentic — a rarity in modern commerce. They operate on trust rather than fear.

In Tending the Wild, ethnoecologist M. Kat Anderson describes the ecological management practices of Native California. She illuminates the ways in which pre-contact indigenous communities throughout what is now California managed their “resources”: water, land, food, forests, grasslands. Using a combination of first-person interviews with elders, historical documents, and biological research, Anderson paints a picture of a profoundly sustainable approach that met the human needs of millions of people over thousands of years.

This is what I was thinking about as I drove home that smoky day. That fire, the Valley Fire, ended up burning for over three weeks and consuming over 76,000 acres in Lake, Sonoma, and Napa counties, and is considered the third-worst fire in California history. Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in the affected counties and President Obama declared the fires a “major disaster.”

Yet, a catastrophic fire such as the Valley Fire most likely would not have happened in California 500 years ago. This is not because it preceded climate change. Rather, the landscape was under a very different type of land management at that time — and for thousands of years before that — by the indigenous peoples of the region, as carefully chronicled by Anderson. She emphasizes that their interactions with the landscape were continuous, specific, purposeful, responsive, and highly effective at accomplishing their goals. A major tool that they made use of was, notably, fire; which they used widely and deliberately to achieve a broad range of beneficial impacts. As Anderson describes:

In the absence of fire, many oak species will be encroached by more shade tolerant species on the most fertile sites, drastically reducing canopy development and acorn production. The way Native Americans reduced this competition was to thin the forest around productive trees by setting frequent, light surface fires, which eliminated other trees and shrubs and added nutrients to the soil. This enabled targeted oaks to grow in the open, with full crowns, large girth, and inflated per-tree yields of acorns. Frequent burning also kept catastrophic fires that might injure or outright kill oaks to a minimum. To create a very open structure of oaks that were widely spaced, fires were set in certain areas very frequently — every one to several years.

Contrast this with nearly a century of State and Federal wildfire policies aimed at total suppression. A complex, hierarchical system was put into place to rapidly spot, delineate, and put out any fire as soon as it was discovered. It was a disciplined and coordinated approach that had great success with its goal of wildfire suppression. However, the unintended consequences of such practices resulted in vegetative overgrowth and density, abundant deadwood, and volatile leaf litter. The buildup of such tinder over decades results in fires that are bigger, hotter, and more apt to become dangerously unpredictable crown fires and firestorms… like the Valley Fire I was witness to.

For the first peoples of California, the use of fire to manage oak woodlands and increase acorn production was just one of many brilliantly adapted approaches to the landscape. Other strategies included pruning, coppicing, irrigating, seed-broadcasting, tilling, transplanting, and weeding. The outcomes of this intelligent, integrative, sustainable system of cultural land management practices were noted by Europeans at contact, even if they could not recognize the efforts made to attain those aims. Anderson again:

Early white settlers recognized the amazing abundance of foods they found in California, describing it as “an overflowing store,” but generally did not recognize it as linked in any way to the Indian presence and participation in the landscape. But the consistent experience and testimonies of California’s first peoples, as well as the work of investigators and scholars, confirms that the variety and quality of these foods poured forth from a land that was productive and ecologically healthy in response to the deliberate stewardship of generations of California Indians over millennia. California’s native peoples enhanced and intensified their food resources with a highly developed suite of culturally supported land stewardship practices, engendering the bountiful California landscape that so impressed the early European explorers and settlers.
… and Control

What Anderson is describing above is an exquisite example of the “sense and respond” approach to management celebrated by Laloux and others, as opposed to the “predict and control” approach currently in use by the modern bureaucratic agencies that are supposed to protect the landscape from catastrophic fires. It appears clear to me that management practices that are described and considered “Teal” by Frederic Laloux were in evidence throughout historical Native California.

Pre-contact, California had the highest concentration of indigenous peoples per square mile of any area of North America. Scholars estimate that there were between five and six hundred autonomous and self-governing “tribes” in California speaking approximately one hundred mutually unintelligible languages. Talk about decentralization! Anderson quotes Juan José Warner, who traveled through the San Joaquin Valley during the winter of 1832–33:

The banks of the Sacramento and San Joaquin, and the numerous tributaries of these rivers, and the Tule Lake [probably Tulare Lake], were at this time studded with Indian villages of from one to twelve hundred inhabitants each. The population of this extensive valley was so great that it caused surprise, and required a close investigation into the nature of a country that without cultivation, could afford the means of subsistence to so great a community.

When Warner says “without cultivation,” he means without till farming as the Europeans knew it. But the landscape was nevertheless highly cultivated, in a way that accords perfectly with the modern movement towards “permaculture.” In fact, contemporary conventional farming as derived from European history can be seen as the predict-and-control approach to food production, whereas permaculture is absolutely about sense-and-respond. The noteworthy efficiency of these communities in meeting their needs and stewarding their resources (a.k.a very high productivity) is another hallmark of Teal approaches, which are similarly based on a vast and complex network of relationships rather than top-down centralization. When reading about the elaborate trade networks that were established among coastal, foothill, plains, and desert peoples, or the footpaths that were well-worn across the landscape connecting villages up and down California, I imagine that I am looking at a physical/historical manifestation of the diagrams I have seen of the network of relationships within a self-managing company.

Instead of a hierarchical organizational chart, “Teal” company Morning Star has a web of commitments.

The governance model called Holacracy is one example of a Teal management approach, and is one of the most thoroughly articulated modern Teal practices. Part of what makes Holacracy an effective self-management system is the notion of “domains”: aspects of work that are “owned” by particular roles or circles. In aboriginal California, “property” was managed under a similar system, called “usufruct.” Anderson again:

Under this conception, if an area is used and tended, it becomes the domain of the gatherer. For example, throughout California, individuals or families repeatedly gathered from and cared for specific oak trees and groves, giving them usufruct rights to those resources. Under the usufruct system, each family had a combination of exclusive rights to certain resources and communal rights to other resources. The Pomo distinction between individual and communal rights, as reported by the anthropologist Fred Kniffen, was typical: “Like larger manzanitas, all the great oaks of the valley flat were privately owned; those of the hills were owned by the village as a whole.”

Holacratic domains function in an analogous way: they flow from use, familiarity, need, and negotiation. Ownership, in this sense, is less an exclusive possession than an explicit and privileged stewardship. And it is certainly not the strategic favoritism of top-down bestowal found in the Medieval feudal system, which forms the basis for European constructs of ownership. In Holacracy, some domains are specific to certain roles, others are shared by many roles within a circle, and still others are unassigned, which means that anyone within the organization (community) can impact (dig, hunt, prune, net, collect, broadcast, burn) them.

Author and publisher Malcolm Margolin, who has devoted forty years of dedicated work to supporting California indigenous communities and knowledge, wrote the following about Ohlone governance in his classic book, The Ohlone Way:

Because of the emphasis on moderation and generosity, the Ohlones had no need for a strong government. They had no powerful chief to give orders, nor any police force to enforce those orders. In these small communities, where the network of family relationships was so dense and complex, public opinion so important, and social values so deeply ingrained, a strong and visible government was superfluous. What anthropologist Anna Gayton said of the Yokuts is equally true of the Ohlones: “Families were free to go about their daily pursuits of hunting, fishing, seed gathering, basket and tool making, seeking of supernatural experiences, gambling, or idling without interference from officials. There were none to interfere. The sense of right and wrong, of duty to one’s relatives and neighbors, was instilled in children as they grew up. Truthfulness, industry, a modest opinion of one’s self, and above all generosity were regarded not so much as positive virtues as essential qualities.”
To the early European visitors — for whom a strong government was the cornerstone of civilization — the Ohlones lived in a state of “anarchy.” The Europeans never realized that rather than living in anarchy, the Ohlones lived in a society run by far more subtle and successful lines of control than anything the Europeans could understand — lines of control that bound the people to one another without the obvious, cumbersome, often oppressive mechanism of “strong government.”
Decentralized “pre-contact” California, where approximately one hundred mutually unintelligible languages were spoken

Thomas Jefferson Mayfield, a white man who lived among the Choinumne Indians in the San Joaquin Valley (one of the Yokut “tribes”) throughout much of his boyhood in the 1850s, also comments on the stark contrast he experienced between the trustful, functional culture of the Choinumne versus the lawlessness and brutality he experienced later among the whites in the Valley during that time period — despite their supposed “law and order” approach. As for leadership among the Choinumne, Mayfield has the following to say:

I am sure that if the chief, called Té-ah, had been lax in the performance of his duties someone else would have been selected in his stead. I do not mean that the tribe would have voted him out, but they would simply have looked to someone wise for advice and help and he would have automatically been out of his position in the tribe. Of course I may be wrong about this, but I am judging from what I saw of their life, and I believe that the headman received his leadership in the first place through the natural tendency of the members of the tribe to go to the most able member for advice.

This echoes the observation made by self-management proponent and author Doug Kirkpatrick that self-managing (a.k.a “Teal”) organizations have an “unofficial hierarchy of credibility, which springs from experience, trust, communication, and a host of other factors.”

Another aspect of Teal approaches is the idea of “wholeness.” In my reading of the literature, this value appears to be in evidence throughout Native Californian life, yet it would seem to me that indigenous Californians took it many steps further than many of the modern organizations Laloux describes. Anderson again:

This view of other life as related, equal, and highly intelligent is what Enrique Salmón (Rarámuri) calls a “kincentric” view of the world. In this vision of the world, nature is not to be treated as a separate entity “out there” that you do not touch or interact with, or labeled as a “scene” that is only to be viewed through a lens or shaped by the stroke of a paintbrush. Homo sapiens are full participants in nature, and they share mutual obligations and intricate interactions with many other forms of life.

The web of relationships and deep personal accountability that Laloux sees in self-managing organization extends, in Native California, to all life forms. This worldview is profoundly holistic, and it is reinforced, transmitted, and constantly adapted through the rich traditions of storytelling so characteristic of oral cultures (storytelling is another Teal characteristic, according to Laloux).

All of this was on my mind as I drove through those burning hills last September, thinking about the failure of predict and control to protect the landscape around me from a devastating fire. It made me ponder: are Teal approaches as new and “cutting edge” as Laloux makes them out to be in Reinventing Organizations?

Feudal ideas of ownership still pervade our thinking

Teal management approaches may be new to us, with our legacy of kingdoms instead of kindoms, of feudal ideas of private property ownership, our left-brain ways of interpreting reality, our chronic wealth disparity, and our generally exploitative approach to other humans and the rest of the natural world. But the assertion (as written on the back of my Reinventing Organizations hardcopy) that Laloux is documenting the “few pioneers [who] have…‘cracked the code,’” makes it sound as if a handful of modern European and American male executives have “discovered” something brand new, which sounds a bit like the modern equivalent of the conceit that Columbus “discovered” America in 1492. I think the assertion that Teal approaches are new is a very dangerous notion, as it reproduces hubristic attitudes of superiority and arrogance that are part and parcel of oppressive hierarchies in the first place.

It is not only in reading about aboriginal California that I have seen inspiring glimpses of so-called Teal practices in action within traditional contexts. Nevertheless, I am not trying to make the case that all indigenous cultures were Teal — we all know examples of ancient civilizations that were exceedingly hierarchical and centralized. But what makes us think that the kind of wisdom that Teal approaches describe is dependent upon certain technological advances? Just as Teal companies today exist side-by-side with Orange and Amber organizations, a Teal society may well have existed at the same moment in history as an Orange or Amber one.

In fact, many scholars have made the case that certain types of agriculture and food systems lend themselves to certain relationships to wealth and power. Anthropologist Hugh Brody has argued persuasively that peoples we classify as “hunter-gatherers” (itself a questionable term) tend to organize in a way he characterizes as “egalitarian individualism.” When he describes what he means, it sounds a whole lot like Teal to me:

Another feature of the hunter-gatherer way of life is a deep respect for individual decisions. There are experts rather than leaders, men or women whose skills are revered; but decisions about whether to follow their lead or take their advice are matters of individual choice. A hunt leader does not instruct others to follow or to take any particular direction. The expert makes his or her decision known; others then make their decisions, following or not as each prefers. Social and ethical norms are powerful, but they are reinforced by a minimum of instruction or organized retribution.

This is only one of a myriad of quotes I could have chosen from Brody’s excellent book to illustrate the confluence of hunter-gatherer cultural norms and self-management principles.

So: I think it’s time for us to take a hard look at our Western cultural fantasies about progress and “new discoveries” and at the ongoing hubris of the Western worldview that shores up these delusions. I look to Laloux not because he is the latest discoverer of new lands, but because he is an intelligent, articulate, and intuitive observer and promoter of better ways of managing our affairs. I wholeheartedly salute the “re-interpreters” of our age who are inspired by Teal concepts. We live, most assuredly, in a time needing profound re-storying. But: will we have the cultural humility to admit that many peoples had found their way to “Teal” arrangements long before us, or will we continue with the hubris that we are “pioneers” and “heroes,” discovering another New World?

Interpretive sign from Kule Loklo, a recreated Coast Miwok Native American near the Bear Valley Visitor Center, Point Reyes, California

At the end of Reinventing Organizations, Laloux speculates about what an “Evolutionary-Teal” society might look like. He consults “futurists and mystics” without consulting the work of Native spokespeople, anthropologists, and others who have documented “Teal” societies which functioned successfully for millennia. While we don’t know what the future will look like, these traditional societies give us the greatest actual evidence of the functionality, sustainability, and ultimate promise of these so-called “new” approaches. If we don’t learn from our successes as species, in the course of reinventing organizations we will spend a lot of time reinventing the wheel.

Jessica Prentice is a cofounder of Three Stone Hearth, a Community Supported Kitchen and worker cooperative that uses Holacracy and other self-management approaches to offer nutrient-dense foods to the communities of the San Francisco Bay Area. She is also the author of Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger for Connection, which explores traditional food ways through many overlapping lenses; a co-creator of The Local Foods Wheel, and the coiner of the word Locavore.

Recommended Reading and Research

Check out:

And read pages 16–21 of this book:

Books worth reading in their entirety:

Other articles about indigenous practices that have a Teal tint:

Many more articles here:

Gratitude to: Kevin Bayuk, Mud Hut, Ricardo Nuñez, Janelle Orsi, Jonathan Rubenstein, Karin Swann, Raty Syka, Chris Tittle, Dinah Wiley, and Jacob Wright for input on this article.