The future is teal

Perspectives on organization design for today’s startups

vanessa slavich
Sep 6, 2019 · 4 min read

In my 5.5 years at Square, we grew from 70 to almost 2,000 employees. In that time, we changed hierarchies, management, teams, and priorities more times than I can pretend to count. Reorgs are an inevitable need of high-growth companies. Yet each time it happened at Square, employees met it with apprehension, stress, uncertainty, and loss of productivity. Given the pace of innovation, reorgs are expected to continue at an equal or faster pace over the next five years. And in the fast-changing industry of crypto and blockchain, an alternative approach is needed.

The human body: a metaphor for startups

Startups remind me of humans, growing and adapting rapidly at first, and then less as you age. You have organs (teams), each with their own purpose yet also self-reliant on the whole system. Cells (information) move throughout the body. Your skeleton (processes) keeps things in place. You may think your mind (CEO) is in control, but we all know that not to be true. The body and the entire system knows what it needs, which is always evolving, and it’s your job to listen.

Human anatomy from Nhia Moua via Unsplash

Now imagine if every three to six months, from the time you are born, you had a massive surgery. Biohacking your body in an attempt to create productivity and alignment around your new priorities. Sure, move part of the heart over here. Get rid of that kidney. Good luck.

An introduction to Teal

A “Teal” organization is based on the work of Frederic Laloux in Reinventing Organizations. Teal orgs allow for higher employee engagement, individuality, interconnection, and authenticity—all without the need for traditional management structures.

Discussing Teal organizations at my Alma Mater, California College of the Arts. I studied the subject for two semesters while in grad school.

Laloux found that pioneering organizations have three breakthrough characteristics:

  • Self-management (what we call Networked Leadership). The organizational structure focused on peer relationships, which operate without hierarchy. We use our own form of Holacracy (among other tools) as a framework for practicing networked leadership.
  • Wholeness. This aligns to my passion of diversity and inclusion. It is the concept that you may bring your whole self to work. We bring this to life through methods that include psychological safety discussions and a very thoughtful employee onboarding program.
  • Evolutionary purpose. Individuals, teams, and the organization are in constant evolution (just like the human body!). At our quarterly all-company offsites, we practice the “unfolding process” to reflect on our evolutionary purpose as a whole and ensure we’re having the impact we seek. On an individual level, we have an innovative mentor program focused on each employee’s growth plan.
The first ~7 min of this video give a nice overview of Teal

Like a Russian nesting doll, Teal orgs take the best practices from the previous organization models. While Teal is not “superior” to previous models, it has the elements for creating a thriving and adaptable ecosystem, which is imperative for a company like cLabs. We are working on Celo, an open platform that makes financial tools accessible to anyone with a mobile phone. We have a plan and path to becoming decentralized, and as more and more ownership get transferred to the community around Celo, an evolving and emerging organization structure is the only option.

Abstract diagram of the teal organization model, which resembles a Russian nesting doll

Teal in practice

In March, we knew we were no longer well-organized at cLabs. We went through a hiring spurt in the fall and more-or-less had two large teams for the whole 30 person company. So while on retreat, teams got together and discussed the work, OKRs, and structure. It was a collaborative process and a few hours later, everyone presented the new org design. Some teams (called “Circles”) closed, new ones opened, and others merged. In absence of politics, hierarchy, and posturing, it was a painless and fun process that involved a lot of post-its.

Teams collaborating at our all-company offsite

Looking forward

We’re continuing to learn from our alternative org design. Every quarter, we host something called The Unfolding Process, in which employees share our company strengths and weaknesses along with suggestions on how to strengthen our strengths and weaken our weaknesses. This is the primary method for adapting how we work together.

We are now looking to bring these processes to the broader community, beyond cLabs, to people collaborating and participating in the governance of Celo. As Celo moves towards decentralization, we’ll continue to learn, adapt, and share our learnings along the way.

As a (nearly) newly minted yoga teacher, my perspective on the world is that we are all connected — inside, outside, the individual, and the collective. Teal organizations are designed for this reality.

Living our value of Connectedness at our company retreat in Colombia
The greater vision for Celo, which aligns nicely to how we work together as a team

Want to learn more?

We are hosting an intimate (60 people) three-day experience Nov 1–3 called the Prosper Retreat focused on wellness, growth, and connection. Learn more and apply at www.prosperretreat.org.

Have experience building Teal orgs? I’d love to collaborate. Reach out on Twitter or Telegram: @vslavich.

The Celo Blog

Celo is an open platform that makes financial tools…

vanessa slavich

Written by

head of community for Celo. crypto by way of social impact and fintech. designer and people builder at ❤️. more writing: tinyhealer.substack.com

The Celo Blog

Celo is an open platform that makes financial tools accessible to anyone with a mobile phone. Visit celo.org for info on the community, contributors, and technology.