Creative entropy — a killer problem with Laloux’s evolutionary purpose

entropy’ by Chris on flickr

The concept of ‘Evolutionary purpose’ — a central theme from Laloux’s Reinventing Organisations — is a deeply flawed conceptual model. There’s convincing evidence that it doesn’t even exist, and even if you try to implement it anyway there are major flaws including ‘creative entropy’ — a gradual loosening of an organisation’s focus — which may be the opposite of what’s needed to realise a big idea.

What is evolutionary purpose?

Here’s what it means, from the Reinventing Organisations wiki:

“…organizations are viewed as an independent energy field with a purpose that transcends its stakeholders. In this paradigm we don’t own or run the organization; instead we are stewards, listening to where it needs to go and helping it to do its work in the world.”

Laloux presents this as the next leap from old-school command-and-control (I am the boss so I dictate the purpose) and also group-centred consensus (we must all have a say and agree the purpose.) Laloux took his inspiration for evolutionary purpose from Holacracy founder Brian Robertson.

Does evolutionary purpose even exist?

Firstly — and perhaps this is enough — I’ve yet to see any convincing evidence that evolutionary purpose even exists. A thread not long ago on the Reinventing Organisations forum seeking examples of evolutionary purpose noted that so-called ‘Teal’ organisations had an individual (usually a founder or CEO) who played a central role in guiding the organisation, beyond merely ‘stewarding’.

There’s an awkward paradox which Laloux highlights in the book: on the one hand there’s a belief that Teal organisations are truly decentralised, like a rainforest where ‘no single tree is in charge’, yet there’s a key role necessary for a founder or CEO to play in ‘holding the space’. Which means it’s not actually decentralised or detached from humans as the dogma/ideology of evolutionary purpose suggests.

Humble, visionary leaders

I’ve been involved in research with over 500 entrepreneurs and founders led by Peter Koenig, and believe the evidence suggests this role is more than just a master host or facilitator.

The key to this is looking a layer deeper than the organisation and instead focussing on the underlying creative initiative. In other words, the process of realising an idea. It’s a process which starts when the first founder takes the first step. This gives that individual a natural, powerful authority in the initiative as it unfolds. This is authority as in authorship as my colleague Charles likes to say, not authority of top-down power-over-people kind.

Founders and CEOs who might be classed as ‘Teal’ are often humble people and indeed that’s part of what makes them such great leaders. But the shadow of this is that it can cause them to understate their own importance in the vitality of the initiative. Yet read any of the case studies in Reinventing Organisations and each one is alive with the story of a visionary leader. Also, the examples in the book of organisations which regressed back to more traditional practices both had founders or CEOs who gave up their authority.

What’s really going on

I believe that an honest appraisal of a ‘Teal’ organisation will find something far simpler and less metaphysical than an independent energy field. An organisation isn’t a separate soul or entity with its own purpose, it’s a story of an idea which is gradually becoming reality. An idea ultimately held by one individual author.

I know I won’t convince everyone of this, so for now let’s give evolutionary purpose a chance and assume it is at least possible even if there aren’t any convincing examples today. As many founders and CEOs who have tried to ‘go Teal’ are finding out, it doesn’t work in practice because it erodes focus.

The problem of creative entropy

In organisations where the evolutionary purpose paradigm is adopted, people recognise no one person as having a final say over what’s in and what’s out. Equally, there’s no reliance on consensus. As people ‘listen to’ and ‘steward’ the organisation, new initiatives spring up with advice and input from multiple people, but without centralised control.

This inevitably leads to an effect I call creative entropy, where the organisation over time becomes less and less focussed, and more creatively dissipated. It’s unavoidable. Founders who attracted in smart, capable people who want to help them realise their vision gradually see the initiative become more and more creatively diluted.

How creative entropy unfolds

In a Teal organisation, a cool new initiative which seems interesting and worthwhile but perhaps pushes the boundary of the existing scope just a little wider is likely to be accepted and supported. At the same time, it is much more difficult to make a strong case to kill an otherwise thriving initiative purely because it makes the organisation a little less focussed. Therefore if new initiatives start which increase scope more often than initiatives are killed, the net effect is that scope widening, and the organisation losing focus.

This problem is made worse by the fact that a typical ‘Teal’ culture will naturally attract many creative self-starting people who want to make new things happen and support each other in realising their ideas.

This effect can be seen at W.L. Gore & Associates where the product range grows ever more diverse, and at historically at Semco who were in markets as diverse as industrial-scale biscuit making machines and real estate management. You can also see it at the huge Mondragón group of cooperatives in Spain.

It’s not always bad

Creative entropy isn’t necessarily a bad thing. At Gore, Semco and Mondragón, this scope-creep is an integral part of the vision. William Gore set out to create the ultimate environment for inventors to thrive; Ricardo Semler wanted to set his employees free (and enjoy a ‘7 Day Weekend’ for himself) and Arizmendi founded Mondragón to create a thriving working community in his part of the Basque Country. None of these initiatives were about focus.

But when the decision is made to adopt evolutionary purpose, exponential diversity might not be what’s needed. Many products need simplicity and focus, even as they scale. Saying ‘no’ is an essential discipline, and that requires clear authority to say no, and to say stop. If an initiative starts out to materialise a specific vision, then losing focus can be deadly, pulling resources and attention away from that vision. You might end up with a happy, diverse and profitable workforce doing all sorts of interesting things — which is great if that’s the vision — but it might not be.

Stopping creative entropy

In Teal organisations, creative entropy might be unofficially kept in check by an individual vision holder who, whilst rarely or never exercising formal control over people, creates clarity and focus through their own words and actions. They may offer ‘advice’, but beneath the surface there is a deeper authority in their words. They have power to manage the scope of the initiative that others do not have even if that power is not made explicit.

Equally, if creative entropy gets out of hand in a ‘Teal’ organisation then in theory anybody could notice this and begin a process of building support to steward the initiative back towards focus. To make such a change happen requires a great deal of informal influence to get support and overcome the natural resistance from individuals who don’t want to abandon their initiative. The people who can pull this off are likely to be individual vision holders: founders, and those who have had the visionary role passed to them down a line of succession.

Acknowledging natural authority

If this kind of natural authority exists, as I believe it does, then it should be clearly acknowledged. That means moving on from the fantasy that the organisation is ‘an independent energy field’ and getting settling into the idea that it’s really about people and the connections between them.

So what’s next?

If evolutionary purpose isn’t the answer, we can still transcend both command-and-control and consensus-driven approaches.

The key is to hold the idea of an organisation being a separate entity lightly, and instead focus on the creative needs of the people there. This starts right back at the start with the creative need of the original founder, or their successor, in the individual role of vision holder.

Many Teal fans recoil in horror at the idea of an individual vision holder rather than a collectively held vision. This might be that they’re holding on to a mindset with an overly group-centred bias (rather than a skillful blend of individual, group and connection) which they may not recognise in themselves. To his credit, Frederic Laloux himself understands the role of the individual vision holder better than many of his followers. In an exchange with me not long ago he said:

I can see how there is an allergy in ‘Green’ of thinking that someone has a special role, and I think it’s part of ‘Teal’/‘2nd stage’ to be comfortable with that thought again… we are constantly the source for some things and attracted followers/sub-sources for others. It’s really a beautiful perspective that takes away our fixation from the organization.

All of this points to it being time to move on from ‘evolutionary purpose’ as the paradigm for guiding overall direction of even the most progressive initiatives.

Let’s give up the superstition that organisations are ‘independent energy fields’ and instead acknowledge natural, human, authority. It starts with founders and cascades through an initiative giving everyone the chance to be fully creative.

Tom Nixon advises founders and senior leaders who are building next-generation organisations.