Jurgen Appelo on why there’s no such thing as a teal organization

- Leadership

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by Jurgen Appelo

I am slowly delegating the production of our Management 3.0 workshop materials, which is not easy for me. I am quite territorial in my attitude toward our creative products, and the workshop modules have always been my territory. I am a dictator in that area. It is the main reason why people rate our Management 3.0 content so highly around the world. La qualité, c’est moi.

But now, the Happy Melly team needs to scale up content production and that means removing me as the bottleneck.

The first modules created by others have already given me a bit of a fright. “What? You’re suggesting a big top-down plan. How does that fit with Management 3.0 thinking?” And to another: “The amount of info you offer here is never going to fit on a slide!” But I’m sure we’ll get there, eventually. I just need to codify my opinions and experiences properly as a quality checklist for contributors.

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The right time for organizational dictatorship

Delegation And Empowerment Hikers

There’s nothing wrong with being a dictator, in the right context.

When you have significantly more experience than others and when you have to live the consequences of their work, you have every right to tell them quite precisely what to do, when, and how.

For example, I either enjoy or suffer the hotels that my assistant books for me. Will anyone blame me for having dictated my requirements in detail? Is anyone calling me less “mature” for severely restricting someone’s freedoms in this area? Is my business not “teal” because I’m handing down a list of instructions as a manager to a worker?

At the same time, I offer my assistant many freedoms. I don’t care about office hours, the amount of time worked, or which technologies to use. And I even handed over my credit card for making hotel and flight reservations, without specifying a restricted credit limit.

The wrong time for organizational classification

Delegation and Empowerment Mountain

Many people don’t seem to appreciate that freedom and self-organization are highly contextual and multidimensional. It all depends.

That’s why I don’t believe in a classification of entire organizations using a simple pyramid or ladder of maturity levels. And I don’t think we can distinguish the cultures and governance types in organizations using just a few colors.

What does it mean when someone says that an organization is “teal”? Sure, it sounds great when self-organizing teams do their recruitment (like at Valve software) or when employees sign peer-to-peer agreements with each other without involving managers (like at Morning Star tomatoes). But top-down rules and directives, such as the purpose and values of the company (like at Southwest airlines), the maximum size of business units (in W.L Gore’s Innovation Model), mandated communication processes (as in a Holacracy), or the selected industry and business model (like the Buurtzorg Nederland Model) still sound like a dictatorship to me.

And as I said, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of dictatorship, when you know what you’re doing and when it’s your head on the block. Don’t forget that Apple survived and thrived thanks to the dictatorial habits of Steve Jobs.

Teal interactions inside your rainbow organization


I don’t believe we can apply a qualifier such as “teal” to an entire organization. Instead, we should apply it to individual interactions. I am very “teal” with regards to people’s work hours, tools, and dress codes. But I am totally “red” (leader of the pack) in the area of writing and formatting. I have good reasons for that.

That’s why I suggest that you all stop looking for teal organizations.

There are no teal organizations. There are only teal interactions.

I think it’s better to become aware of your own behaviors and attitudes so that you can consciously decide which ones should be teal and which ones should be red, or some other color in between.

When everyone in the organization does the same, the whole company should look more like a rainbow than a slab of concrete. And rainbows are nice.

Want to learn more about the sensitive balance between delegation and empowerment? Learn about the Seven Levels of Delegation and how to play Delegation Poker.

Photo: Jeremy Bishop (Unsplash)

11 thoughts on "Jurgen Appelo on why there’s no such thing as a teal organization"

  • Davi says:

    “All models are wrong, but some are useful.”
    Frederic said in his book that it is hard to classify an org as teal or any other color, as they usually incorporate practices from different paradigms. Some aspects may be more orange oriented, and others might be teal, and so on. Also, the “more advanced” colors also include the previous ones.
    We say that an organization is teal when most interactions and practices are teal.

  • Jurgen Appelo says:

    Indeed, the words of Laloux seem to make more sense than those of (some of) his followers. But still, how do you know when “most practices are teal”? What way do you measure this?

  • Davi says:

    Anectodal evidence at most. Certainly it’s not possible to measure precisely… But we can reduce our ignorance by observing 🙂 This wiki contains some interesting (but not absolute) classification of practices according to his model: http://reinventingorganizationswiki.com/

  • Marcin says:

    “I think it’s better to become aware of your own behaviors and attitudes so that you can consciously decide which ones should be teal and which ones should be red, or some other color in between.”
    I agree that it is just pointless to always go teal as culture, environment, country and, most importantly, people might not be ready and there is a better solution then a “living organism”. To my understanding, there are levels which Laloux decribes that might be dominant in a certain organization, team or group of people. How to measure? I guess each method has it’s flaws but observing + surveying in a way people could give you a (more or less) rough understanding when comparing to the traits of certain level.

  • Matt says:

    It’s a matter of perception and tweaking viewpoints a bit, here’s some ‘teal interpretations’:
    “Dictating requirements in detail” means you’re internal client knowing well what he wants – does it still sounds as dictatorship?
    And in critical situation requiring a strong (“red”) leadership – what are you going to do if someone’s disobeys? Shoot? Ultimately you can’t force anyone to obey – only convince it’s for their own good. Either they agree to follow or leave. It’s a matter of communication style – “shut up and listen” or “here’s why we should do this”.

  • Olli says:

    I got interested into why you wanted to write this blogpost? For me it seems like you are seeing “teal” only as some practices like self-organizing teams. That’s one viewpoint and makes sense when you want to talk about M3.0 delegation practices but I think it’s oversimplifying Laloux’s work.
    From my perspective this is again (like agile, lean etc.) more about mindset than actual practices. Moving towards some color requires you to change your mindset. Depending of the mindset some practices start to make more sense than others. Of course there are more than one way to “instantiate” some principle so I wouldn’t start classifying organizations to “teal” or something else mainly based on their practices.
    Also I would like to point out that organizational colors aren’t supposed to be used as a maturity model. There isn’t any certification (hopefully 😉 ) you could achieve by “being officially teal”. Model is all about understanding what is happening around us and to help us to more consciously move towards some mindset.

  • Jurgen Appelo says:

    Hi Olli,
    It is a fact that “Teal” and the other colors are used as a maturity model. They are called “stages” after all, with an implicit notion that the higher “stages” are better than the lower “stages”. Exactly the same like in other maturity models such as CMMI.
    The reinventingorgs website classifies practices according to these stages where some practices are typically red and others are typically teal, etc.
    And no, you cannot classify the “mindset” of an organization. The only thing you have are people’s behaviors (practices). So that’s what a classification will be based on.

  • Ron Eringa says:

    It is very clear that the Reinventing Organisations book is based on Spiral Dynamics and the research of Dr. Graves. It is an abstraction and simplification of something that is much more complex than an organisational maturiy model.
    I have to agree with Jürgen on the part that this is all about people, who can even have multiple world views, depending on the situation they are in.
    When people understand the bio-psycho-social system that every human runs on, they will propably stop simplifying something that is too complex to summarize in a simple maturity model.

  • Arif Mustafa says:

    My two cents:
    I personally don’t take the “coloured classifications” as “maturity model” – its an evolutionary path that an enterprise may choose to take. Not every enterprise can/may evolve to be a “Teal Enterprise” because of factors like size, legacy etc. because self management at that level can lead to chaos.
    I don’t like the use of term “dictator” – of course I am sure you didn’t mean to use it the way I perceive it to be. However, common modern use of dictator is always used in negative context:
    “Modern dictators, however, resemble ancient tyrants rather than ancient dictators. Ancient philosophers’ descriptions of the tyrannies of Greece and Sicily go far toward characterizing modern dictatorships. Dictators usually resort to force or fraud to gain despotic political power, which they maintain through the use of intimidation, terror, and the suppression of basic civil liberties. They may also employ techniques of mass propaganda in order to sustain their public support.”

  • Carl says:

    Even Laloux admits Teal is more an aspiration than a practical reality. Read chapter 3.1 of the book and check out my post “Too many fluffy Agile bunnies” on LinkedIn. I am like many of you, very into the power of self-organising teams, but not sure about self-managing/directing teams, and with some orange and amber tendencies in certain contexts.

  • Jürgen says:

    In my opinion Frederic Laloux’ classification of organizations is not a maturity model. Instead it is more related to Darwin’s evolution theory: survival of the fittest. Like many books reflect the time they were written, organizations reflect the time they were established. They are connected to the societal culture around them. And while society evolves and changes, organizations have to adjust to the changing system to survive. This then may look like a maturity model. The organizations Laloux classified embrace characteristics that were the best fit for a specific period of time. Of course, there was, is, and will be always a mix of different organizational styles because the evolution of society and mankind is fluent. This at least is how I interpret it.

    I’m currently establishing my own company. Honestly, I will not start with a Red one, and then go through Amber, Orange, Green, to finally arrive at Teal, like I would have to do if it were a maturity model. I immediately start with a Teal organization – to be more accuate: with the characteristics that Laloux defines for Teal organizations.

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