Teal and Levels of Work

Followers of this blog know its underpinnings are in research conducted by Dr. Elliott Jaques from 1952 to the time of his death, March 8, 2003. From this period of 50 years, he published 23 books and countless articles under the moniker Requisite Organization related to his research on levels of work.

During that time into present day, there have been numerous trends in management, one specific track I plan to follow through a series of posts, is the interest in what began as Self-Directed Work Groups. The Self Directed Work Group was most notably practiced by Boeing and Motorola in the 1980s and sported the manager-less team governed by group decision making.

More recently, self-directed work groups have emerged under other naming conventions like Holocracy and Teal. Several years ago, I wrote a series in response to Holocratic methods, most notably practiced by Zappos, the shoe company under the direction of Tony Hsieh.

This past week, I was contacted by Bruce Peters, a Teal practitioner, who asked me to take a look at the Teal management approach through the lens of Elliott’s research, hence, this series on Teal and Levels of Work. My immediate response was that Teal probably works just fine, until it doesn’t. When it stops, what is the disconnect? And, how do you get it re-started and back on track. My approach will be to bring insights from levels of work that support various intentions and practices of Teal. We may still stumble across some philosophical disconnects, but let’s cross those roads when we have more context.

The cornerstone of Teal was documented in a book titled Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux. Bruce became friends with Laloux several years ago and has been an ardent supporter of its tenets and practices. Bruce also comes from a longstanding background with Requisite Organization and levels of work, so this should make for an interesting discussion.

To summarize the lens of levels of work, in a paragraph, does a disservice to the profound comprehensive reach of Elliott’s research, AND still, it is important to lay some groundwork to set the context. I believe most would agree, that the purpose for every organization is to fulfill its mission (however defined) and that in doing so, the organization encounters problems that have to be solved and decisions that have to be made. Further, some problems are more complex than others, some decisions more complex than others. To understand levels of work is to embrace these distinctions in complexity, not all problems are created equal.

So, Elliott’s research, his findings, his understanding, embodied in levels of work, is based on problem solving and decision making. If we can understand levels of problem solving and decision making, we now have a basis to explore organizations and how they are structured. Without this understanding, organizations get structured in all kinds of wacky ways, some comical, some powerfully destructive.

Laloux’s book Reinventing Organizations chronicles the cultural shifts of hierarchy across the ages contrasting organizational characteristics with emerging, then mainstream social characteristics. Laloux’s schema is descriptively brilliant, capturing the shift in social milieu in a pattern of color, finally arriving at Teal.

  • Organization Magenta (Magic) – tribal groups where power emerged from magic (nature and spirits) and those perceived closely aligned with magic (sorcerers, shaman) maintained power through fear of retribution from nature and spirits.
  • Organization Red (Impulsive) – magic disappeared, but the fear remained in a dangerous world where connection to an organization meant survival. Power consolidated with those groups (and leaders) with the fortitude of violence to enforce that power. Chiefdoms, proto-empires, street gangs and mafias. Slavery was an acceptable norm, provided safety within the context of violence. Emergence of the alpha wolf.
  • Organization Amber (Conformist) – hunter-gatherers turned to animal domestication and agriculture, allowing for more social stability, emergence of laws. Chiefdoms turned into states and civilization. Personal awareness emerges creating psychological safety in like groups. Like groups established the need for conformity and group norms. Stability provided longer term planning against future uncertainty.
  • Organization Orange (Achievement) – Personal awareness of an individual as part of a group, emerges from underneath the shroud of conformity in the form of individual achievement. Effectiveness, goals and outputs breakout from pre-existing rules. Dominance comes through achievement, reinforcing within norms (slavery is no longer acceptable), the 800 pound gorilla. Nike, Coca-Cola, Walmart consolidate power in an increasingly rigid caste system. Centralized control, economies of scale readily observable. Ambers’ command and control becomes Orange’s predict and control. Individual accountability emerges.
  • Organization Green (Pluralistic) – the Orange machine lives on, yet some organizations sense its unintended consequences relative to emerging social norms. Conscious Capitalism emerges seeking fairness, equality, harmony, community, cooperation and consensus. Green endeavors to break down caste distinctions, social classes, patriarchy. Statistical evidence emerges that Conscious Capitalism outperforms Orange in its own measures. Here are the first protestations against organizational hierarchy.
  • Organization Teal (Evolutionary) – this is where Laloux explains that hierarchy disappears and organizations become self-directed.

With this as a background, I will leave you with this thought – Hierarchy still exists, but not where you may have historically found it. Even Laloux provides a hint, but then moves on, assuming to have dismissed the idea of hierarchy altogether. Yet, if you can postpone your dismissal, you will come to find insights that open doors that seemed shut.

This is likely to be a lively conversation, and I invite comments. If you have never posted before, your comment will be held in a queue (to prevent spam). Once I have weeded out the spam, your comments will post in real time. If you receive this blog by email, you will have to click through to the blog site to see the comment threads. See you online.

11 thoughts on “Teal and Levels of Work

  1. Hayden Smith

    Great post. Thanks for starting this discussion. I met Bruce Peters a few weeks ago and have also been blown away by his insights Beyond Teal.

    At the end of the blog post above it’s mentioned that in Teal, “hierarchy still exists, but not where you may have historically found it.” Being a fan of Laloux’s book and Teal practitioner myself, I see Teal hierarchies in two ways.

    First, there is the hierarchy that connects the varying levels of purpose. For example, the individuals intrinsic purpose, to the teams collective purpose, and perhaps to the organizations externally focused purpose. Purpose is what aligns and connects the work of many unique individuals.

    Second, there is the Teal notion of Self Management. In a self-managed team, the notion of hierarchy seems to lose it’s meaning. Or does it? There is another Teal principle called Wholeness, where individuals are valued for their uniquely valuable contribution, while all people are seen as having equal worth (i.e. nobody has authoritative power over anyone else). That being said, there is nothing wrong with a self-managed team autonomously deciding to implement a hierarchical structure. For example, many Teal companies have “teams of teams” that set the company vision or strategy. In another example, a Teal team may decide to implement decision makers for different types of decisions.

    I’m curious to know, is this the way others see hierarchy in Teal? What else may there be to ground the Teal principles for individuals who are having trouble understanding the world from this advanced perspective?

  2. Tom Collins

    Great introduction to the Teal concepts and to Bruce, my friend and mentor for many years!

    Like Hayden, I’m intrigued by your hidden hierarchy tease. Another way of looking at the self-management aspect of a Teal organization might be that everyone on the team has (or can grow) the capacity to lead some part of the team’s goals. I’m thinking of the story I read about in Shawn Achor’s Big Potential that you may be familiar with. He tells how the conductor in the Boston Philharmonic helped the eleventh chair violinist become both a leader and a better musician by seeking her input on how he should conduct a particularly challenging piece — and then adopting her suggestion for the public performance. Leadership can run up, down, and sideways; and should adapt to the changing situation, no?

  3. Barry Linetsky

    In this schema, Is there a definition provided for “self-directed” and an argument provided that “self-directed” is the ideal goal that “people with authority” should be striving for?

    Thanks the series of posts, Tom. Can I take it that from the fact that you are providing effort into this investigation means that you think the book is worth reading because it provides significant insight or a perspective of importance?

  4. Tom Foster

    Thank you for your posting and the questions you asked. I am rarely challenged on my insistence and purity of the tenets of Requisite Organization, however, occasionally someone raises their hand and says “Yes, but, what about this ____ ?” You fill in the blank. The most aggressive challenges are from those who espouse self-organized, self-managed, manager-less teams. The challenge has been formalized most notably by enthusiasts of Holocracy and Teal. In those schema, there is immediate and universal condemnation for “hierarchy,” with the anti-dote being manager-less, self-directed teams.

    I am a firm believer in hierarchy as an observed model of effective organizational behavior, so I am taking a thoughtful and measured approach to these alternative structures. My approach, though, contains an unwavering bias toward hierarchy, so my inspection lens is certainly tinted. If you are a student of organizational design, you have to read about such approaches, including Tony Hseih’s Delivering Happiness and Frederic Laloux’s Reinventing Organizations. I do not refer these to be followed blindly but as a discovery process to understand something through a different lens.

    In some cases, like today’s blog post, I find the description misses the reality of what is actually occurring and mis-attributes the outcome to an unrelated cause (fundamental attribution error in cause and effect). It’s not my purpose to condemn the thinking, but rather to understand more completely what is happening (through the lens of Requisite Organization).

    Thanks again for you post. -Tom

    1. Barry Linetsky


      Thanks for your thoughtful reply.

      I am a firm advocate of EJ’s work because I can integrate it with other things I know about human behavior in a managerial context. I completely buy his argument that hierarchy is required and it is related to the FACT that human action is purposeful. Organizations exist because of purpose. They are designed to achieve a particular bundle of goals. These goals are carried out through contractual agreements. Work is defined and pursued in relation to purpose, and in a hierarchical manner. Roles are connected by foresight and ability, and coordinated by a “guiding and directing intelligence.”

      I applaud you for investigating this on in a sober and meaningful way from an RO or more generally “scientific” (i.e., rational, reasonable) perspective.

      I don’t live day-to-day in the organizational design world although I have used RO principles and techniques to design aspects of organizations (structure follows strategy, and roles must align to the required work). Every time I read about holocracy or some other variant of attempted non-hierarchical design, I can’t but think that too much is missing in the description, starting with who and why is someone paying for work to be done in the organization, and what results are they aiming for. As Walt Disney said, someone has to make the decisions.

      I’m with you that these example help to see things from an alternative perspective and are important to understand and investigate in order to remain objective and to “understand something fhrough a different lens.” They can show where the hierarchy is hidden, likely in plain view. My shallow reading on holocracy seems to indicate that when pressed many of the advocates accept that there is “hierarchy” of accountabilities; they just draw it in circles to deny it is hierarchy.

      Keep up the good work and the thinking and the writing. I appreciate it, even when I don’t comment on everything, as Im sure other readers of your blog do as well.


      Barry Linetsky
      Author, The Business of Walt Disney and the Nine Principles of His Success

  5. Len Nanjad

    This is fascinating. Thanks for helping with years of casually exploring whether Teal and Holacracy can be integrated or are anathema.

    Please for your thoughts on the design concepts I am seriously playing with for clients:

    Teams do have different levels of complexity of work.

    Teams can delegate work or add to a “backlog” of tasks for other teams.

    Teams are therefore an hierarchy of self-managed groups and processes for getting work done (managing thinking processes, especially making decisions)

    Teams have cross-boundary relationships, and therefore require roles or accountabilities to navigate interdependencies.

    Yet, can a team be held accountable for outcomes?
    Who administers the consequences? Another team?
    I am exploring these possibilities and being careful not to confuse or mix system ideologies or principles.
    It may well be possible, just not in an individualistic accountability hierarchy. (Which our legal systems actually require.)

    I like the hierarchy of purpose which indicates a complexity of scope in each. This is consistent with organizational levels of complexity.

    And it is like the contrast of a scarcity mindset and an abundance mindset.

    I also think this can help explain Teal in itself. At a next quantum level of complexity. It is too hard to describe and define understand purpose and hierarchy of teal in terms of hierarchy in orange. They are completely different models or levels of interference of variables.

    It is like trying to explain math in two dimensions to describe three dimensions.

    And it is like the economics of value increasing with abundant supply rather than it increasing with scarcity of supply. They are just different models. And the phenomenon of complexity of work still holds, it seems to me.

    Thanks again for the space to put these explorations out there.

  6. Jan De Visch

    Dear Tom,
    I am very much involved in self-organization, RO and the whole field of constructionist developmental psychology. The first domain focuses on a whole range of other forms of dialogue. The second domain focuses on the stratified character of reality (hierarchy is one possible form of this). The third domain creates clarity in individual phases of development, and how people’s framework of interpretation evolves throughout the course of their lives. The latter framework is particularly important for understanding how differences in levels of development between employees in teams create specific dynamics, which may or may not ultimately lead to coping effectively with complexity. I discussed these dynamics in my book ‘Dynamic Collaboration’ (https://connecttransform.be/dynamic-collaboration/ ).

    A false assumption in the Teal movement is that every employee can grow to a level of self-awareness from which self-management becomes possible. Scientific research shows that this is not the case. One needs to acknowledge the variety in developmental levels of participants in self-organizing teams. An essential insight is that self-organization only works in larger contexts if you start to distinguish different types of dialogue spaces (We Spaces), which are nested in each other, and each with their own dynamics. Hierarchy is sometimes an effective answer to breaking through downwardly divided team dynamics. Thinking through the stratified nature within self-organization is the first step towards Teal’s sustainable development. This notion is not elaborated in the Teal movement.
    Be well.

    1. Nick Argall

      Hi Jan,

      Since we caught up in February, I’ve had some further thoughts on self-oranganization. If you think about my five-layered, recursive interpretation (the virtual vertical mutation) from ‘doing’, ‘coordinating’, ‘optimizing’, ‘integrating’, ‘envisioning’, you can see that ‘self coordinating’ happens all the time, and that ‘self optimizing’ is not uncommon, while ‘self integrating’ and ‘self envisioning’ are where many people will draw the line.

  7. Alicia Parr

    I’m quite familiar with RO and have read Laloux. I work with small businesses and I work with humans– so that’s my body of experience. Some observations from my world:

    1) There is no way to “get rid” of hierarchy. It emerges whether it’s wanted or not. Human animals don’t “outgrow” their “need” for it.

    2) Humans vary widely in capability. Some of that variance can be shrunk through learning & development. Very, very much of it cannot. I use the term “capability” very broadly.

    3) A maximum-trust organization will be built in such a way that accountability, authority, and capability of each human is kept in sync. Teal and RO go about this in different ways– principles-based design vs. complex emergence.

    4) There are different assumptions about how people work best together embedded in both Teal and RO. The patterns of dysfunction that tend to result are a function of these assumptions.


    As green emerges, and Tela is based in Ken Wilber`s Integral Model, people believe that hierarchies are bad and everyone can be everything. I joke, that everyone can be Steve Jobs. They confuse values systems with cognition. It is forbidden to say, that there is a human characteristic that we are not capable of developing, as Jaques descovered about cognition. This becomes an ideological discussion. My question: are the TEAL, or Holocracy practitioners wiling to question there fundamental belief the with the righjt techinique we can develop anything? Or they prefer to stay in wonderland.

    1. Alicia Parr

      “My question: are the TEAL, or Holocracy practitioners wiling to question there fundamental belief the with the righjt techinique we can develop anything? Or they prefer to stay in wonderland.”

      I’d like to add a question to this.

      Is the belief in the ability to develop anything actually a necessary part of the TEAL/Holocracy practice, or does it just tend to correlate for other reasons?


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