BOOK REVIEW: Organisations for a new era

Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness, by Frederic Laloux

The following is true of far too many organisations.

Organisations are plagued by politics, bureaucracy, and infighting. Organisations create stress and burnout. Organisations foster resignation, resentment, and apathy. In organisations there is posturing at the top, and drudgery at the bottom.

While much of this negative perception is undoubtedly true, “none of the recent advances in human history would have been possible without organizations as vehicles for human collaboration”, Frederic Leloux, author of Reinventing Organizations, explains.

Einstein believed that problems couldn’t be solved with the same level of consciousness that created them in the first place. What then would a solution moulded around the next stage of consciousness look and feel like? This is the subject of this book.

Rather than invent a fatuous solution to all these ills, Leloux has taken a profound look at the evolution of organisations and how they have responded to the worldviews of the times. Based on his understanding, Leloux has concluded that we are evolving toward “soulful workplaces” where work is productive, fulfilling, and meaningful, and where our talents can thrive.
Leloux provides a very brief, but profound tour of the major stages in the development of human consciousness, and the resultant organisational models.  

Every new stage of human consciousness has produced an advance in our ability to collaborate, and a new organisational model. The first significant stage of consciousness for our purposes, is described through the metaphor of a ‘Wolf Pack’.

The “alpha wolf” uses power to maintain his status within the pack, and bend others to his will. The minute his power is in doubt, someone else will attempt to topple him.  

Organisations with this form can still be found today in hostile environments: combat zones, civil wars, failed states, prisons, or violent inner-city neighbourhoods.

Stage two consciousness emerged as humankind left the tribal world for the age of agriculture, states and civilizations, institutions, bureaucracies, and organised religions. The stage’s metaphor is that of an ‘Army’ where conformity is based on cause and effect, and allows for a projection into the future.

When agriculture produced a caloric surplus, that enabled the feeding of a class of rulers, administrators, priests, warriors, and craftsmen. People at this stage internalised group norms, and care and concern are expanded from me to the group -but no further!
The ‘Army’ has simple morals based on one, accepted, right way of doing things, and a set of stable processes. The organisation resulting from this consciousness built irrigation systems, pyramids and ran the ships, trading posts and plantations of the colonial world. The large corporations of the Industrial Revolution were run in this way, as are government agencies, public schools, religious institutions, and the military to this day.

Any person could be replaced by another who takes over the same role in the process, even a chief. Titles and ranks assured stability, and the overall structure resembled a pyramid. The underlying worldview is that workers are mostly lazy, dishonest, and in need of direction. Trust is achieved through control.

The third stage of consciousness sees the universe as having natural laws that can be investigated and understood. Absolute right and wrong, is replaced by effectiveness, and the goal in life is to succeed in socially acceptable ways. As such, authority, group norms, and the inherited status quo are questioned.

After the Second World War there was a significant shift to this consciousness, with the metaphor of a ‘machine’. The dark side of this mechanical consciousness is the “corporate greed, political short-termism, overleverage, overconsumption, and the reckless exploitation of the planet’s resources and ecosystems”.

This is a worldview suspicious of spirituality and transcendence, which believes in what can be empirically proven or observed.

Modern global corporations with their entirely new orders of magnitude are the embodiment of this consciousness, Leloux believes, thanks to innovation, accountability, and meritocracy. People are seen as carefully aligned resources, like cogs in a machine. Organisations can still feel lifeless and soulless as machines.

The fourth state of consciousness addresses the materialistic obsession, the social inequality, the loss of community of the third. Its metaphor is the ‘Family.’

It is most present in postmodern academic thinking, in non-profits and among social workers and community activists. Here leaders should be in service of those they lead. There is the more evolved, accepting perspective, where people are treated equally.

Organisations’ response to power inequality that always results in those at the top ruling over those at the bottom is to abolish hierarchy, and give everybody the exact same power. At its extreme, all workers should own the company with nobody holding a leadership position in a cooperative movement.

These extreme forms of egalitarian organisation have not been successful on a meaningful scale, because power can’t simply be wished away.

Some celebrated and successful companies of the last decades - Southwest Airlines, Ben & Jerry’s, and The Container Store, for example, are manifestations of this empowered “family” consciousness. “Ground teams at Southwest Airlines, for instance, are famous for being empowered to seek creative solutions to passenger problems, whereas their colleagues at most other airlines aren’t allowed to depart from the rulebook,” Leloux notes.

The skills of servant leaders and 360-degree feedbacks make managers accountable to their subordinates.

“Research seems to show that these values-driven organizations can outperform their peers by wide margins.” Leloux reports.

The fifth stage of consciousness is described by the metaphor of ‘Evolution.’ The major breakthroughs of the twenty-first century won’t be technological, but the expansion of what it means to be human, and more complex and refined ways of dealing with the world.

We will learn to contain our need to control, to look good, and to fit in. A capacity to trust the abundance of life will replace fear. Our moral compass will be “inner rightness”.

This is beyond the previous level of consciousness of the family, where I’m a kindly father and you are a child. Organisations in this metaphor are completely self-managed by the participants in small groups they are made up of. The groups evolve and change and respond to the human needs of the group, and those they serve.

Organisations with this consciousness already exist, not as outliers, but as significant players. They are not only in the social or non-profit sphere, but include the following impressive organisations:
AES, Energy sector: Global, 40 000 employees, for profit
Buurtzorg, Health care: Netherlands, 7 000 employees, nonprofit
FAVI, Metal manufacturing: France, 500 employees, for profit
Morning Star Food, processing: United States, 2 400 employees, for profit
Patagonia, Apparel: United States, 1 350 employees, for profit

These first major breakthrough organisations with an evolved consciousness have structures and practices where no one holds power over anyone else, and yet, paradoxically, the organisation as a whole is considerably more powerful.

The future is already blended into the present. Something completely new, without precedent, is simply impossible. Much food for thought.

Readability:     Light ----+ Serious
Insights:        High +---- Low
Practical:        High +---- Low

* Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy and is the author of Strategy that Works. Views expressed are his own.

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