Why Teal? The case for flat organizations

November 14, 2023

I typically see the most wondering faces among our business partners when I tell them that our organization is so flat that our mother company, Qamcom Research & Technology AB, doesn’t even have a CEO. The subsequent remarks and questions revolve around our ability to function at all. How is that possible? It must be total chaos in a company like that.

I have to admit that this idea of flat(ish) organizations is not entirely our own invention. The legendary CEO of SAS (Scandinavian Airlines) Jan Carlzon wrote a book on the subject in 1985. The original title in Swedish was very clear and explicit: ‘Riv pyramiderna!’, which means ‘Demolish the Pyramids!’. The English title, Moments of Truth is less provocative, but the content has been there for anyone to read since 1989.

There are many other books and studies regarding the subject of more empowered organizations. Among the most relevant ones is Frederic Laloux: Re-inventing Organizations. The author uses colors to symbolize societies and organizations, painting a clearly understandable picture:

  • Infrared for our ancient ancestors.
  • Impulsive, wolf-pack kind of red for the person-centered early dictatorships.
  • Meritocratic orange for most known companies of today.
  • Pluralistic green for value-driven organizations.
  • Teal, the next level, is building on the experiences of the previous ones, and is adding a dose of internal driving forces of employees, striving for wholeness in relationships with the external world. Because of this, the Teal philosophy is also called Holacracy. All this sounds nice, but what does it really mean, and more importantly: does it work?

Our company has chosen to believe it can. We believe to be true that good ideas and profound knowledge can come from anywhere in the organization. This means that decisions should also be made based on the expertise of individuals, driven by knowledge and not by fancy titles. Does this result in chaos? The expression “creative chaos” could be applied from time to time.

At the same time, we do not want to keep reinventing the wheel, so we have processes. Some of them are already well documented, some still need more clarity and details. We have processes on how to distribute tasks and responsibilities, how to approach a customer, and how to manage a project. These are good practices, but they are not perfect. This is an important point: everybody has to adhere to the processes and while doing so, come up with improvement proposals where necessary.

Process improvement can only take place if the people working in the organization feel ownership and develop a sense of responsibility. This in turn means that we must build a culture of maturity and respect among ourselves. This, again, is the responsibility of all of us. When this kind of attention takes place and the whole team cares, is when we, as an organization, can truly grow.

Does the Teal methodology solve all our problems and reach all our goals? Of course not: it is us humans who solve problems and strive higher. But at least, the organization is not in our way.