Liberating Structures

Why this is important

Conventional, hierarchical organisational structures are less and less able to respond effectively to the increasingly uncertain, ambiguous, fast-moving, unpredictable global environment we are operating in. New forms of organising which distribute leadership through the organisation are emergingto deal with this.

The Idea in Brief

Leadership development is usually seen as being the same as developing leaders. But developing leaders is just one approach. Another is to create organisational environments that evoke and encourage leadership as a property of the wider system. These "Teal" organisations embody 3 breakthoughs:

  • Self-managment: managing is distributed throughout the organisation - so managers are no longer needed (though management is!)
  • Evolutionary Purpose: the organisation itself has a purpose (not just the people working in it) -
  • Wholeness:

The Idea in Detail

Leadership development is usually seen as being the same as developing leaders. But this is just one approach. The other is to create organisational environments that evoke and encourage leadership as a property of the wider system. There is a wave of mostly new organisations designed to liberate people to create.

One way of transforming organisations is to transform the people in it –another way is to transform the organisation’s structures and processes in ways that transform people’s ability to add value and make a difference.

In the past, the purpose of organisational structure and processes has been to control and direct – and has been based on a view of employees as being unmotivated, untrustworthy and lacking in intelligence. And in treating employees as is these things awere true, people lives up to that expectation. Now some organosations are choosing to view their staff as responsible, intelligent and committed, and are proviging the organisational structure – the Liberating structures – to enable this.

What is exciting about this approach is how it can release a huge amount of energy which which means that people feel more fillfilled, they work smarter, and the bottom line improves.

How we behave is influenced by who we are (our personaility, values, etc) and by the context in which we operate (job role, organisational structure and culture etc

Nudge, bottom rh corner

Reinventing Organizations by Frederik Laloux is the most important book on leadership and organisational design of 2014!

Laloux is interested in the forms of organisation that can give expression to the profound changes in consciousness, culture and social systems that are emerging. What makes his work so exciting is that he's not just theorising - he's found organisations that are already operating in this way, and in some cases have been doing so for decades. He's then analysed them and has identified the patterns of organising and operating that they have in common.

The Evolution of Organisations

It's helpful in understanding his findings to see how organisations have evolved. For centuries the predominant form of organisation was Bureaucracy, a top down command and control system well-suited to stable environments, a stage Laloux calls "Amber" (see table below). (The colours of the different types of organisation come from Ken Wilber's labels for the different developmental levels in individuals and societies - see Development Stage Frameworks to understand how Wilber's scheme fits with that of other frameworks).

The key breakthroughs that Amber brought to what went before ("Red" organisations based around power exercised through interpersonal relationships) were formal roles and processes, which enabled large bureaucratic organisations to be built. But such organisations eventually turned out to not be up to the task of responding to society's emerging needs and, with the Age on Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, "Orange" organisations that valued innovation, accountability and merit began to emerge.

These Orange organisations have been, and continue to be, extraordinarily successful, but they too have shown their limitations (most dramatically perhaps in the 2008 Banking Crisis). These limitations in turn drove the emergence of "Green" organisations with their emphasis on empowerment, values and stakeholders. And now we are seeing the early instances of the next generation of organisation - "Teal".


Each kind of organisation are underpinned by very different assumptions about people. Those underlying Teal organisations are that people:

  • are creative, thoughtful, trustworthy, reliable, self motivated adults, capable of making important decision
  • are accountable and responsible for their decisions and action
  • are fallible. They make mistakes, sometimes on purpose
  •  are unique
  • want to use their talents and skills to make a positive contribution to the organisation and the world.

So, rather different from the assumptions that most organisations work from!

The 3 Breakthroughs of Teal Organisations

The table above shows the key breakthroughs that enable each subsequent organisational type to develop from the preceding type. Teal organisations embody 3 key breakthroughs:

  • Self-management: a system based on peer relationships, without the need for either hierarchy or consensus. This is a step beyond Green empowerment - where power is pushed down the hierarchy - to a system where everyone holds power, but no-one holds power over anyone else. Teams are self-governing and self-organising. There is no middle management. Management tasks (eg recruiting, purchasing, performance management,etc) are distributed throughout the team.
  •  Wholeness: bringing all of ourselves to work. We stop hiding behind our professional mask and leaving parts of ourselves behind when we come to work. Instead we bring more of our potential, creativity and energy and no longer fear to be fully ourselves. In daring to bring all of us to work, we shift relationships from Persecutor, Rescuer & Victim to a healthier level of Challenger Coach & Creator.
  • Evolutionary purpose: listening to what the organisation wants to become and what purpose it wants to serve. The Teal organisation has a life of its own and we learn to listen to what it is seeking to become and what the positive difference it wants to make in the world is. As in all organisations, everyone notices when something isn't working as well as it could or when an opportunity opens up - but in Teal organisations people act on this 'sensing' so that the organisation is continually aligning and re-aligning itself with its emerging purpose.

The Impact

In the Netherlands, there is a tradition of neighbourhood nursing. Originally self-employed, in the 1990s the nurses were encouraged to join nursing organisations. As these neighbourhood nursing organisations grew in size, they sought to increase efficiency and achieve economies of scale by specialising the tasks - administrators managed the intake of new patients and planned the nurses' daily schedule; call centres were set up to take patients' calls; cleaners were employed so that nurses' time could be used more effectively; and regional managers were employed to supervise the staff - in short Orange organisations were established.

In 2006 Jos de Block, a former nurse who dreamed of a different way of delivering high-quality nursing care, founded Buurtzorg as a new kind of Dutch neighbourhood nursing organisation. Buurtzorg is one of the organisations Laloux researched, and embodies the 3 breakthroughs. Though not set up with the intention of growing, by 2013 it had grown from 10 to 70,000 staff and was employing two thirds of all neighbourhood nurses in the country. A 2012 Ernst & Young study found patients required an average 40% less care than in other organisations, and stayed in care only half as long. Hospital admissions were reduced by one third, with shorter than average stays.

Nurses love working for Buurtzorg - for example, it was "Employer of the Year" in the Netherlands for the second time on 2012. The Ernst & Young Report estimated that the Dutch State would save €2 billion if all home care were delivered in Buurtzorg fashion. In short, better quality care for patients, greater job satisfaction for nurses, and lower care costs for the state.

Find out more

There is a video of Laloux speaking on his book Reinventing Organisations on YouTube. It's 1 hour 43 minutes in length and well worth the time. And you can acquire the book from his website where you can buy it in the conventional way, or using a Pay-What-Feels-Right model.

What You Can do