The Teal Conspiracy (or Utopia might just as well be around the corner)

by , under General, Management, Organizational culture


Buurtzorg (or the potential seed?)

Frederic Laloux might have done a thing or two in order to accelerate management (r)evolution with his book Reinventing Organizations. In my humble opinion his main (and timelessly awesome) contribution has been to cast a smart and focused light on some organizations many of us hadn’t (incredibly!) heard of before reading the book.

The one organization I will mostly refer to in this post is Buurtzorg. Buurtzorg, a neighborhood nursing organization I’m planning on seeing first-hand this October, is (or at least seems to be after reading the book) just oh so amazing. With 8000 professionals and counting, Buurtzorg is nothing short of a self-organization marvel, with over 99 percent of its members belonging to completely autonomous teams of no more than 12 people. These teams, composed entirely of nurses, are entitled (and expected) to decide on everything that concerns their daily work. From finance to so-(awfully)called human resources, everything is in their hands.

Buurtzorg not just works. Buurtorzg has grown in less than 10 years to own more than a 60-percent share of the Dutch market and has proved to be way more productive than their competitors according to several studies. Needless to say, patient and employee satisfaction have flown way past the ceiling.

A tiny little sip of Dr. Marx (or a quick reflection on the traditional consultant and software professional organization)

I haven’t directly read any of Karl Marx’s texts. I don’t subscribe to all of his ideas. I dislike most of the so-called implementations of Marxism so far. Nevertheless, there’s undeniably a sizable number of invaluable ideas in his texts. Surplus might be just as well one of those.

Surplus, as I have managed to understand it, is the money the factory owner (to take a common scenario) keeps after selling an industrial product and paying the worker who built it. If the company CarsRUs produces cars, then the owner of the company (let’s call him Mr. Henry) ends up cashing the difference between the value that customers pay for the cars and the salaries the workers get.

After a weekend of introspection, a given worker at CarsRUs (let’s call him Ernest) could perfectly propose to some of his colleagues (let’s call them Rose and Tony) that they should say thank you very much to Mr. Henry and set up their own, worker-owned, car factory (let’s call it CarsOrg). But wait, a slight detail gets right in the way of their dream. In order to set up a car factory one needs capital, a whole lot of it. Dough, moola, dinero. They don’t have it, so back to the factory my friends.

Generally speaking, in order to produce physical goods one needs a substantial amount of capital. But I don’t want to delve too much into the woes of this part of the world of work, specially considering that I have spent all of my professional life in a different neighborhood. I have so far had two different, closely linked professions as yet. I have spent six years as a software developer, and so far ten as a management consultant (mostly for the software industry). Both jobs can be encompassed in the broad category of knowledge work. I have a feeling that designers, marketing professionals, managers, and a plethora of other non-manual workers could easily be added to this group.

What makes knowledge work so special in the context of this discussion? To put it blunt and sweet, the colossal gap in capital that is needed to build a product (e.g. a software application or marketing plan) or provide a service (e.g. give advice to a CEO on how to run her company). In essence all you need to build a software is you. Yeah, you also need a PC (a fairly old one might suffice in many cases), an internet connection (there’s probably free WiFi thanks to your mayor), and an office (if you live under a roof that should be a magnificent start). Capital needed for knowledge work is marginal. I’ll repeat it just in case. Capital needed for knowledge work is marginal. In order to discuss a more concrete example, now let’s dig deeper into the prima donna of what French call the cognitive capitalism: software development.

State of the (dis)union (or why Mondays might still suck big time in our industry)

Software development is in itself a very complex universe. In order to try and comprehend the incommensurable we usually resort to taxonomies. I’ll be no exception this time. After a handful of springs immersed in that universe, I could sketch the following categories:

  • The product guys: These organizations develop and market software one way or the other. Taxonomy boundaries in the real world are always fuzzy, but you can easily think of Google, Microsoft or Gabriele Cirulli.
  • The IT guys: These guys develop software internally for a company whose main business is not software. Think of a particular department inside of McDonald’s or Walmart. More often than not these guys don’t develop software themselves, but rather outsource most of the job to the next group of guys.
  • The services guys: Software factories, software consultancy, we-develop-whatever-you-ask-for, they sport many names. These guys simply develop software for others. Think of Accenture, Kinetica Solutions and even a good deal of what IBM does for a living these days.

In order to gain even more focus, in this post I’ll specifically deal with the last guys. The ideas could eventually be extrapolated, but today is not the day that’ll happen. Let’s double click and turn to a new taxonomy (we just can’t have enough of them!). We’ll categorize this series of organizations into the following groups:

  • The Mammoth Hierarchical Multinationals Galaxy (aka The Taylors):Vast masses of developers and the like (testers, ops guys, etc) usually billed by the hour. Here you can find the Capgeminis and the Cognizants. The galaxy also includes zillions of differently sized celestial bodies made up by those small- and middle-sized wannabes, who haven’t reached the status of mammoth, but who would love to join the club. Gazillions of cognitive workers plod through working hours for years, sometimes without ever stopping to reflect on how alienated they feel. This is barren land for our seeds.
  • The Smaller Horizontal Companies System (aka The Tealish):I have encountered many small (tiny in comparison) companies that mostly work in a fully self-organized way, from decision-making all the way to profit sharing. From memory I can name Tecso or 10Pines. Here may lay the seeds I’m longing for!
  • The Freelancers Asteroid Belt (aka The Lone Rangers):This astonishingly sparse mass of free roaming brains, who sometimes migrate for a season or two to other continents, lacks any organization whatsoever. They seldom collaborate among themselves. Wasted pollen perhaps?

The asteroid belt is constantly being monitored (and eventually milked) by a parasitic subclass:

  • The Pimping Satellites (aka The Broadway Danny Roses): Big and small, intermediary firms act as opaque profitable proxies between clients (usually big ones) and freelancers. Except for exceptional cases, a systemic plague.

On the need to conspire (or why simply multiplying the Tealish might not be enough)

Small is beautiful, I agree. Big is usually clunky, uninventive, obscenely bureaucratic and heartless. And yet big has its pros. What makes big sometimes attractive? Why do big clients usually choose to work with big providers? Obviously a plethora of contextual reasons come to mind, but in my experience the constant is what I call staff elasticity (i.e. “I ask them for a 100 guys for tomorrow and they respond”). And why do people choose to join the big? Again your mileage may vary, but again I’ve encountered a constant: job stability (i.e. if the contract with this client gets cancelled I’ll still have a job). I call this private unemployment insurance.

Yeah, I know, I’m oversimplifying here, but can you at least buy that there can also be a plus side to being big? Good. So the next question would now be if there is such a thing as big and beautiful? Well, Buurtzorg anyone?

Wait, why do you keep referring to the color teal? (or a nano-summary of Reinventing Organizations)

I have borrowed the term “teal organization” from Laloux’s book. These organizations represent, according to the author, the highest level in terms of consciousness. They stand on three pillars: self-organization, wholeness and evolutionary purpose. Intrigued? Go read the original then!

I have a dream (or let’s get together and work all right)

My dream is simple. I’d be thrilled if a software development Buurtzorg showed up. Completely self-organized, obscenely productive, and with staggering levels of job and customer satisfaction. The both urgent and poignant question should then be why haven’t we built yet.

Why can’t the freelancers of the world just unite? Why can’t all those Tealish small companies merge into some kind of symbiotically bewitching federation? What is really stopping us?

Here be dragons (or a hypothesis on why the dream hasn’t materialized yet)

Call it confirmation bias if you will, but when asking myself this last question, I have ended listing the same three points I had listed some time ago when drafting the idea of LiquidOrgs. In this case I’ll rephrase them from the following perspective: suppose you belong to either the The Tealish or The Lone Rangers, why haven’t you merged/joined with another/a Tealish organization (respectively)? Being (as usual) overly simplistic, I’d say the answer usually stems from at least one of these fears:

  • Will I get a fair say in the way things are done? This is the realm of decision-making. Fears here include the likes of “Those guys at company X are smart, but they love keeping the last word on important issues.”
  • Will I get a fair compensation for my work? This is the realm of money. Fears here include the likes of “I wonder if those guys at company X value my work the way my friends at company Y do.”
  • Will I get to work with the people I respect? This is the realm of team composition. Fears here include the likes of “I generally respect the guys at company X, but I wouldn’t ever work with either A or B. Gosh, I wonder who opened the door to those schmucks in the first place.”

Strictly speaking the money and team composition realms could be included in the decision-making one, but I find they are so ubiquitous, that I decided it made sense to upgrade them to first-class citizens in this humble model.

Crafting a practical utopia (or what could be the first steps?)

In the aforementioned link I have drafted a very basic proposal to address these three fears. I know, they still need to be harnessed in real life. Buurtzorg and so many others have been showing that full-scale self-organization is not just possible, but it also makes so goddamn sense. What is my proposal? A journey of thousand miles always begins with one single step. If our destination is far away then we’d better start walking now. The Tealish might be the seeds. Let us get together, discuss our Tealish ways, learn from each other, dream up ways of collaborating, and hopefully the software Buurtzorg (or its evolved equivalent) will be born in the most beautifully organic possible way. I will start where I live with the people I know. Buenos Aires (Argentina) and the local Ágiles community. I’ll send a meetup request tonight. Let The Teal Conspiracy begin. Or not. Alea jacta est.

  1. Pat

    Alto articulo,
    Tal vez algo de las escuelas de negocio de Holanda sumen.
    Trimenbracion social el libro…y, lamento que no estoy en Baires para danzar este encuentro. Saludos!

  2. Bruno Parrinello

    Hi Alan,

    I hope you are doing well.
    Interesting and funny article, thank you. I’ll be curious to hear your observations of Burrtzorg, of which I’ve never heard before.

    Take care.


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