“Something is broken in today’s organizations…The pain we feel is the pain of something old that is dying…while something new is waiting to be born.”
Frederic Laloux, Reinventing Organizations
So much of organizational life is onerous and frustrating these days. For many of us, the day job is characterised by aggravation and a sense of soullessness: a “cold, mechanical approach” which trades agency and responsibility for box-checking accountability and loss of control.
That’s what Frederic Laloux argues in his 2014 book Reinventing Organizations, which explores alternative models for those institutions and businesses willing to dissolve hierarchies and pursue new management paradigms.
Laloux’s case studies include the Dutch healthcare organization Buurtzorg, which delivers community care in leaderless self-organizing teams of ten to twelve nurses, and FAVI, a French automotive supplier which has divided itself into self-managing “mini-factories” whose teams operate without executive management. These businesses and institutions, Laloux argues, resemble living systems more than the organisations of old. They are evolving beyond previous, rigid ways of bringing people together to achieve a goal: the army, the university, the corporation…even the organized crime syndicate.
Laloux presents a practical vision for a world where “no one is the boss of anyone else”, and our organizations begin to take on an organic character.
The approach is intended to work across many sectors, with examples including highly regulated industries such as the energy industry and food processing. I thought I’d spend some time thinking about what it would mean for information organisations – archives, libraries, and other entities which create, store, share, and manage information – to explore Laloux’s approach. What would it take for us to reinvent the Information Organization?
1: Understand where you’re starting from
Laloux offers a typology of organizations based on the work of philosopher Ken Wilbur. Perhaps you can recognise your organization in one of them.
Laloux’ Organizational Typology of Worldviews
The Impulsive Worldview:
The earliest human societies operated with an “impulsive” worldview: a powerful figure, the chief, enforced social order, through physical force if necessary, in order to create authority and allegiance among individuals behaving in an impulsive and self-centred way. The chief could assign tasks and punish or intimidate people, when necessary, to direct the community towards a goal. This worldview, unpleasant as it might seem to us today, gave us two breakthroughs: the division of labour and the idea of top-down authority.
The Conformist Worldview:
The “conformist” worldview can still be found today in some military forces, religious institutions, government agencies, and universities. This worldview presumes “that there is one right way of doing things, that the world is (or should be) immutable, and that lifelong employment should be the norm.”
Conformist entities have a relatively stable organization chart, with everyone having their own place in the hierarchy, and stable, replicable processes being implemented by the organization year-on-year. Conformism gave us clear hierarchies and ways of bringing people together. These allowed critical knowledge and operations to be embedded in the organization: even if one person leaves your church, university, or army, someone else can replace them, and the organization has the capacity to continue fulfilling its tasks seamlessly.
The Achievement-Driven Worldview:
According to Laloux, the “achievement-driven” worldview represents the mainstream of today’s management practices. Publicly listed corporations, and public sector organizations increasingly driven by free-market concepts have become “ruthlessly innovative and efficient machines in the pursuit of profits.”
In this worldview, organizations recognise that the world is not unchanging. “Innovate or die” is the order of the day: finding new ways to optimize, create efficiencies, and generate new value – particularly for shareholders or funders – lies at the heart of much present-day management. Management by objectives, where executives define an overall direction and targets which cascade down through the organisation, gives members of the organization at every rank a degree of freedom and accountability when it comes to meeting their targets.
The “achievement-driven” worldview gave us strategic planning, yearly budgets, key performance indicators, performance appraisals, bonus schemes and stock options. It also gave us meritocracy: the principle that “the smartest should lead the pack”. In this worldview, “job mobility is the norm; people are expected to change jobs every few years, and life employment is no longer seen as an ideal.”
However, Laloux argues, we are beginning to feel the negative impact of this way of working: “we often pursue growth for growth’s sake, a condition that in medical terminology is called cancer. It results in a predatory economy that is depleting the world’s natural resources and killing off the very ecosystems upon which our survival depends.” The impact of a solidly materialistic worldview is felt at a deeply individual level as well as at the global scale: “When the only successful life is the one that reaches the top, we are bound to experience a sense of emptiness in our lives.”
The Pluralistic Worldview:
Laloux’s fourth type of organization has its roots in the counterculture of the 1960s and 70s. The pluralistic organization begins to resemble a family. Employees are empowered where possible, coaching is favoured, and shared values become as important to the organization’s identity as pursuit of market share or other external metrics.
Organizations which take a pluralistic worldview – including businesses such as Southwest Airlines and Ben & Jerry’s as well as not-for-profits and social ventures – recognising that they have a responsibility not just to their funders, but also to staff, clients, suppliers, local communities, society at large, and the environment.
Laloux’s framework is, he admits, a simplification: no one organization is 100% aligned with any one of these worldviews. However, we can characterise the organizations we work with in terms of their processes, structures, and culture – and these are likely to reflect a dominant worldview. Most of the information institutions I have worked with are “conformist” entities shading (edging towards an “achievement-driven” worldview. They are publicly funded bodies with a conformist degree of stability and rigidity, gradually seeking ways to explore the more innovation-driven and flexible strategic tools of an achievement-driven organization.
The Evolutionary Worldview:
However, Laloux’s taxonomy doesn’t stop at the “pluralistic” worldview, nor does it presume that each organizational stage erases its predecessor. The fifth way of working, which he describes and anticipates in Reinventing Organizations, is termed “evolutionary”.
2: The evolutionary worldview in action
Laloux offers the Dutch nursing organization Buurtzorg as an example of this new worldview. Buurtzorg came into being earlier this century in the wake of significant reforms to nursing by the Dutch government.
In the 1980s, the Dutch had implemented “achievement-driven” reforms to the community nursing system which had existed since the eighteenth century. Under this long-running system, every neighbourhood in the Netherlands had a number of nurses visiting the sick and elderly at home.
As costs rose over the twentieth century, the “achievement-driven” mindset encouraged them to make reforms, grouping nurses into larger organizations, seeking economies of scale and new efficiencies.
A mechanical and highly data-driven logic took over the business of community nursing. Nurses were assigned detailed itineraries from a centralised planning department, and time norms set for everything from changing a compression stocking (two-and-a-half minutes) to giving an injection (ten minutes). Management tiers proliferated while nurses were shifted around in the name of maximum efficiency, denying them opportunities to build lasting relationships with the people they were treating, to the dissatisfaction of patients and nurses alike.
Buurtzorg was founded in 2006 as a home care organization which would reject these dehumanizing and demoralizing practices. Founder Jos de Blok, himself a nurse, found that self-organizing teams of ten to twelve people could deliver the required care while maintaining morale alongside efficiency. This team size was sufficiently large to grant economies of scale, yet each patient could expect to see the same familiar faces on a regular basis. Management tasks such as holiday planning, rosters, or resource management were distributed across the team.
Laloux declares that Buurtzorg has become a spectacular success story which still delivers efficiencies, reduces emergency hospital intakes for its patients, and saves the Dutch social security system significant sums each year. As he puts it, “Care, at its best, is a small miracle that happens, or not, in the relationship of a patient and a nurse. That miracle never shows up when a mechanical perspective is applied to care. The best care will happen […] when nurses are seen as professionals, when they are trusted. Give them freedom, and they will offer truly great care.”
What would this evolutionary worldview mean for information institutions?
Increasingly, it’s clear that the business which libraries, archives, knowledge management teams, and other information institutions practice isn’t about acquiring and storing “content”. It’s about building meaningful relationships – between users, consumers, and creators of knowledge, information, and culture.
Great librarians serve their community – whether that’s the staff and students of an education institution or the wider public who visit a neighbourhood library – by helping them to explore knowledge, information, and culture on their own terms whenever possible. Archivists allow us to build relationships to the legacy of the past by ensuring that materials from historic creators are available to us for making meaning in the present.
This focus on relationships applies outside of the university campus or public library, too. Australia’s Supreme Court Library of Queensland, whose strategic plan I worked on in 2019-2020, has a role in ensuring that the community they serve – lawyers and the judiciary, but also everyone who comes into contact with the law in that state – has access to the information they need in order to navigate the legal system.
Information professionals working in corporate or institutional settings also ensure that their colleagues can make decisions based on the right information, with the right context, at the right time – my favourite example of this is R.David Lankes’ anecdote about the law firm librarian who ran lunchtime seminars on “Character Assassination 101”, teaching lawyers how to find information which would help to discredit the opposing team’s expert witnesses.
If information is a relationship business, then just like the nurses of Buurtzorg, it would pay to empower frontline staff so that they could build richer and more attentive relationships both internally and externally. That would mean dismantling some hierarchies and specializations – some of the old certainties which also cause inflexibility – enabling smaller, flatter teams of information professionals to work more closely, with greater freedom and responsibility, to meet the needs of the community they served.
3: Characteristics of the evolutionary information organization
Laloux proposes a new metaphor which transcends the old institutional worldviews: the organization as a living system. People are no longer to be seen as cogs in the machine or boxes to be filled on an organizational chart. “Change in nature happens everywhere, all the time,” Laloux reminds us, “in a self-organizing urge that comes from every cell and every organism, with no need for central command and control.”
This new approach sounds visionary but is also deeply pragmatic. It is grounded in three complementary principles: self-management, acceptance of the whole individual, and an evolutionary sense of purpose.
This principle trades hierarchy for more fluid systems of distributed authority. Large groups still need structure and coordinating mechanisms, Laloux acknowledges, but pyramidal structures don’t cut it as situations become increasingly complex. This is in large part because of the problem of information: a pyramid is also a bottleneck, where reporting lines often only converge at the top, and getting the right information to the right decision-maker becomes increasingly fraught.
“Time at the top is so precious that people below often spend weeks preparing for a thirty-minute slot they are given with the executive committee,” Laloux writes. “Many important decisions actually never get a slot, never get made. Other decisions made at the top turn out to be poor, even disastrous, because of politics or because people at the top simply don’t have time to really understand what’s going on in the field.”
In Laloux’s evolutionary organizations, management tasks are spread out across teams. In Buurtzorg, for example, “one person […] deals with weekend planning, another takes the lead in recruitment, a third is the contact person with the local hospital, and so on.” Above the teams, there is a small group of administrators in support functions such as connecting with the Dutch social security bureaucracy, and a group of regional coaches that teams can call for facilitation and help if they get stuck. There are no executive human resources, finances, sales, or marketing functions; the pyramid is traded for a flattened hierarchy.
To structure decision-making in such a system, evolutionary organizations use an advice process. Any staff member can make any decision, including spending company money – but in order to do so, they must first seek advice from those who will be meaningfully affected by the decision, and those who already have experience about the issue being decided.
The bigger the decision, the more people must be asked for advice: purchasing a single machine might only require an email exchange or small team meeting, while a decision with organization-wide impact may be discussed via whole-of-staff blog posts and electronic exchanges which allow proposals to be critiqued and honed.
Decisions are not watered down; the decisionmaker ultimately makes the judgment call, even if that means going against an individual piece of advice. The elimination of a formal hierarchy allows new hierarchies to arise spontaneously based on individual recognition, influence, and skill, as decisions are informed by a collective intelligence. Knowing that you will ask and be asked for advice as a matter of routine, people take responsibility for their role in a network of advice-giving, and are swift to let colleagues know if they are not taking this responsibility seriously.
Issues such as compensation and performance management are also characterised by this sense of responsibility. Not only do staff develop intrinsic motivation, but they also share in the rising or falling fortunes of the wider institutions. The automotive manufacturer FAVI’s self-management approach brings workers into close contacts with clients; they are fully aware of the orders their mini-factory is processing and, with full transparency, know that if they underperform, their competitors will happily replace them. As Laloux puts it: “Reality is a more powerful motivator than hierarchy.”
Acceptance of the whole individual
A lot of libraries and archives I work with wrestle with the question of uniforms: should they be worn by staff, because they make it easier for users on-site to identify someone who can help them, or does accepting a staff uniform signify a loss in professional status? I remember the same arguments being had when I was a kindergarten teacher in my twenties: were we degree-holding professionals allowed to choose our own clothes within a dress code, or should we all be wearing the same uniform to build a cohesive identity across the school staff?
For Laloux, a uniform is “also a claim the organization makes on the person: while you wear this uniform, you don’t fully belong to yourself”. That’s not to say that a self-managing organization wouldn’t choose to develop a uniform or dress code to suit its purposes, but rather to acknowledge that under old systems of management, “you are to behave and show up not as you are, but in certain pre-determined, acceptable ways.”
The relationship-focussed and less authoritarian approach which Laloux favours also means that members of an organization should feel freer to bring their whole self to the professional setting. When decisions are being made collectively, vulnerability and honesty are more powerful and productive than ego and power games. When there is no boss to please, but peers with whom mutual respect must be cultivated, it is an opportunity for us to recognise one another’s emotional and physical needs, our duties as parents or caregivers, our aptitudes and ambitions as well as our rights and responsibilities within the community of our colleagues.
Laloux indicates that this approach requires a set of ground rules to ensure a safe environment. Our words and actions can undermine the ability to work with wholeheartedness and honesty, so some “evolutionary” organizations develop documents which set out expectations of behaviour for staff and clients, making clear what kinds of speech or action would be considered unacceptable. Such documents provide the foundation for day-to-day practices which range from in-house coaching and conflict resolution support to regular professional development opportunities led from within the organization, with opportunities for staff to find and share their own insights.
Laloux emphasises the power of storytelling to deliver on the promise of this approach, by allowing us to connect with one another’s experiences, values, and aspirations:
“In self-managing organizations as well as hierarchical ones, trust is the secret sauce of productive and joyful collaboration. But it’s hard for trust to flourish when everyone is hiding, to some degree, behind a professional mask. We don’t just lose productivity; in subtle but real ways, our humanity feels cheated by the shallow relationships we have when we don’t engage with each other at levels that truly matter. If we want workplaces of trust, if we hope for deep, rich, and meaningful relationships, we have to reveal more of who we are. Going bowling together can be a fun break from work, but such “team building” activities are generally more of the same: they keep to the surface and don’t really foster trust or community at any deep level. These events lack the essential element we have used to build community and create shared narratives since the dawn of time: the practice of storytelling.”
The evolutionary sense of purpose
“What if we stop trying to force the future into existence?” Laloux asks. “What if instead we simply dance with what wants to emerge?”
Reinventing Organizations rejects the now-standard practice of articulating a mission-and-vision statement which is meant to provide staff with inspiration and guidance. Laloux considers these statements to be hollow, and describes them in terms which echo those of Richard Rumelt, who in Good Strategy/Bad Strategy mocked the standard strategy template of our times:
The Vision: Fill in your unique vision of what the school/business/nation will be like in the future. Currently popular unique visions are to be “the best” or “the leading” or “the best known”.
The Mission: Fill in a high-sounding politically correct statement of the purpose of the school/business/nation.
The Values: Fill in a statement describing the company’s values. Make sure they are noncontroversial.
The Strategies: Fill in some aspirations/goals but call them strategies.
Rumelt is at his most scathing when he examines some specific visions and missions:
“The mission of the Department of Defense is to ‘deter conflict – but should deterrence fail, to fight and win the nation’s wars.’ It would be hard to find anyone who would argue with this, but it would also be equally hard to find anyone informed by it. A waste of print.
The vision of the Central Intelligence Agency is ‘One Agency. One Community. An Agency unmatched in its core capabilities, functioning as one team, fully integrated into the Intelligence Community.’ Digging slightly deeper, the CIA’s publically stated priorities all have to do with better teamwork and more investment in capabilities. Nowhere did it say that finding and killing Osama bin Laden was a top priority. Of course, one does not expect to see the strategies of the CIA on a public website. But if that is the case, why publish this fluff?”
Laloux’s notion of “evolutionary purpose” avoids such verbiage. Instead of seeking to predict and control the future through tools such as SMART goals, strategic planning, and yearly budget cycles, it adopts a “sense and respond” approach.
This bears closer resemblance to the ways by which we ride a bicycle: a holistic combination of monitoring the path ahead, adjusting our balance, keeping our destination in mind but adjusting the pressure on the pedals, brakes, and handlebars in response to the unfolding circumstances as we move forwards. Moving mindfully in an agreed direction opens us to new possibilities, shorter routes to our intended destination – but also new destinations which better serve our current purpose.
Laloux gives the example of Buurtzorg moving into accident prevention after realising that they were often treating elderly patients who were recovering from falls, broken hips, and the ensuing surgeries. Two Buurtzorg nurses created a local partnership with a physiotherapist and an occupational therapist, worked with them in their local community, and then shared their experiences with the wider Buurtzorg organization. Other teams who were interested could then learn more, experiment on their own, and build new capacities. Now, Laloux reports, around half the organization’s teams have taken on this role, yet “no one person formally made the decision for Buurtzorg to go into prevention. The organization’s own energy moved it in this direction.”
An information organization operating on these principles could be expected to innovate in similar terms: a public library service, for example, discovering that its community were struggling with the challenge of “fake news” and the dwindling market for local media, might apply for initiatives like Nesta’s Future News Fund.
If they recognised a need to help their community develop new industries and income streams, that public library might build relationships with their national innovation and business development agencies.
They might, on recognising the need to support homeless members of their community, become connectors of those homeless library users to health and social care resources, as has happened in Auckland Libraries, Aotearoa New Zealand.
The institution itself would evolve as it sought to meet the needs of a given community when it came to knowledge, information, and culture. After all, the definition of those needs, and of the community, might themselves evolve, just as the the organization’s mode of operation might change. The debate within institutions like the Supreme Court Library of Queensland over whether they should provide information services to the judiciary, members of the legal profession, and members of the public who come into contact with the law – especially in an age when people will increasingly represent themselves or make use of apps to support them through legal issues – is an example of this kind of community redefinition.
Such open, organic discussions about the purpose we must evolve towards will be useful in a time when the traditional library is likely to be sorely tested: by austerity and funding cuts, by the shifting balance between the public and private sector, and by an age in which information is increasingly digitised and privatised. Tough choices about which direction to go in when the future is uncertain and the stakes are high may be easier to make if supported by collective sensemaking and decision-making processes.
This evolutionary response is also an argument for information institutions to build their foresight capacity: that is to say, their ability to look at their future not just in terms of what is likely or expected, but those possibilities which would be more challenging or opportune than received wisdom suggests. It is not sufficient for an organization operating on a “sense and respond” basis only to respond to what has just happened; it must also anticipate what will happen next by sensing and identifying the emerging signs of change. Foresight work highlights organizations’ blindspots by having constructive and challenging discussions about the plausible futures which might await, drawing our attention to weak signals of change in our environment. Such discussions will be richer and more consequential if conducted among diverse groups with a relatively flat hierarchy, bound by a common yet evolving sense of purpose.
4: Where next and why does this matter?
Moving towards Laloux’s vision of the evolutionary organization is no minor feat. It requires some unlearning of practices, habits, and hierarchical relationships which have become so ingrained that, even if they are shown to be harmful to the organisation’s ability to full its mission, people may be reluctant to surrender them. It requires staff to explore new rights and responsibilities in the workplace, and executives or managers to surrender a great deal of power and authority. Yet the examples Laloux gives – in nursing, where patients’ health is at stake; in the energy industry, where power plants must be operated under significant state regulation; in automotive manufacture, where commercial competition is high – all suggest that the principles are widely applicable. Could information professionals, too, radically transform their organizations along similar lines, to yield similar rewards?
Such transformations could begin with candid discussions around the basics, establishing a culture of mutual respect and responsibility where there is:
- a shared understanding of what is healthy for the organisation and the community it serves,
- sufficient information sharing and transparency to delegate decision-making and accountability, and
- a forum for conversation where each voice can be heard and actions can be determined responsibly.
I believe that it is vital for information institutions to explore such new ways of working, because the battle for useful information will lie at the heart of so many things which await us in years to come.
COVID-19 has shown us how high the stakes are for a government managing information flows – in terms of the data on which decisions are based, and which institutions are given access to that data; in terms of which sources are trusted in an age when some media encourage people not to take precautions such as wearing masks or getting vaccinated; in terms of transparency and ensuring that the public know as much about what is going on as their elected representatives.
The major challenges of the 21st century are increasingly likely, I suspect, to be informational ones. We may face increasing obstacles to communities or institutions getting information they can rely and act upon – whether that is because of infrastructure limitations, political failure, or mistrust and misinformation.
As newspapers and traditional media cut staff or close down; as official sources massage or misrepresent data; as careless or malicious actors inject their own dubious information into the media ecosystem; as fundamental truths become subject to dispute and debate, information institutions are likely to face a profoundly turbulent season for months and years to come.
Finding new ways for information professionals to organize themselves in flexible ways, to meet an evolving purpose and an evolving context, will be vital. Laloux’s proposals represent one way forward.