Reinventing Organizations:
Free of Politics, Full of Meaning

Can we reinvent organizations free of politics, bureaucracy and infighting; free of stress and burnout; free of resignation, resentment, and apathy; free of the posturing at the top and the drudgery at the bottom? This is the big question posed by Fredric Laloux in his book Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness (Nelson Parker, 2014).

Quite frankly, I don’t see it as idealistic dreaming. I believe that it possible to devise a new model that makes work productive, fulfilling and meaningful. In the course of history, we’ve reinvented how people come together to get work done a number of times – every time creating a vastly superior new organizational model. With every new stage in human consciousness also comes a breakthrough in our ability to collaborate. Before we can even think about reinventing organizations, however, we better understand how they evolved so far.

Perhaps a look at the major stages in the development of organizations can give us an idea of what the next stage will bring. Human societies, like individuals, don’t grow in linear fashion, but in stages of increasing maturity, consciousness, and complexity. Various scholars have assigned different names to these stages; philosopher Ken Wilber uses colors to identify them, in a sequence that evokes the light spectrum, from infrared to ultraviolet. Laloux borrows his color scheme as a way of capturing the levels of organizational development, as shown in his diagram here (published with permission from F. Laloux):


I realize this chart may be difficult to read because the print is small. Here’s a summary of the basic ideas – a description of the way organizations evolved throughout human history. I’ve chosen to describe only up through Amber. I’ll continue with Orange, Green and Teal in my next post.

  1. Reactive – Infrared Paradigm

This paradigm addresses the earliest developmental stage of humanity, roughly spanning the period from 100,000 to 50,000 BC. Humans lived in small bands of family kinships. Most of what we know about these kinds of groups comes from the few tribes which survive in remote parts of the world.

These bands typically number just a few dozen people. People don’t perceive themselves as distinct from others or from the environment. Foraging is the basis of subsistence. There is no division of labor and so there is nothing like an organizational model at this stage yet. There’s no hierarchy, no chief, no leadership. There are usually high rates of violence and murder at this stage.

  1. Magic – Magenta Paradigm

Around 15,000 years ago, humanity started to shift into tribes of up to a few hundred people, representing a major step up in the ability to handle complexity. To handle this, tribes seek comfort in ritualistic behaviors and follow an elder or a shaman. There is belief in spirits and magic.

Task differentiation is limited although elders have special status and authority.

  1. Impulsive – Red Paradigm

Around 10,000 years ago, the first chiefdoms and proto-empires formed along with the first forms of organizational life. The world at this stage is seen as a dangerous place where one’s needs being met depends on being strong and tough. Power is the currency of the world.

Thinking is shaped by polar opposites which makes for a black and white worldview: strong/weak, my way vs. your way. Role differentiation and divisions of labor exists. There is now a chief and foot soldiers and sometimes slaves. Organizations expand up to thousands, usually through conquering enemies.

Today there are organizations that operate with such a developmental model – prisons, crime cartels, countries in combat zones and civil war states. Even gangs and inner-city neighborhoods may organize themselves using a red paradigm.

The defining characteristic of a Red Organization is the use of power in interpersonal relationships. The chief must demonstrate overwhelming power and bend others to his will to stay in position. There is no formal hierarchy and no job titles. For these reasons, such an organizational model doesn’t scale well. The chief must use public displays of cruelty and punishment or be seen as weak. Fear and submission keep the structure intact.

  1. Conformist – Amber Paradigm

Every paradigm shift opens up new capabilities and emerging ways of getting things done in groups. Around 4000 BC in Mesopotamia, new societies emerged that were far more sophisticated.

When the Conformist-Amber stage of human consciousness emerged, humankind leaped from a tribal world subsisting on horticulture to the age of agriculture, states and civilizations, institution, bureaucracies and organized religions.

According to developmental psychologists and sociologists, a large share of today’s population operates from this paradigm.

People grasp cause and effect relationships, linear time, and can project into the future. With these new capabilities, humans use self-discipline and foresight to planning. A new class of rulers, administrators, warriors, craftsmen emerged, and along with it a deeper awareness of other people’s feelings and perceptions.

To feel safe in the world, members of the Amber stage seek order, stability and predictability. It seeks to create control through institutions and bureaucracies. Roles and rules in society are well defined.

Amber Organizations

With the Amber level of consciousness, organizations now plan for the medium and long term and create structures that are stable and scalable. These two breakthroughs lead to unprecedented outcomes: irrigation systems, pyramids, the Great Wall of China, trading posts, merchant shipping, plantations and the Catholic Church.

The first large corporations of the Industrial Revolution were run on this template and Amber Organizations are still very present today: government agencies, public schools, religious institutions, and the military.

These three stages of development follow this diagram up to the Orange block which represents the scientific, industrial period. More in my next post.


I don’t know if you’re familiar with this model of organizational development or not. I find it interesting as a way to understand today’s modern organizations. What do you think so far? I’d love to hear from you. Give me a call and let’s talk. You can contact me here and on LinkedIn.

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