Frederic Laloux: Part 1 of an interview by Bob Morris

LalouxAfter I read Frederic Laloux‘s brilliant book, Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness, I was curious to know more about him and learned of his passionate commitment to helping leaders in almost any organization — whatever its size and nature may be — to explore fundamentally new ways of organizing resources (especially people) to achieve and then sustain excellence. One of the keys to that is creating a workplace culture within which personal growth and professional development are most likely to thrive.

Reinventing Organizations draws on two strands:

o Frederick’s deep understanding of the inner workings of organizations, which he developed among other during the years he worked as an organization and strategy consultant with McKinsey & Company

o His longstanding fascination with the topic of human development and his own joyful journey of personal and spiritual growth.

He has worked intimately with people at all levels of organizations. He has witnessed how the organizations that make up the fabric of our modern lives (large corporations and small businesses, hospitals and schools, nonprofits and government agencies) are for the most part places of quiet and pervasive suffering, places inhospitable to the deeper yearnings of our souls. The intuition that more is possible—that we must be capable of creating truly soulful organizations that invite all of our human potential into the workplace—has led him to engage into groundbreaking research: how a currently emerging, new form of consciousness is bringing forth a radically more soulful, purposeful, and productive organizational model.

Reinventing Organizations was published by Kendall Parker (February 2014). It is based on extensive research and has been variously described as “groundbreaking,” “brilliant,” “spectacular,” “impressive,” and “world-changing” by some of the most respected scholars in the field of human development. Frederic lives in Brussels, Belgium, where he is blessed to share his life with his wife, Hélène, and their two children.

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Morris: Before discussing Reinventing Organizations, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Laloux: I would say: life! (Laughs) Seriously. It took me 30 years before I realized there was something like personal growth. But since then, I was lucky that life, or perhaps I should call it my soul, has found ways to make itself heard when it was time to learn something, to change something, to move on.

Now I’m also blessed to know quite a few impressive practitioners in a number of techniques of personal growth. And so whenever I bump onto another piece of shadow of mine, I pick up my phone to make an appointment and with their help I try to bring it into the light. Over the years, I feel a great deal of weight has been lifted from my shoulders, that I’ve left behind quite a few limiting beliefs and fears. When I look forward, I can’t fail to be excited. Life feels so good now already. What will it be in 10 years from now? Or in 20?

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Laloux: In many ways, during the years when I worked in the McKinsey firm. Starting in my mid-twenties, I was exposed to a great number of organizations, a great number of leaders, of executive committees. In many ways, I could not have written Reinventing Organizations without this broad exposure. I’ve had insights into the dynamics of business and of people that I would not have had if I had worked in a traditional corporation and climbed the ladder there.

In 2007, I spent time with Newfield network, a wonderful coaching training with the masterful Julio Ollala. The learning there couldn’t be more different from the learning I had at McKinsey, and it opened many new horizons for me. I learned to love and to care. I learned that emotions, intuition, and the body are places of great intelligence and insights, that they are domains of learning, too. I realized that wisdom isn’t just something that may happen to us when we get old, but something that we can try and cultivate.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Laloux: Professionally, I had two turning points, I guess. For the longest time, when I was working with McKinsey, I felt deeply conflicted. On the one hand, the work was playing to many of my strengths and talents, and I enjoyed it. On the other, there was always this lingering sense of “What am I doing here? What is the purpose of it all?” I never really fully fit in. I always knew I didn’t want to become a partner, but I just didn’t know what else to do with my life. And then one day, I had this extraordinarily powerful coaching session with a woman that brought great clarity on a number of issues. A month later I resigned! She helped me understand some of the patterns of my parents’ lives, and why I had stayed with McKinsey when my heart told me it was time to move on.

When I left, I built up my own practice as a coach and facilitator, opening up deep conversations with leaders of large organizations. For a few years, I felt like I had hit the ultimate jackpot. My work felt very meaningful. I worked much less than I used to, leaving me lots of time for my personal development, and to live a good and simple life.

And then, quite unexpectedly, in the spring of 2011, I was hit with a deep sense of sadness. It took me two or three weeks to make sense of it. The sadness was a form of grief: the work that had brought me so much joy for the last few years was work I no longer could do. It was as if my soul were saying, “Enough! You are meant to move on again!” I thought that I had found my vocation, found what I would do for the next 20 years of my life! (laughs).

I had done a fair bit of a personal and spiritual journey over the last few years, and the point I had gotten to was really quite far away from where the CEOs and business leaders who I was working with were at. Something in me was tired of the constant game of translation, of always being mindful of how far I could go, how much I could show of what my convictions before it would be too much for them. There was also something physical to it. There was something about just going into these large organizations that I felt was draining, almost depressing. You know, the grand but soulless marble and glass lobbies of these big corporations. And all these managers running around hurriedly, talking about one more change project and cross-functional initiative and mid-term planning and budget exercise. I felt like stopping them in their tracks and asking them “Do you still believe in any of this?” Apparently I didn’t! (Laughs).

Out of that came the question: “If that’s no longer the work I can do, then what’s next?” When I asked myself that question, I had a powerful insight. For some reason, I realized the right questions for me to ask were not: “What will my next work be? What will I put on my business card? What will my identity be?” Instead, I figured the right question was “What would be the most meaningful thing I could do with my life right now?” Not even “with my life in general”? No, right now. And the answer was immediate. I wanted to focus on two projects that felt totally meaningful to me. And one was the research that lead to the book Reinventing Organizations.

I was fascinated by the question: what would really healthy, really evolved organizations look like? I knew that there is an increasing number of people who go through an inner transformation and end up leaving their organizations, just as I left McKinsey. Business leaders who leave their corporation because they are tired of the politics. Doctors and nurses leaving their hospitals, because hospitals are for the most part soulless medical factories. Teachers leaving their schools. Not all of them become coaches and consultants from the sidelines in the way I had. Some of them must have felt called to start a new business, school or hospital. I wondered if they had found ways to build very different organizations that would be aligned with the inner journey they had made.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Laloux: Not at all! Oh man, my studies of business were almost a complete waste of time. I believe we need to fundamentally reinvent formal education. Stop considering that good education only fills our minds with data and information, and consider that our body, our emotions, intuitions and spirit are also domains of truly meaningful learning!

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd….’”

Laloux: How true! You know that I researched in great depth a dozen really outstanding organizations that have pretty fundamentally reinvented all the structures and practices we take for granted in management. Here is the strange thing: most of us have never heard about them, nor have academics in the field. I certainly didn’t know any of them. Now you may wonder: Why haven’t incredibly interesting—and so dramatically successful—organizations been researched before?

The reason, I came to understand, is that these organizations are so “odd”, to use Isaac Asimov’s term, that they simply don’t make any sense from today’s management paradigm. So the few articles that had appeared on them here or there described them as strange creatures that are oddly successful, but really shouldn’t be because their management methods don’t make any sense. And so because they seemed “odd,” they have been mostly overlooked.

Morris: From Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”

Laloux: History of course shows that many dangerous ideas have become orthodoxy and cliché. And happily, of course, some dangerous ideas didn’t make it into the mainstream!

I find that people’s reception to the ideas I share about new forms of organizations bears out Dawkins’ quote. Many readers tell me that the book really questions some basic assumptions they have about people and organizations. But once they’ve read it, they can’t seem to see things the old way anymore. A good friend of mine, who is a biologist, said to me: “Your book is like poison.” Realizing what he said he added quickly, “really good poison, I mean great poison. Now that I have these ways to look at things in my system, I can’t see things in any other way”. I guess that was his way of suggesting that a dangerous idea had become orthodoxy for him (laughs).

Morris: From Howard Aiken: “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”

Laloux: Hmm, I agree with the first part. I believe that our ideas are often not really our ideas, but objects that were hanging in the air, and we just happened to catch them. So, can we steal something that wasn’t really ours to start with? And if the idea is something we are passionate about, then we should encourage other people to steal it, no?

I’m not sure I agree with the second part. What Aiken is referring to, I guess, is that really novel ideas will meet resistance at first, will feel dangerous. “Ramming down the throat” is a great image to show that people will not embrace truly novel ideas right away. But I would suggest a somewhat gentler process nevertheless (laughs). In my experience, whenever I try to convince people with an unusual thought, I just create extra resistance. I’ve come to see that the best I can do is sharing my perspective without any intention of convincing. I just try to speak my truth, and try not to expect others to agree with me. Paradoxically, when I do that, there is much better chance that people will be more receptive to my perspective. So let me suggest another quote, one from Chogyam Trungpa: “If you are speaking the truth, then you can speak gently, and your words will have power.”

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Laloux: Well, who wouldn’t agree with this? And yet, in many organizations, we have these endless meetings, the rigid procedures that someone in some staff function devised and that you’ll just have to comply with. Budget processes that everyone knows to be a farce, a meaningless haggle between people low in the organizations who try to get away with meeting the lowest standard  they can, and meanwhile, people at the top pursuing unrealistically high ambitions. These are futile initiatives to define a mission statement and values that people are often cynical about right from the start. There so much that happens — and doesn’t happen — in organizations today that we know make no sense, but we still somehow keep making the same poor decisions and senseless concessions.

Morris: In one of Tom Davenport’s recent books, Judgment Calls, he and co-author Brooke Manville offer “an antidote for the Great Man theory of decision making and organizational performance”: organizational judgment. That is, “the collective capacity to make good calls and wise moves when the need for them exceeds the scope of any single leader’s direct control.” What do you think?

Laloux: The world is getting more and more complex, to a point where the complexity indeed exceeds what any leader, however bright and hard working, can deal with. So we need to shift to processes of collective intelligence. But to do that, we will need to create entirely different organizational structures and processes, because the good old pyramid, with its rigid reporting lines that converge at the to, is incompatible with — and hostile to — processes of collective intelligence. The tradition approach forces people to decide from one single functional perspective, in a top-down fashion.

Morris: In your opinion, why do so many C-level executives seem to have such a difficult time delegating work to others?

Laloux: Oh, I believe that one is quite simple. It’s fear. And a bit of hubris. Hubris that they know better. And fear that other people could mess up. In a today’s pyramidal organizations, there is huge pressure on the shoulder of C-level executives! Gary Hamel put it well when he says that “traditional pyramidal structures demand too much of too few and not enough of everyone else”. If just one of the hundreds of people that report to a C-something screw us badly, there goes his or her bonus, and perhaps the next promotion too. No wonder they want to control everything, make every important decision.

Given the huge pressure that C-Level people are under, I feel we shouldn’t blame them from not wanting to take the risk of delegating. Leaders who have experienced the kind of organizations I describe in the book (that have shifted away from the pyramid) share how much weight has be lifted from their shoulders. They no longer need to control everyone and every decision. Control and collective intelligence is baked into the system itself. What a relief!

Morris: In recent years, there has been criticism, sometimes severe criticism of M.B.A. programs, even those offered by the most prestigious business schools. In your opinion, in which area is there the greatest need for immediate improvement? Any suggestions?

Laloux: One common criticism, one I share, is that business schools equip aspiring business leaders with all sorts of tools, but don’t encourage introspective discussions about the purpose of it all. Does the world really need a few more managers that will exhaust our natural resources more quickly, destroy our ecosystems more fully, pollute the planet more efficiently? Do we really need to feed the consumerist monster that doesn’t make people happier? I could envision a business school that would offer wonderful spaces for self-reflection, where the brilliant minds that seek an MBA would reflect on their calling, and on what their highest contribution to the world could be, indeed should be.

Another suggestion I have, one that comes straight from my research, is that business schools could help people to see that any managerial system we learn or apply stems from a particular worldview. Today’s business schools teach ideas and techniques that all pretty much stem from a modern mindset (what people familiar with Wilber’s concept of Spiral Dynamics would call “Orange”): a mindset that considers that more is better, that believes in single right answers, in simple cause and effect. I believe we need to at least expose students to the fact that this is just one of several plausible perspectives. And of course, I would love to see a business school that would teach from an entirely different place, one that seeks inspiration from the complexity of natural systems to understand the world, and share with the students the much more powerful and soulful organizational structures and practices that stem from this perspective.

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Frederic cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Reinventing Organization‘s website link

Amazon link

Integral Life conversation with Ken Wilber link

LinkedIn link

YouTube link

Tony Schwartz review in New York Times link

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