Why our community succeeds where others fail - epidose 3 - teal organization

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Ramin Farhangi- co-founder of the democratic school « école dynamique » and co founder of the democratic eco village « Village de Pourgues ».  Author of TEDx and book "Why I created a school where children do what they want" (published by Actes Sud in September 2018). Ramin offers training for project leaders from Sudbury-inspired schools and villages.

In the first two episodes, I shared the two aspects which in my opinion allow a stable and serene community life: 1) to choose individualism as ideological bias and 2) to set up a democratic framework to define and ensure respect for the limits of individual freedom.

In the second episode, I described more precisely our way of taking decisions together, with a weekly Village Council where we constantly make evolve our rules of daily life and functioning by proposals voted on a majority basis.

In some democratic organizations, including the French Nation and Sudbury Valley School, it is considered that any individual initiative having an impact on the group must go through a collective deliberation and a majority decision. For example, if someone wants to make the school's website evolve, they present a project to the Communication Commission. The Commission works to bring the best possible proposal to the Council, which ultimately validates the project.

In Village de Pourgues, someone cannot decide alone to change the rules, but he can decide alone on all actions that contribute to achieving the group's goals.

If he wishes to make the school's website evolve, he can do so without going through the Council. This may sound crazy and lead to something totally chaotic, but it is far from being the case.

A widely read worldwide reference on this organizational paradigm is Frédéric Laloux's Reinventing Organizations. In this book, Laloux distinguishes mainly three types of organization, with a color code associated to each type:

  • Hierarchical (or orange): the good old pyramid that everyone knows, with chiefs, sub-chiefs, etc.
  • Democratic (or green): the majority of cooperative companies and associations, which move forward only when the whole group is ready to.
  • Organic / evolutionary / liberated / reinvented (or teal): a very small minority of organizations made of entrepreneurs, free to decide what they want at their level even though it can commit the entire company.

One of the major differences between Sudbury Valley School and the Ecole dynamique / Village de Pourgues duo lies precisely here. In a teal organization, any individual can make operational decisions without obtaining permission from the group. The only constraint imposed on the individual is to have an advice process, i.e. to communicate his intention formerly and listen to the opinions of the persons concerned before acting. Even if he faces some objections, he remains free to take them into account or not, and to act as he thinks is best. He also remains responsible to evaluate the necessary time between intention and action, and the interactions he wishes to have to help him question his intention and make his proposal evolve.

So we deal with two types of proposals differently. On one hand, we need a majority vote for changing the rules  (see episode 2), i.e. re define the limits of each person's field of action. [note: the Council is also used to make decisions on inclusions and exclusions, which need a majority vote of two-thirds]. On the other hand, the advice process allows any individual to lead initiatives by himself, by mobilising as much collective intelligence as seems necessary, adapted to the level of impact, complexity and expertise needed on a case-by-case basis (and not according to a predetermined procedure defined by the group).

I imagine that at this stage, an obvious objection emerges among many readers: "and if an individual does anything and seriously endangers the existence of the group? "It is true that to let go of such control seems to present an enormous risk at first glance. In my experience, we actually take less risk. Having tested the green organisation, I have seen on the one hand that it sometimes leads to laziness or even paralysis in proposing new initiatives, as the procedures are restrictive. I have also seen that the burden of waiting for the next Commission and being subject to such control sometimes leads to circumventing the rules and putting the group in front of the « fait accompli » without consulting enough people.

Also, while I have sometimes seen people whose opinions are crucial being absent from a Commission (attending a training course , or just busy), the advice process invites an inclusion of all people concerned without any possible absence, since there is no specific space-time dedicated to deliberation. This is one of the main criticisms we make of our National Assembly, which take many decisions behind closed doors at night. In our place, democratic participation really happens all the time, which guarantees that all those concerned will really be taken into account. So, from my point of view, an opal organization is precisely more "democratic" than a green organization.

In an opal organization, yes, we go so far as to entrust such confidence in the individual a priori. And if ever someone considers that an individual acted too quickly or without taking advice from the relevant persons, then we can discuss it in the Investigation and Arbitration Committee and evaluate if the advice process was sufficiently well conducted.

A check is therefore carried out a posteriori, rather than a priori.

This a priori trust may seem overwhelming, but once this organizational philosophy is embodied in a fairly pure way, members are sufficiently self-controlled and cautious. All the efficiency gains come with the fact that everyone is in control of the timing of his projects, without suffering the consequences of "bad decisions". Actually, I found the opposite. Since the Village de Pourgues abandoned its Commissions and adopted the advice process for all its operational decisions, I think we are making "better decisions".

The very first argument that convinced me to propose such a way to the Ecole dynamique and the Village de Pourgues comes from my reading of Reinventing Organizations. There's a great illustrated book version for those who don't have the patience to read a paving stone). I discovered the example of Buurtzorg, a Dutch home care company whose story is hardly believable. Founded in 2006, it has grown in seven years from 10 nurses to 7000 (two-thirds of nurses in the Netherlands!). According to a study by Ernst & Young (2009), the results are astounding:

  • 40% less time spent on each patient, yet nurses spend some time talking and bonding with them.
  • Patients stay half as long in care because they heal faster and become more independent.
  • Emergency room applications are reduced by one-third, and the average hospital stay is shorter.
  • If all Dutch nurses joined this organization, Dutch social security would save 2 billion euros annually. 

Other even more important results remain difficult to quantify:

  • Unlike traditional companies, Buurtzorg nurses offer emotional and relational support to these patients, who are often seriously ill or at the end of their lives.
  • Nurses feel fulfilled and faithful to their vocation again, rather than slandering the system. They have the new problem of finding a balance between their exciting work and their personal lives, rather than falling into absenteeism and burn-out (60% fewer work stopping and 33% less turnover rates at Buurtzorg than in traditional companies).

I read this book in 2015, while we were founding the Ecole Dynamique, and it was a great source of inspiration for all the co-founders. Both the school and the Village started with a hybrid green/teal approach, and are both moving towards a resolutely teal approach.

I am convinced that the extent of the projects accomplished so far in these two places is largely linked to our adherence to this new paradigm. Relying on my internal compass and acting without hindrance, building relationships of complete trust in my colleagues, enjoying full transparency about what they think of my intentions... these subtle aspects inevitably come with the teal paradigm and have allowed me to develop as a free entrepreneur of my life and contributing to the world. I think that this "teal state of mind" that relies on total trust in others and in life is growing fast in all of us, and it's beautiful to see. I feel happy to live here!