Winds in the East

“Winds in the East, mist coming in.

Like somethin’ is brewing, about to begin.”

Sherman and Sherman (1964), after Travers (1934)


In many respects, a chimney sweep might be an unlikely source of advice for researchers and practitioners in the field of organisation studies. Assumptions, however ill-judged, would be made regarding the chimney sweep’s level of education, experience with complex organisational structures, intellectual and emotional engagement with the inputs and outputs of the workplace, and ability to balance power, authority, risk, reward, and responsibility in a way that made sense within the immediate context of the organisation, as well as within its external context, potentially one of internationalised markets and globalised economies. However, as his words above show, this chimney sweep senses change; and whilst he cannot articulate what it is going to be, or what it might look like, he senses its imminent arrival and, specifically, its arrival from the East.


Laloux (2014) also senses change. For him (unlike the chimney sweep whose sensing of change arises from evidence un-presented) it arises from his belief in a model derived from the work of Graves (1974), known as Spiral Dynamics (Beck and Cowan, 2014). In this evolutionary model of adaptive intelligence, human behaviour is broken down into multiple patterns, or levels of existence, with corresponding managerial, educational, social, and developmental approaches. This colour-full work, in turn, is brought together in pseudo apotheosis by Wilber, and forms a part of the basis of integral theory, a theory of enormous complexity which integrates the sub-conscious, the conscious, and the super-conscious minds, within “as many perspectives, styles, and methodologies as possible.” In so doing, “integral approaches are ‘meta-paradigms’, or ways to draw together an already existing number of separate paradigms into an interrelated network of approaches that are mutually enriching” (Wilber, 2000).


Paradigmatic evolution is central to Laloux’s thesis. We are, he claims, experiencing a shift from the green-coloured pluralism of multiple perspectives and competing systems to a teal-coloured interdependence and interconnectedness of systems, revealing a fundamentally deeper understanding of self. Grounded in this evolutionary shift, Laloux’s claim is that “the current way we run organizations has been stretched to its limits” (2014). He illustrates this with a sweeping evolutionary and historical overview, explaining how each paradigmatic shift in human consciousness has been accompanied by radical change in the norms of organisational design. This theme is also taken up by Hlupic (2014), who claims: “Business as usual will not work any more. Instead of just focusing on numbers, processes, and structures, management needs to focus on people, their values, the ability of a person to make a positive difference, trust, higher purpose, integrity, loyalty, compassion, the need for togetherness, and to be a part of something bigger than themselves.”


In his attempts to spark organisational reinvention, Laloux describes a series of highly-progressive organisations who have embraced three core breakthroughs within this new teal paradigm. Firstly, a breakthrough in wholeness: that is, that teal people bring their whole self and their full humanity to work. Secondly, a breakthrough in self-management: that is, that teal organisations make a commitment to decentralise management, and to remove the formal authority of hierarchy, or the traditional structures of command and control. And, thirdly, a breakthrough in evolutionary purpose: that is, that teal organisations develop souls of their own, more akin to the evolution of an organism than the inspired construction of a machine ever-increasing in size and scope. In these three ways, we can see teal organisations at the frontier of reconceptualising people and the relationship they have with their workplace; resonating with Hlupic’s (2014) claims about the value of the employee, and that organisations have “to view people as sources, not as resources.”


Laloux is not alone in proposing the reinvention of how organisations organise themselves, nor in enabling the reconceptualisation of things which seem so long-established. Robertson (2015) pioneers a new organisational system. His system, Holacracy, presents itself as the organisational design in which it is “finally clear who should make each decision - the person on the frontline has that authority - and organization succeeds by adapting swiftly to pursue its purpose”. Whereas Laloux’s ideas have grown out of complex theory, Robertson’s, at least in part, have grown from a description of holarchy in a 1967 book, “The Ghost in the Machine”, by Koestler, a Hungarian-British intellectual. Koestler argues that the brain is made up of holons that are autonomous and self-determining yet also fundamentally dependent on the brain as a whole. Holacracy embraces this ideal, and organises the organisation with overlapping ‘circles’, each a team of employees who have come together spontaneously around a specific task.


Contrary to the bold anti-hierarchical claims that we might associate with proponents of Holacracy, it does, in fact, have de facto leaders and managers, albeit ones with circumscribed power. These roles have been rebranded ‘lead links’, though undoubtedly they carry out the functions of leaders and managers, setting priorities and controlling resources. Furthermore, Holacracy does have an explicitly defined organisational structure; sometimes with, and sometimes without, job titles. The point is that Holacracy believes that individual roles in an organisation can and should change over time, and recognises that job titles can be unhelpful in enabling this fluidity. So, in every holacratic constitutional arrangement, the individual and the organisation enjoy a relationship which is imbued with the capcity to change and evolve.


Whether sparked by the kaleidoscopic theory of Wilber, or the literary text of Koestler, the resultant ideas of Laloux and Robertson have a number of commonalities. At the heart of these commonalities is the belief that a new operating system is needed, rather than another set of extensions to our current way of doing things. At the heart of designing a new operating system, the opportunity exists for everyone - including the organisational chimney sweep - to play their part anew. After all, nobody knows the workings of the chimney better than the sweep.


So, what should we make of Winds in the East? Change coming from the east is not new to organisation studies. Taking the East quite literally, we might reflect on our experience of Kaizen, which has been a hugely powerful tool for shaping organisational structures in Japan, whilst its implementation in the west is characterised by a more underwhelming success (Bessant et al., 2001). It has driven management initiatives to mobilise lean production (Krafcik, 1998) and total quality management (Ishikawa, 1985), but yet Kaizen itself remains misted with ambiguity and inconsistency in the way it is described in the literature (Brunet and New, 2003).  In fact, our experience (or inexperience) of Kaizen may go some way to illustrate the disconnect between what leaders and managers want (and need) in terms of organisational development tools, and what they are actually given, or what they actually (and maybe erroneously) select. Organisational mist further challenges the effective translation of ideas (especially from one cultural context to another) because mist obscures that clarity which is an absolute requisite for organisational structures embracing the winds of change.


It is not simply ideas from the geographical east that find difficulty in implementation in the west. Whilst the successful leaders and managers recognise the challenges inherent in new ideas, if they are to arrive on the wind, they should certainly arrive with a weather warning of forecast mist. Birkinshaw (2014) highlights, “Nine-tenths of the approximately 100 branded management ideas I’ve studied lost their popularity within a decade or so.” Amongst the cast-offs - big and small - is Google’s 20% time, in which workers got a day a week to work on their own projects (Schmidt and Rosenberg, 2014) which effectively no longer exists - if, indeed, it ever did (Carlson, 2013). Stripping away hierarchies (an idea which might best characterise the work of Laloux and Robertson) is still viewed with considerable scepticism amongst many mainstream writers. Pfeffer (2013) argues strongly that “hierarchy is a fundamental principle of all organisational systems”, though Evan Williams (internet entrepreneur and general fan of Holacracy) strikes a more conciliatory tone, arguing that it is not so much about discarding hierarchy altogether as making it more fluid (Compagne, 2014).


Before we to strip away hierarchies, we should take a careful look at what exactly it is we are disposing of. Hierarchies create a stability and order in a world which both Laloux and Robertson would agree is increasing in complexity and impermanence. Weick (2009) discusses how organisations “struggle to preserve the illusion of permanence and to keep surprise at a minimum”, and how, in response, “people create fictions of permanence by means of practices such as long-term planning, strategy, reification of temporary structures, justification, investments in buildings and technology, and acting as if formal reporting relationships are stable”. The populist critique of hierarchy, and its bedfellow, bureaucracy, seems sustained by the romantic belief that the principle of a full and free exercise of personal capacities is akin to a moral absolute of human conduct; but “perhaps it is time, once again, to appreciate the ethos of a bureaucratic office - albeit in a suitably contextualised manner - as a positive extension of the repertoire of human possibilities rather than merely as a dehumanising or disempowering subtraction” (Du Gay, 2000).


The employer/employee relationship has changed greatly in the years following the Industrial Revolution, where the moral obligation of the organisation was simply to exchange a day’s work for a day’s pay. Initiatives and incentives characterise our attempts to patch up Victorian organisational hierarchies to make them fit for another era, where really it should be argued that there has been such a cultural shift that much more is needed. This, you will sense, tallies with the paradigmatic discourse that frames Laloux’s work and, for all our intellectual development, we wrestle daily with a zeitgeist in a continual search for meaning in what we do and how we do it. Langer’s response (1989) comes on an eastern wind. Mindfulness is arguably amongst the most successful conceptual practices and management interventions, certainly in terms of its adoption by researchers and practitioners in the field of organisational studies. Its three characteristics - (i) active differentiation and refinement of existing distinctions; (ii) creation of new discrete categories out of the continuous streams of events that flow through activities; and (iii) a more nuanced appreciation of context and of alternative ways to deal with it - respond in significant part to Laloux’s longing for soulful organisations, itself a projection of post-modern society's departure from Western religious traditions to seeking higher values from next-generation economic structures. Robertson observes a number of our awkward attempts to redefine that employer/employee relationship, and particularly how “in heroically ‘empowering others’ within an inherently disempowering corporate structure” we paradoxically engrain more organisational victims. So, as we tear down the structures that have provided a moral framework to the workplace, we must be conscious of that mist setting in, making the pathway we should follow seem even more unclear than before.


The responses that individuals and organisations make to the challenges of workplace structures can be thought of as existing on a multi-dimensional spectrum. Fuelled by beliefs and biases, we witness organisations following pathways of quasi polar extremes: some energetically attracted to new ways of working, and others forcibly repelled by old ways of working. Laloux documents a number of teal organisations sharing a pioneering path, attracted by the prospect of creating difference whilst also creating value. Morning Star, and Buurtzorg, for example, join with Matt Black Systems, the aeronautical adopters of Holacracy, in the footsteps, perhaps, of the iconic Semco (Semler, 1989). Elsewhere, we observe organisations committed to a form of participatory democracy in part because they are repelled by the failures of contemporary representative democracy. Instead they take up as quasi-leaderless organisations, rejecting the narcissism they identify in the mangerialism and ownership of the large organisations which dominate the international landscape. We see this exemplified in the Occupy Movement, which operate in local groups with locally adopted operating practices, as well as virtually through online communities. They share a single stated value: “The one thing we all have in common is that we are the 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%” (Occupy, 2016). Somewhere else on this spectrum you could place al Queda, Daesh or other terrorist organisations, who go about achieving their aims without recourse to elaborate organisational structures but, like Occupy and other values based organisations, share a compelling alternative world view around which people, practices, and processes are able to unite. This allows them, without the obvious systems and structures that so dominate the organisational mainstream, to live seemingly, if you like, on the edge of chaos.


It is interesting to consider, in this chaos-flavoured response to organisational design, whether those who attracted by a way of operating have any more chance of success than those who are repelled by a way of operating. When the mists set in, does the group who knows where it is heading have more or less chance that the group that knows where it is leaving? I feel that Cameron, Dutton, and Quinn (2003) make a partial response to this in the way that identify with the power of positive, and take an approach to organisational design that “focuses on dynamics that are typically described by words such as excellence, thriving, flourishing, abundance, resilience, or virtuousness.” I see the value of resilience, optimism, hope, and self-efficacy as being important to organisations (both those attracting and repelling in nature) as they navigate their new path; and I sense that organisations moving forward without respect for the past, of fear of the future, leave themselves open to organisational mist. I see this further supported within the field of Appreciative Inquiry, where designing a future state based on the best of the past serves as a source of learning and power for future organizational growth (Cooperrider and Whitney, 2005).


So, what of the chimney sweep? Is there an organisational form that would best suits his needs, or be best served by his aspirations? And, is it misguided to think that both might be possible? If we had allowed him to finish his verse, rather than to cut him off after two lines, his detailed knowledge of the past would have been a powerful source of learning for the future. After all, it is his job, once the homeowner has burnt history’s waste, to remove the residue from the inside of the chimney, allowing the homeowner to burn today’s waste and, repeating the cycle again and again, to burn the future’s waste.


“Winds in the East, mist coming in.

Like somethin’ is brewing, about to begin.

Can’t put my finger on what lies in store,

But I feel what’s to happen all happened before.”

Sherman and Sherman (1964), after Travers (1934)


When the winds of change sweep through an organisation, and before the mist sets in, there is much to be balanced: the future hopes of the visionaries, the past fears of the neighsayers. However, since the chimney sweep knows better than many what the vestiges of waste look like, maybe it is time to engage this resilient, optimistic, hopeful, and self-efficacious man a little more in organisational design.



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