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Can ducks and squirrels to tell us anything about organisational adaptability?!

Some recent research out of Exeter has been comparing grey and red squirrels to find out how one has made such a great success of itself at, apparently, the expense of the other. The research team set problems for both sorts of squirrels, all of which involved food as their reward. The upshot of their research was that while both squirrels solved the problems with the visually obvious solutions it was the grey squirrels that were much better were some more sophisticated problem solving was required. The view from the team was that this heightened problem solving ability, reframed as greater adaptability, was a factor in an invasive species’ colonisation of new territory. While I know that their research had more to it than just that I was left thinking that you did not have to look quite so far from home to find evidence for that theory; what about humans and our impact on the planet!?

As well as being a feature of both species and individuals invasiveness can be a trait in organisations too. The degree to which it plays out is influenced by the way that we (humankind) have developed in terms of the way we collaborate with each other. Key changes in the way we collaborate have been described by Laloux in his book Reinventing Organisations. A short summary of this can be found through this link.


The classification, almost inevitably, uses colour as its descriptor. Red (no, not the squirrel!) is our most elemental form of collaboration, one in which our behaviour if governed by fulfilment of our primal needs. It is dictatorial, command and control, reactive and short term. Amber is much more structured yet still built on command and control and progress is based on evaluation of the past. Orange is similar with a loosening of the command on control over how a job is done although what is done remains defined by the leadership. Laloux’s model contends that most public and private sector collaborative behaviour has been amber or orange over a significant period of time.

Green is a more modern corporate collaborative phenomenon that shows up when organisations focus on their culture and empower their staff to fulfil corporate objectives. There is a greater sense of the organisation being a corporate family with a principled approach to fulfilling the needs of their stakeholders, rather than shareholders.

Then we come to Teal organisations, a classification that shows that leadership gurus are inclined to the same flights of fancy as paint manufacturers. I guess he was seeking to find a subset of green that would represent a step forward and alighted on the teal colour that features over the eyes and the wings of the ducks of the same name. Teal organisations represent Laloux’s view of the successful collaboration model of the future. It is one in which the organisation is more like an organism evolving to meet the ever changing objectives of our volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA – there it is, today’s only acronym!) world. As well as being built a stronger sense of individual autonomy and empowerment Teal organisations will be able to work more effectively in partnership, to be more effective in forming business ecosystems that ‘embrace individual and systemic diversity’.

So have the duck and the squirrel told us anything about organisational adaptability. Sure, I think so! In truth all organisations, and certainly groups and people within them, have elements of the invasive collaborative behaviour of a red organisation (but the grey squirrel that’s invasive – damn!) right the way up to the future looking teal approach, and all colours in between. Perhaps the use of this sort of thinking is to see where our own personal and corporate approach places us and to judge, taking into account our context, whether we are ahead or behind the curve.

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