The book Reinventing Organizations, published in 2014, quickly proved to be a bestseller and a whole movement was created around the charismatic figure of the book’s author, Frederic Laloux.

The author made a wonderful compilation of twelve organizations and an analysis of each one of them looking for practices, rituals and values ​​that were compatible with the Laloux model that consists of three pillars: self-management, integrality and evolutionary purpose.

By clearly and seductively presenting the idea of ​​parallel teams, networks of individual agreements and nested teams, I believe that Laloux has built a very convincing argument to invite people and organizations to explore new models focused on self-management.

In a way, by criticizing organizational models, this book contributes to the radical transformation of organizations by helping people to become aware of the contradictions present in organizations today.

I ask you, my dear reader, especially if you are a big fan of this work, not to think that I am simply throwing the book in the trash because I am making some criticisms of the work.On the contrary, I see value in this material and that is precisely why I took the trouble to write a review.

A big ball of twine

Laloux borrows a model that was popularized by Ken Wilber to describe his entire narrative of “next stage in organizational consciousness”.

This model was called by Wilber the Spiral Dynamics Integral (SDi) and initially developed in partnership with Don Beck.

Don Beck had already popularized another version of the model with his research partner Christopher Cowan just as Spiral Dynamics. Cowan was not very happy with the path Beck and Wilber were taking and decided not to participate in the process. Today there is a wide separation between the community of practitioners that are based on Wilber’s model and the community that are based on Beck and Cowan’s model.

Perspectives on what is possible to know

Before talking about the theories of these guys, I want to do a little reflection on the different positions of science on what knowledge is and what is the relationship between the subject who observes his environment and the observed object. That is, the relationship between researcher and research object.

As Laloux’s proposal is focused on an analysis based on developmental psychology, I want to make a small caveat.

There is a great deal of discussion about the validity of the scientific method when applied to the study of psychic phenomena. To date, there is no consensus whether the various branches of psychology can in fact be considered as science, especially in terms of the principle of falsifiability proposed by Karl Popper. One of the most famous speeches within this great discussion is Wilhelm Dilthey’s proposal for psychology to be understood as a science distinct from the natural sciences with its own methods. To find out more, here’s a thesis that talks a little about it.

Thus, with an empirical approach, each researcher in the psychosocial field will establish their methods to interact with the phenomena or will use methods proposed by other authors.

Being aware that this discussion exists is fundamental because, as I will demonstrate, Laloux insists on the scientific foundation of his model that describes how humanity evolved and organized itself over time.

How do we make sense of the world?

Each researcher has a different answer to this question.

Realists will say that reality exists independently of the observer, it is something preconceived. The world is there waiting to be discovered and we can know reality objectively, that is, the subjectivity of the observer does not interfere with anything.

Relativists think that experience exists only in our minds, not in reality. Any explanation for reality is a projection of the observer himself.

Idealists avoid the extremes of the previous two. They believe that the way we experience the world is indeed conditioned by our mind, but that doesn’t mean that all of our senses are relative. Somehow our senses must be connected with reality, even if it is subject to the “a priori” categories of our minds.

From Kantian Idealism, constructivists understand that the subject interacts with reality but they do not believe that this happens in a passive way. For constructivists, the subject actively participates in the construction of reality from its projections and categories of thought.

Of course, these are not the only prospects. Each of these moves above unfold into countless other approaches. I chose these four philosophical and epistemological movements because they are the most influential branches that I have found relevant to this discussion.

Roy Bhaskar will propose critical realism, for example. Relativism also has several variations.

Ontology and epistemology

In order to maintain didactic criticism, it may be useful to offer a definition of two terms that I will use a lot:

  • Ontology: it is the field of study of what is, will come to be and what exists. It is a philosophical branch of metaphysics. Ontological perspectives generally carry the premise that our concepts describe reality as it is. For example: Think of botanical taxonomy where we organize plants into species, classes, families, etc. Does taxonomy exist in nature or is it just a conceptual abstraction that helps us describe patterns from language? A radical ontological discourse would say that taxonomy does exist in nature and describes it exactly as it is (naive realism). A less fervent discourse would say that maybe it’s not exactly like that, but it’s something very close to that (moderate realism) and maybe it’s possible to build a model very close to that. A light speech would be that taxonomy exists in nature, but we will never build a perfect model (critical realism).
  • Epistemology: is the study of what is possible to know and knowledge itself. Considering the example above, taxonomy would be an epistemological resource that helps us understand the patterns of nature, knowing that the model is just a conceptual abstraction and not reality as it is. That is, taxonomy does not exist in nature, it is just an intellectual construct.

The enigma

In my view, there is an unknown in relation to the whole movement of Spiral Dynamics. The authors do not make it clear what their epistemological inclination is and it is up to the reader to interpret as he wishes. I’ve even asked in social media groups and it seems to be a mystery.

It took me a lot of work to understand, but it seems that Ken Wilber has his own epistemology that he calls integral post-metaphysics.

This article tries to show the inconsistencies of this proposal. Amazingly, the author of the article is a Wilberian.

It is unclear whether Wilber is a realist or whether he is a relativist. The author of the above article seems to be confused by this as well. Wilber seems to position himself as an absolute relativist, but his entire discourse seems to be highly metaphysical, that is, realist. I do not know. Perhaps a reader can enlighten me on this.

As for Laloux, I see many indications of a reliance on the objective perspective of developmental psychology to describe the entire process of evolution of humanity and organizations. This trust gives me an ontological position, that is, it seems to me that he thinks that the model really describes reality as it is. I will share some excerpts throughout this article that seem to me to be evidence of this. However, I confess that I don’t know either. Only he could say.

Please not: I have my own biases

Before continuing I want to remind readers of my own limitations and preferences.

At various times I will criticize Laloux’s position as being of a naive realism, which believes it is possible to understand social phenomena objectively and establish timeless laws for the stages of evolution of the consciousness of all humanity.

Personally, my epistemological bent, the way I look at social phenomena, moves between social constructivism and transcendental idealism.

Absolute relativism or naive realism are perspectives that go in a direction opposite to the way I look at the world.

I don’t mean you have to think like I think about it. It’s my perspective. So when I “accuse” Laloux of doing metaphysics, that can be a problem for me, but not necessarily a problem for you or him. And it’s okay.

Sociologically, I tend to look at the world through the lens of poststructuralism (especially Foucault), Mead’s symbolic interactionism, and Marx’s and Habermas’s sociology of radical transformation. I am also interested in the work of authors such as Buckley, Giddens and Bordieu who have tried to integrate different sociological perspectives. (A lot of white men, I know, am trying to change that and welcome suggestions.)

I also take with me a look at analytical psychology, second-order cybernetics and critical systems thinking.

And of course, I also have a foot in anarchism, especially influenced by the ideas of Bakunin and Kropotkin.

This criticism is completely biased by my own worldview, my references and does not even remotely represent the absolute truth or last word on the matter. On the contrary, I hope that this critique will stimulate fruitful reflection on all that is being discussed here.

Spiral Dynamics

Importantly, all of this Spiral Dynamics work was built on Clare W. Graves’ theory of cyclic emergence. Graves developed his theory on the basis of several empirical experiments between the 1960s and 1970s.

Graves was venturing into the field of developmental psychology, that is, he was seeking to understand how human beings develop and reach maturity within society. Don Beck approached Graves with a deep interest in his research, and later Cowan also got on board.

Graves’ work was then the great inspiration for Cowan and Beck to develop Spiral Dynamics. It is important to note some things here:

  • Graves’ research received a number of criticisms that were never clarified by the researchers.
  • Spiral Dynamics (SD) as proposed by Cowan and Beck is not exactly the same thing as proposed by Graves. They added another layer based on memetics, a line of research inspired by the concept of “meme” proposed by Richard Dawkings in his book “The Selfish Gene”. And, between us, let’s just say, memetics is nothing more than biological determinism applied to social systems. And the concept of meme is just a distortion of the semiotics idea of ​​sign.
  • SD also has several criticisms in addition to the criticisms that already existed about Graves’ model.

Graves called Laloux’s “stages of consciousness” “Waves of Existence”. Cowan and Beck call these “stages” vMEMEs. A vMEME is at once a psychological framework, a value system, and a mode of adaptation that can express itself in many different ways, from worldviews to clothing styles to government forms (a much better definition than stages of consciousness), which still seems to propose an ontology).

Patrick Vermeren, a Belgian consultant and co-founder of Evidence Based HRM, argues that Graves’ 1970 article (on the “Levels of Existence”) is the only article that can be found in the American Psychological Association’s database on this subject’s body of knowledge, without references from other researchers. Therefore, no one has taken on the task of testing or validating these ideas. Or, at least, no one had the rigor to write about it in the academic world. “Graves and Wilber’s ideas have not been adopted by serious biologists or psychologists.” he says.

Personally, I don’t think that only scientific knowledge is valid, I respect ancestral knowledge and other forms of knowledge, but when it comes to sociocultural issues, I tend to rely on academic research.

Ken Wilber

Finally, we have the work of Ken Wilber, which apparently has little support from other scholars.

He’s an author, sometimes called a philosopher, who seems to have a penchant for transpersonal psychology, although even within this field he doesn’t get along very well with the crowd either.

His studies involve many different areas of research. He writes on social issues, sexuality, history, anthropology, mythology, mysticism, spirituality and a multitude of other topics.

Perhaps one way of describing him would be as a transdisciplinary author who proposes a meta-model that explains the entire nature of the human being, the development of society, relationships, organizations, the economy, wars, in short, everything.

In fact, he literally has a “theory of everything”, which in itself says a lot about his megalomaniac pretensions to try to decipher the nature of the universe.

I’d say he’s basically a producer of intellectual material for people like me, who are full of privilege and can go on an eternal intellectual masturbation bout, reading thousands of pages, thinking they’ve discovered the secret of the universe.

To write this review, I had to read some Wilber books. Among them are “A Theory of Everything”, “Integral Life Practice”, “Integral Theory” and “A Brief History of Everything”. He’s published over 40 books, so I certainly can’t say I have a complete picture of his work. I’m open to a conversation with people who have a bigger background if anyone is interested.

His AQAL model is seductive, his narrative is funky and at the same time loaded with neologisms that make me feel smarter, he really seems to have invested a lot of time studying a lot.

If you want to better understand the entire Wilberian universe, visit https://integralworld.net/ (in English) and enjoy the infinity of content. This site is maintained by Frank Wisser, an integralist psychologist, who makes great efforts to elaborate criticisms and integrate different perspectives.

In this article, Visser will talk in great detail about Wilber’s problematic relationship to science and how he has a distorted view of the theory of evolution. Note that the theory of evolution is central to Wilber’s entire narrative.

All these points that I am raising here are relevant to support my criticism of the book Reinventing Organizations, which is strongly inspired by this author’s ideas.

With that, I have no intention of condemning the work of people who spread the integral theory and its countless practices. I believe any serious researcher is aware of Wilber’s controversies. It’s nothing new. Frank Wisser is one of those serious researchers who has numerous criticisms of the founder of the movement.

About the stages of consciousness

Going back to Laloux’s book, I will begin my critique of his proposed stages of consciousness.

Laloux presents an elegant model that describes how humanity has developed over the last 100,000 years to today.

He does an analysis that seeks to understand how people began to collaborate and organize and, with the help of Wilber’s SDi model, begins to categorize the characteristics of these various types of organization into what he calls “stages of the evolution of consciousness.” .

The funny thing is that Laloux does not cite any historian or anthropologist at any time, not even in his bibliography at the end of the book.

Laloux’s apparent ontological certainty

All sources cited relate to developmental psychology only. There is not a single mention of any author in anthropology or sociology. Here’s an excerpt from the book:

“Such issues were investigated from every possible angle. Abraham Maslow famously investigated how human needs evolve along the human journey, from the most basic physiological needs to self-actualization needs. Others have researched development through the lens of worldviews (Gebser, among others), cognitive abilities (Piaget), values ​​(Graves), moral development (Kohlberg, Gilligan), personal identity (Loevinger), spirituality (Fowler), leadership (Cook- Greuter, Kegan, Torbert), and so on.” (page 11)

Worse, he takes the work of these mostly developmental, individual-focused researchers and extrapolates it to the development of society as a whole. That is, he is making an induction that if the human being develops in stages, then the whole society also develops in the same way.

Everything indicates that Laloux really believes that this model describes reality in an accurate way, that is, he uses the model as an ontological and not an epistemological perspective. This snippet seems to confirm this:

“In their investigations, they (the researchers) have consistently encountered the idea that humanity evolved in stages. We are not like trees that continually grow. We evolve from occasional transformations, like a caterpillar becoming a butterfly or a tadpole becoming a frog. Our knowledge of the stages of human development is now extremely robust. Two thinkers in particular – Ken Wilber and Jenny Wade – did an extraordinary job of comparing and contrasting all the major models, and they found strong convergence.” (page 12)

And still:

”Scholars such as Jane Loevinger, Susanne Cook-Greuter, Bill Torbert, and Robert Kegan have tested this stage theory with thousands upon thousands of people in different cultures, including corporate and organizational contexts, among others.” (page 12)

In other words, he really wants to make it clear that his proposal has a scientific basis, and that, therefore, it is real, people!

He only uses sources from authors who, although they have done empirical research with individuals and organizations, have never affirmed anything he is saying about the development of society as a whole.

The linearity of the evolutionary process

The Laloux-Wilber model is also extremely linear with regard to the evolution of humanity’s organizational processes.

He himself says that:

“For each new stage of human consciousness that arises, a new ability to collaborate is also born, bringing with it a new organizational model.”

The problem with this is that it seems to ignore a number of anthropological studies that shed new light on the behavior of hunter-gatherer tribes, the complexity of these ancient societies, and many other nuances.

Indeed, Laloux seems to be perfectly aligned with a white, Eurocentric anthropological perspective that deems ancestral peoples as “primitive” who cannot deal with “more complex” issues.

The timeline proposed by Laloux does not exist anywhere other than Wilber’s work. Nobody else proposes anything even like it.

There are, however, different perspectives. Very different.

For example, anthropologist Hugh Brody has argued persuasively that the peoples we classify as “hunter-gatherers” (in itself a questionable term) tend to organize themselves in a way he characterizes as “egalitarian individualism”.

Here’s an excerpt from his book:

Another characteristic of the hunter-gatherer way of life is a deep respect for individual decisions. There are experts rather than leaders, men or women whose abilities are revered; but decisions about following his lead or following his advice are matters of individual choice. A hunting leader does not instruct others to follow or take any particular direction. The expert makes his decision known; others then make their decisions, following or not as each one prefers. Social and ethical norms are powerful, but they are reinforced by minimal instruction or organized retribution.

Damn it! This is very similar to some premises of what I understand by self-management. And Laloux is saying that this is something that will only manifest 10,000 years later IF we can get to the “next stage of Teal evolution”. Of course, this is also just the author’s conjecture, since it is impossible to know how these peoples’ relationships actually took place because they did not leave written reports.

The book “People without government”, by anthropologist Harold Barclay, has examples of collaboration between hunter-gatherers that go far beyond mere dispersed bands.

This thesis demonstrates the complexity of interactions between hunter-gatherers in the light of network science.

Science journalist Matt Ridley also seems to support the idea that the complexity of human-to-human collaboration goes far beyond the dominant imperialist discourse. See this in more detail in one of his books.

Anthropologist Christopher Boehm also seems to support the hypothesis that hunter-gatherers organized themselves in a very egalitarian way. He suspects that these peoples were already organized in this way 45,000 years ago.

 😮

The confusion with Darwinism

Laloux insists on the idea of ​​an evolutionary purpose and gives a teleological notion to organizations.

He uses the term “evolutionary” at various times and speaks of an evolutionary proposal, of humanity’s evolutionary path towards the next stages of consciousness.

In fact, the model proposed by Laloux is confused with several lines of sociology and anthropology that have been abandoned and heavily criticized in the midst of the social sciences.

What’s worse, this evolutionary analogy ends up being confused with a mild kind of social Darwinism (using principles of Darwinian evolutionary theory to describe social phenomena as if they were subject to timeless laws that justify progress). The funny thing is that in the preface to the book Wilber himself briefly criticizes social Darwinism.

Laloux’s model is obviously an adaptation of Ken Wilber’s SDi proposal. Frank Visser himself, creator of the website IntegralWorld, says that Wilber clings to an outdated model of evolution and characterizes him as an “evolutionary mystic”. Said the guy who created a website for fans of the integral movement, ok?

Here is Frank Visser’s speech about Laloux when using terms related to evolutionary theory:

It is highly ironic that an author who understands so little of evolutionary theory uses the term “evolutionary” at all times. This does not immediately disqualify his writings on management and sociocultural issues, but it does make him at least suspect in more secular and skeptical circles.

Laloux’s model and the social sciences

To begin my critique of Laloux’s model based on the social sciences, I want to present the line of research that most closely resembles his proposal. As I said before, the bibliography cited by Laloux does not cite at any time any author in the field of social sciences. I have serious doubts whether he has any idea of ​​the implications of his model and the relationships with research in this field.

Sociocultural Evolution

Sociocultural evolution is “the process by which structural reorganization is affected over time, eventually producing a form or structure that is qualitatively different from the ancestral form”. (Wikipedia)

Most 19th-century and some 20th-century approaches aimed to provide models for the evolution of humanity as a whole, arguing that different societies reached different stages of social development.

Sociocultural evolutionism has become the predominant theory of sociocultural anthropology and is associated with scholars such as Auguste Comte, Edward Burnett Tylor, Lewis Henry Morgan, Benjamin Kidd, L.T. Hobhouse, and Herbert Spencer.

Laloux’s proposal is especially in line with the ideas of Comte, Morgan, Tylor and Spencer.

Classic cultural evolutionism

Classical sociocultural evolutionism attempted to formalize social thinking along scientific lines, with the added influence of the biological theory of evolution.

If organisms could develop over time, according to discernible, deterministic laws, then it seemed reasonable that societies could too.

Human society was compared to a biological organism, and social science equivalents of concepts such as variation, natural selection, and inheritance were introduced as factors that resulted in the progress of societies.

The notion of progress has led to the idea of ​​“fixed stages” through which human societies progress, usually three in number – savagery, barbarism and civilization – but sometimes many more. At that time, anthropology was emerging as a new scientific discipline, separating itself from the traditional views of “primitive” cultures that were usually based on religious views.

Just to give you an idea of ​​the implications of this kind of research, Spencer clearly felt that the evolution of society brought about a racial hierarchy with Caucasians at the top and Africans at the bottom (Simon (1960). “Herbert Spencer and the Social Organism.” Journal of the History of Ideas.).

That is, it is easy to come to the conclusion that these theories of stages of development are closely linked with a colonialist and racist perspective. Okay, maybe this is a bit extreme, too big a leap on my part. But think with me… Isn’t it convenient to have a model that explains society in a way that justifies the atrocities committed by colonialism by saying that it was all in the name of progress? From evolution?

Adam Smith and August Comte also brought forward their proposals for stages in the development of society.

And all these proposals reflected an essentially rationalistic view (as in the Enlightenment) and focused on the view of an arrogant white man.

Modern cultural evolutionism

More recent approaches focus on changes specific to individual societies and reject the idea that cultures differ according to how far each has moved along a supposed linear scale of social progress.

Cultural anthropologists such as Franz Boas and his students Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead, typically regarded as the leaders in anthropology’s rejection of classical social evolutionism, used ethnography and more rigorous empirical methods to argue that the theories of Spencer, Tylor, and Morgan were speculative and based on systematically distorted ethnographic data.

Theories about “stages” of evolution were especially criticized as wishful thinking. Furthermore, they rejected the distinction between “primitive” and “civilized” (or “modern”), pointing out that contemporary so-called primitive societies have as much history and have been as evolved as so-called civilized societies.

They argued that any attempt to use this theory to reconstruct the histories of illiterate peoples (ie, leaving no historical documents) is entirely speculative and unscientific. They also noted that the postulated progression, which typically ended with a stage of civilization identical to that of modern Europe, is ethnocentric.

Later critics have noted that this assumption of fixed-stage societies was proposed precisely at the time when European powers colonized non-Western societies and was therefore selfish.

Many anthropologists and social theorists now consider unilinear cultural and social evolution a Western myth rarely based on solid empirical foundations. Critical theorists argue that notions of social evolution are simply justifications for the power of society’s elites.

Thus, modern sociocultural evolutionism rejects most classical social evolutionism due to several theoretical problems:

  • The theory was deeply ethnocentric—it makes heavy value judgments about different societies; with Western civilization seen as the most valuable.
  • It assumes that all cultures follow the same path or progression and have the same goals.
  • It equates civilization with material culture (technology, cities, etc.)
  • It equates evolution with progress or aptitude, based on deep misunderstandings of evolutionary theory.
  • It is constantly contradicted for lack of evidence. Many (but not all) supposedly primitive societies are arguably more peaceful and equitable/democratic than many modern societies and tend to be healthier when it comes to diet and ecology.

Laloux’s proposal seems to be clearly associated with classical cultural evolutionism.

Laloux’s model is functionalist

It remains for us now to fit the model presented by Laloux within some sociological paradigm.

Organic functionalism seems to be the most appropriate sociological paradigm movement for Laloux’s proposal. It confers the properties of a living organism to society and proposes an evolutionary process divided into fixed stages. And yet, he says that these stages are stages of consciousness.

Laloux is looking at the different functions performed by groups of people at each stage of society’s development and stating that there are needs that demand action, in his case collaboration, which contributes to new organizational models. It is the classic idea of ​​progress associated with the social division of labor.

There are several criticisms of this sociological model. Most of these criticisms are directed towards the functionalism of Comte and Spencer (which most closely resembles Laloux’s proposal). Among them are:

  • ignores inequalities, including race, gender, class, that cause tension and conflict.
  • it is tautological, that is, it tries to account for the development of society solely through the effects attributed to them, and thus explains both circularly.
  • affirms that society has “needs” as a human being, which characterizes an ontological affirmation.
  • individuals have no sense of action, they are just puppets waiting for destiny to fulfill its function in the name of the progress, of evolution.

This becomes apparent with Laloux’s model, which offers an elegant and simple view of how humanity developed. As if it were possible to describe this type of phenomenon in an objective way and as if evolutionary processes behaved in a stable and predictable way. Even theories of sociocultural evolution talk about a minimum of 200 different paradigms, while Laloux tried to reduce this to five.

Is laloux aware of all this?

Laloux tries to relativize all these questions by saying that:

We create problems when we believe that later stages are “better” than earlier stages. A more useful interpretation is that later stages are “more complex” ways of dealing with the world. For example, someone operating in the Pluralist-Green mode would be able to integrate people’s conflicting perspectives in a way that someone operating in the Impulsive-Red stage would probably not be able to.

But that only makes things worse. First, he is reproducing the colonialist discourse that “primitive” peoples were not able to relate in a “more complex” way with the world. Second, that he’s trying to trade six for half a dozen by claiming that more complex does not equal better than. Speaking of an organization… Isn’t the teal paradigm preferable to the orange one?

“I’m not better than you because I’m in a different paradigm. I can only relate in a more complex way to the world than you can.”

He also tries to get the horse out of the rain using the classic Korzybski heuristic saying that the map is not the territory: