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  • Dean Williamson

8 mindsets which shift an organisation from orange to green

Business as we mostly know it today is "orange". In the model of reinventing organisations, an orange paradigm focuses on efficiency: the maximum out (usually goods or profit) for the minimum of inputs.

For a long time I've been actively working to evolve organisational models from orange to green, or the next colour along.

Where orange focuses on single-output efficiency, the focus of green is multiple-output achievement.

While this sounds complicated, it basically means that profit does not live alone, but alongside other meaningful outcomes such as staff wellbeing, environmental considerations etc. Green is a broader view of organisational success.

As I've worked and explored, I've become aware that there are some mindsets or worldviews that either help or hinder the transformation from an orange paradigm to a green one. For example, at one of our clients we talk about the CEO not holding binary positions when making judgements - "good" and "bad", "right" and "wrong", "enemy" and "ally", "inside" and "outside" etc. At some point, this binary way of seeing the world was him holding onto his position of judge, presiding over "his" organisation. Similarly, we've also seen the same CEO often working from scarcity, which meant that he would default to risk-oriented data, rather than trying new things which he saw as riskier. His role was often to stop progress, rather than allowing things to progress.

So it came as a beautiful surprise when I saw an article by Sesil Pir over at Forbes. This article provides an overview of research undertaken by Stanford's Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE), and identifies 8 mindsets which re-shape workplaces. When I read the research it was a wonderful synchronous moment - they perfectly capture most of the necessary changes in thinking to produce an orange-green shift. They are the ways that a system moves from single-output to multiple-output achievement.

So I thought I would reproduce them, with some of my own experience/commentary:

  1. Caring (over control): When your people are not just a means to an end, you have to adopt a different frame with which to approach them. This usually means that many of an organisation's existing policies, practices or approaches become at least questionable, if not untenable. For example, many HR practices resemble coercive and controlling relationships, such as "going to market" to get the best staff for the lowest possible price. Those dollars you're saving by "negotiating" are your people's houses, cars, kid's education. The same goes for many management practices. It's almost impossible to tell an adult to "stay in your box and do as you're told" when you care about them. It's also hard to treat them like you don't trust them if you care about them. Once you bring your staff into the organisation's priorities and shift to "care", there's a lot that has to change about Business-As-Usual.

  2. Abundance (over scarcity): Orange businesses are built on scarcity, right down to their foundations. The world is a competition, the aim is to be the fittest (read: the most optimised) and survive in the economic jungle. You can never make enough of anything, and there is never truly enough to go around. And market share? More! More! Orange orgs are never truly resilient, because their extractive practices mean that there is never enough to create buffers or safeguards (COVID bail-out's anyone?). Shifting to an abundance mindset changes almost every rule in an org. For example, there are many organisations across many sectors where staff get to choose how much they are paid. Abundance says that you can make enough to pay your people well, while scarcity says you have to pay people as little as possible because there's not enough money for everyone. If you're running on a margin so thin that you can't pay your people what they're worth, I always think that's a market strategy problem.

  3. Wellbeing (over welfare): In line with "control" above, welfare is "the boss decides what I need." The org sets numbers of sick days, annual leave days, parenting leave days etc. On the flip side, here's a list of companies who provide unlimited leave to their employees. A policy like this allows your people to decide what is best for them, rather than prescribing what they are "entitled" to. I'm sure you can already see how caring and trust are tied into a system like this.

  4. Productive (over defensive): The priority of defensiveness is to maintain the status quo - if I get defensive when someone tells me something I don't like, I'm aiming to ignore or resist their perspective in order to maintain my own view or position. The shift towards productive means creating a system which doesn't resist change, but instead uses every instance as an opportunity to learn and adapt, including tension and conflict. In this way, the role of leadership is to allow things to go forward, rather than "block" progress.

  5. Interconnectedness (over self-orientation): This mindset renders self-absorption and selfishness (both of which damage trust) as incompatible with the new system. If I am interconnected with you, I can't take action without acknowledging the impacts that I have on you and others. Taken to an extreme, every action will have flow-on effects across interconnected systems.

  6. Collective (over individual): Closely tied to interconnectedness, this mindset shift says that the aims of the collective are at least as important as those of the individual. In this way, it is impossible to just "do my job" while ignoring the landscape around you. Does someone else need help in order to further the team's goal? Who will stack the dishwasher? Who will improve the CRM? Well, probably you, because it's affecting all of the salespeople in your team... Responsibility goes beyond your written role.

  7. On-going learning (over fixed): A growth mindset is a very helpful orientation for both individuals and systems who want to do and be better. A learning mindset enables both productive and practice mindsets. It's very hard to improve if people don't think they can.

  8. Practice (over action): A hallmark of orange systems is reactivity, what I normally call "putting out fires". They notice something and fix it - it's sub-optimal to have something not working right now, and it needs to be fixed immediately in the fastest way. A green system understands that fixing something right now might not be the highest priority - people may have to learn something new (and practice), change another system, or adjust something else entirely. All of this will take learning and practice, but will likely improve the system overall, rather than just fix something right now. Practice and systems improvement go hand-in-hand.

If these mindsets can be priorities for embedding for a period of time, you will be on the way towards a successful orange-green transition. After a long time practicing these, I still have so many questions about how this happens, but I think these eight are a good basis for this practice.

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