Beyond Agile: Teal

Beyond Agile: Teal

First there was agile. Then there was teal.

By Karin Dames

Agile is fast maturing and its time to look at what’s next. In my opinion, it’s called teal. Agile, but more. But first, a short walk down memory lane to get some context.

Remember the Future

Agile took the world by storm and Scrum quickly became more synonymous with software development than rugby. Scrum Masters popped up like cosmos flowers after the first summer rains, polluting the software development job boards as the need for more agile organizations grew.

The word Scrum (to me that is) implies separate teams pushing against each other with the strongest team winning, the other team being the loser. There can be only one winner, with the most agile on the field the most likely to win.

In the background, however, a much more subtler, softer shade of agile has been growing for the past decade or more called teal with companies like Patagonia, Buurtzorg and SoundsTrue a few of the super successful examples. These companies all have one thing in common — better than expected return on investment and continuous, long-term growth.

More like the gentle lavender fields, it takes much more care and nurturing to grow compared to the weed-like cosmos which grows wild next to the road in rural South Africa, exploding in splashes of pink and white as far as the eye can see.

The word teal to me implies integration (blue and green), wisdom, freedom, power, together, tranquil — the color I most associate with the vast open skies or the palegic ocean.

Teal Time

Software development and good coffee to me is like salt and pepper — an undeniably excellent partnership. I haven’t met a technology geek who doesn’t love good coffee. It’s just one of those small little unwritten rules if you want to be part of the technology club. If there was to be an ad for the typical persona on a dating website for technology geeks, there will be stipulated:

“Must love good coffee.”

Agility and caffeine just goes well together it seems. It’s fast, exciting, and changes direction quickly. The stronger, the better. It kicks you into action if you’re procrastinating or bored and it fuels the fires while you burn the midnight candles to get the release out the door.

Teal, on the other hand, is much more comparable like tea-time. It’s gentler, softer, slower. Teal is more about human connection, wholeness, purpose.

Where agile can be compared to a smooth running machine where each spoke is well-oiled and running at optimum speed, teal can be compared to a delicate living organism. It’s more sensitive to the surroundings and needs time to rest and restore, like all living things. It can’t run on optimal power for extended periods of time like a machine, but it can think for itself and service itself when needed and before it breaks down. This eco-system needs to be nurtured and is always in search of equilibrium, compared to an engine in search of optimization. Where Scrum often aims to do everything faster, better, more, Teal aims keep these forces in balance with a continuous improvement culture.

Teal vs Agile — a Rough Guide

There are more differences than an be mentioned in one post, but on a high level, here are the top five elements that differentiates agile from teal, taking into consideration that teal inherently means that a company is fully agile. However, an agile company is not guaranteed to be teal.

1. Organizational agility

Agility originated when developers realized they’re not able to meet expectations if they’re so tightly managed and controlled in a super-structured waterfall approach, run by control and demand of the managers.

With agile, these development teams were given a little more freedom in a less structured Scrum team where they were encouraged to report to each other rather than a team lead, take ownership of their workload and provide more input into estimations, amongst others. The rest of the organization however remained as structured and controlled as before.

A difference between agile and teal is that agile is focused on the software delivery process, one part at a time mostly, whereas teal expands towards organizational agility, including not only the software delivery process, but the supporting processes too as a whole. Teal organizations are not limited to software development or technology, but can be applied equally to a farm, a building site, a law firm, a bank or a software development house.

2. No Standardization

Scrum aims to standardize work — again driven by the control-and demanding leadership style that drives it. The process is standardized, the workflow (to-do, in progress, done) is standardized, even the ceremonies and schedule for these ceremonies are standardized. The only freedom the team has is often choosing the sprint duration.

Teal, on the other hand, doesn’t standardize anything. Rather, it relies on good cross-functional communication and includes an advisory process and a conflict resolution process to ensure alignment between different teams and the organizational purpose.

What is more important than standardization is good communication and an organizational team spirit.

3. Coaching rather than Consulting

Scrum and agile generally relies on consulting as teaching mechanism. Each team has a Scrum Master or Agile Coach who’s role it is to make sure that the team understands and follows the process.

Typically, a Scrum Master will be asked what to do in a specific situation and the response will be advise based on experience. Basically, it’s telling the team what the answer is or what to try.

Teal, on the other hand, takes coaching to the next level. The management team is replaced by team coaches. Agile coaches and Scrum Masters become team coaches, driving change and establishing equilibrium within a team.

The role of the team coach is to maintain harmony within an entire team by asking the right questions to help guide the thinking of the team, without ever giving a direct answer.

As apposed to pointing out the problem to the team that, for example, the CEO is talking too much or demanding too long sessions at a time, the team coach will notice the issue, then ask the team what they notice or how they feel or what they think they should do next in an attempt to raise their awareness to identify problems themselves.

The world of coaching started with individual coaching, yet team coaching is fast becoming the norm. A team coach is all about getting the team as a whole to function together whereas a personal coach is about developing a single person at a time, outside the context of the team he or she works in. Teal adds context and more perspectives to a problem, enabling solutions to be discovered exponentially faster than what is possible in an individual session.

4. Inclusive rather than Exclusive

Agile, or Scrum, is commonly viewed as a competition, where different teams are compared to each other to see who the ‘best’ performer is, much like the word “scrum” implies. That is like comparing the heart to the liver in a human body, trying to see which one is the better one, while both are equally important, just for different reasons. You can’t live without either.

Teal organizations view the entire organization as a living organism where each part is as necessary as the next. They even go one step further and include the suppliers and customers and even competitors in their goal to maintain equilibrium. They understand that there’s no business if there’s no suppliers or customers, as there is no business without employees.

Teal organizations seek strategic partnerships and win-win relationships between everyone involved. It’s an intersection of needs and wants based on a shared purpose.

It’s not teal if everyone doesn’t win.

5. Happiness matters

In agile organizations the emphasis is mainly on delivery, whatever it takes. It matters that the customers are happy and it matters that the shareholders are happy, but when employees are unhappy, it is the individual that often is expected to change.

In teal organizations, the primary measure for success is happiness. If the workers aren’t happy it is considered a serious problem that needs to be addressed. It’s not acceptable for the leader to enforce his ideas or rules on the workers, rather, it is a collaborative, inclusive creation. Where the general leadership style in agile organizations are still demand-and control, the general leadership style in teal organizations are more free, compassionate and empowering.

The unhappiness is viewed as an indication that something is not working, with the assumption that the worker is the best informed person to know when something needs to change. Employee happiness becomes one of the most important measures of the organization’s success, as teal organizations understand that happy people do good work, they are more engaged and thus more productive and innovative.


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