Musing on and about Coherence

Posted by on Feb 23, 2016 in Book review, Thinking Out Loud | 2 Comments

Over the last year, I’ve been more and more inspired and intrigued by the concept of coherence. It’s come up from a number of angles, in different contexts of conversation. I think it was Dave Snowden who made me want to investigate it more deeply when he said that SAFe was incoherent, which sounded so much more relevant than labelling it as “not agile” – which I’ve done with so many things so often in my life, and now don’t believe that’s helpful anymore. Yet that’s a topic for another post…

when someone says that's not agile a fairy dies. Martin Kearns

Martin Kearns captured by TargetProcess #Agile2014

Coherence – A Draft Definition

Coherence. What is it? While the word does exist in German, we don’t use it very often, and I’ve never heard it outside of a scientific context. My working definition is “something fits”. I generally look for coherence when I analyse my perception – how I make sense of reality – and try to figure out if my words and models help or hinder me to understand said reality. Or when I’m engaged in a conversation and try to figure out the meaning in the other’s words. The words need to fit together, they need to fit my understanding, they need to fit with all the other things in my mind – and this fitting is what I call coherence. It’s a necessary precondition to have understanding.

Coherence – Significance

Coherence. Why is it important? Well, where do we need understanding? We could say everywhere… First of all, I need understanding to learn. New information will only stick in my brain if it “fits”. Second, I need understanding to connect, to form relationships and a sense of belonging. To feel at ease, comfortable, maybe at home in a place and with people, I need to understand their behaviour, their expectations, and there needs to be a “fit” – otherwise there will be tensions, dissonance, and stress. I won’t feel safe.

Kinds of Coherence in How we Shop Up

We have several words for how coherent we perceive someone to be:

  • Honesty is coherence of thinking and talking.
  • Authenticity is coherence of how we perceive ourselves and present ourselves to others.
  • Integrity is coherence of what we say and what we do.
  • Credibility is coherence between what we say and what is true.

And more words for how coherent we perceive an environment, a context, to be:

  • Reliability is coherence between our expectations and reality.
  • Predictability is coherence between our (past) expectations and (later) reality.
  • … you get the point.

Coherence contributes in many ways to our sense of safety. And safety is but a flip side of trust

Coherence in Models and Frameworks

We communicate using words, and these words form models. Let’s define a model in this context as a pattern of words. Some models are designed, built, so they have a deliberately chosen set of words. How does coherence matter here? Let’s look at examples.

(I’m aware that model can mean something more specific than pattern of words, and often does. For the context of this post I think the definition is good enough. If you have a suggestion for a better term for a “thought pattern” I’m happy to consider integrating it.)

A model I frequently use is the Cynefin framework. It talks about systems we find in the world when we make sense of it. Cynefin defines four domains: simple/obvious, complicated, complex and chaotic. They differ by how I take sensible action. Let’s consider an easy example: a door. A beautiful modern door with a metal frame, an electronic lock and clear glass. It has a label “push” next to the door handle. Can you picture it?

  • I want to go through. No thinking required. I push and go. Simple. Obvious.
  • The building is not quite finished yet. The door needs to be unpacked and installed. Oh. No idea how to do that. I’m quite sure someone knows a good way to do it. Maybe I can with a manual. Or I get an expert. That’s complicated.
  • I’m asked to come up with a next generation model of that door. It’s expected to generate twice the revenue of this one. That might require some thinking, forming of hypotheses, and then running of experiments. I won’t know if my approach works until I’ve done it and succeeded. Complex.
  • You wake up, dizzy, with said door having been hit in your face. You will start moving before you think. You move, just to check if you’re still alive and able to move. That’s chaos. You don’t know the constraints, you need to act to be able to think. As soon as you got your bearings, you can start building hypotheses again, and try some more deliberate moves. Experiments. You’re back in complex. Chaos is rare, and transient. We don’t survive there for long – if you get to tell the tale, you’ll be out quickly.

I’ve been employing this model for a number of years now, and it seems coherent on this level. It has not created dissonance or tension in my thinking, in conversations, or actions. It’s useful, too, actually.

Obvious Incoherence

Yesterday I read about the Acronym VUCA for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity. This list is incoherent as the words are not of the same kind: complexity and uncertainty and volatility are qualia of a system, ambiguity is a judgement based on our perspective and understanding – nothing is ambiguous by itself. Uncertainty and volatility are qualities of a complex system. Ambiguity may be an effect of these, mostly it’s a consequence of the messiness of a complex system: the impossibility of knowing all the details. Because we can never fully understand it, it’s highly likely that a complex system seems ambiguous to us. So VUCA seems to be a random list of some things that tend to let many of us feel unsafe. It has little coherence, and hence little practical value beyond instigating anxiety.

Integral Incoherence

A model that I find increasingly incoherent the more I read, think, and talk about it, is the model of organisational development put forth in the book “Reinventing Organisations” by Frederic Laloux. You might have heard of “Teal Organisations” – this is where that idea is from. It’s based on the “Integral Theory” by Ken Wilber. It states that the history of how we have organised shows different levels of consciousness which are labeled with colours: red, amber, orange, green, and teal.

Laloux Stages of Organisations

Coherence? Laloux Stages of Organisations

First, I want to clearly state that I really love the book. I learned a lot from it, it has expanded my thinking, opened my heart wider, and extended the space of what I think is possible today in human (business) organisations. It’s brought together many people like me who engage in more humane, more authentic and compassionate, more joyful and soulful work places. It makes a strong case for the economic effectiveness of such workplaces. I’ve met Fred Laloux, he is an inspiring human being, a great speaker, listener, writer and thinker.

Fred has travelled the world and visited outstanding organisations, organisations that defy what’s considered normal in human organisations, like a corporate hierarchy of power and authority. Like wearing a safe mask at work. Like optimising for efficiency. He reports how people work in these organisations with great curiosity, awe, and respect. He called these organisations Evolutionary – Teal because he found Ken Wilber’s model of the evolution of human consciousness to be helpful to make sense of what he saw. He discovered common patterns in these organisations: “Look how they make decisions! Isn’t that fascinating?” “Wow, they invite people to show up authentically! Wouldn’t that be lovely for more of us?”

All of that is great, and I’m grateful for it. I’ve had the honour to work with some organisations which are on a similar path, and Fred’s book gave me a language to talk about these outstanding workplaces, and created attractors for conversations about these organisations, to increase our learning and growth.

And: things haven’t stopped there. I now hear bosses create “teal initiatives”. I see consultancies offering “teal services”. And I see that’s doing more harm than good.

Dave Snowden sensed this much earlier than I did. Read this post or this long Facebook thread if you like.

Evolution and Invention

“I find it difficult not to get excited about this. It means that a coherent organizational model seems to be emerging, one we can describe in quite some detail. This is not a theoretical model, not a utopian idea, but a very concrete way to run organizations from a higher stage of consciousness. If we accept that there is a direction to human evolution, then we hold here something rather extraordinary: the blueprint of the future of organizations, the blueprint to the future of work itself.” Frédéric Laloux, Reinventing Organizations (highlights by me)

“Blueprint” and “invention” are words that fit an engineering and design context. They are incoherent in an evolutionary context. To say it with the words of Laloux’ model: these words belong to the orange stage, where we think about the organisation as a machine. A machine has a blueprint, a machine is invented, and can be re-invented. We can not invent or re-invent an organism, with an emergent mind and purpose. There is not, and there can’t be, a blueprint for an evolutionary organisation.

“Going teal” makes as much sense as a group of dinosaurs deciding to “go bird” because feathers are coming into fashion. Feathers and Birds are emergent concepts/features of an evolutionary process. Both can’t be deliberately planned.

This is an example of why and how coherence is important: within the complex space of organisational improvement and development, many things are possible. Increasing freedom, autonomy, and authenticity in your organisation is certainly possible. The way you try to do it has a certain probability of success. If the “try” is deliberate, you will have a safe-to-fail frame around it, and measures to know you’re making progress. That’s called experimentation. An incoherent approach, like “going teal”, limits your probability of success.

(Which is why the Cynefin framework, for actions in the complex domain, suggests demonstrating the coherence of your experiment before you start it.)

Population and Individual

Models help us understand reality, and give us words to talk about it. Laloux’ model has given us language to distinguish different metaphors in organisational thinking, different, typical ways to organise ourselves, and ways to organise that have been typical and common at different times during the evolution of humankind. This has been highly valuable and enlightening for me. It helps organise our knowledge about the variety of organisations out there. Drawing conclusions from the general to the individual can be misleading and potentially dangerous:

The dog who barks does not bite.” That may be generally true (as in “most barking dogs don’t bite”), and I’d still be cautious with a specific barking dog. Another example: Just because many introverts are shy that does not imply that a specific person can’t be shy and extrovert, or introvert and not-shy-at-all. Back to the Laloux model: Just because 12 Teal organisations make decisions in a certain way, that doesn’t mean they all do… Or, that starting to make decisions this way will make your organisation “teal”.

More importantly, putting a single organisation into a box labeled “teal” or “orange” or whatever, is highly judgemental and going to limit our perception of that organisation’s reality. If for some reason you want to count them, for instance to make sense of a “population of organisations”, you will need to categorise, and that may make sense. To work with or within a single organisation, that categorisation is potentially harmful. I’ve seen workshops where people created strategies to talk to an “orange leader” and a “green leader”. I don’t see how that will improve reality. People are not categories (cf the introvert example above), neither are organisations.

Complexity made Linear, with a Scale

Reality is complex. That means it’s messy, contextual, and situational. To talk about “stages of consciousness” implies consciousness is linear, and grows in distinct “steps”. This view distorts reality in multiple ways:

  • It implies one stage is better, more advanced, more attractive than another (which the books claims to not want to imply yet the structure of the model implies it). Since Laloux says that organisational effectiveness increases with the layers, it’s likely the reader will want to “level up”.
  • Supposedly “higher levels” are supposed to integrate the qualities of “lower levels”. “Level” is not a good metaphor to make that obvious.
Coherence: Evolution and Integration

Coherence: Evolution and Integration

  • Organisations have multiple facets, reality has fractal patterns, and human perception will always be ambiguous. The notion to have any organisation be “at” any one specific level does not take these aspects of complexity into account. Any organisation could easily operate according to all of those levels, or be irritated in a way that it “falls back” to a previous one.
  • The “fit” of any organisation to those patterns will be at least as strongly influenced by the observer’s perception as it is by the organisation’s reality. In my experience with this model I found it more helpful when I think like “Let’s look at this from a green perspective…” rather than making a judgement like “I think this is a green organisation”.

Now What?

This post has become much longer than initially intended, and there’s still more to cover – on the topic of coherence just as well as the whole Reinventing Organisations and Teal meme. I’m very curious about all of this, and looking forward to inspiring conversations and more learning in the future.

My current strategy is:

  • I take care of the coherence of my own thinking and how I perceive the world, and my options to act. Everyone else makes their own choices, and that’s great.
  • I stopped talking about right or wrong, better or worse, good or bad, as these labels sounds so factual. Certainly I do compare, my brain is just like everyone else’s. I just stopped believing that my opinion about better or worse is actually helpful for anyone else.
  • Having conversations about topics that matter to me and and to the people I have conversations with, and sharing the learning from those conversations, integrating people like you into these conversations, with blog posts like this one. Hence the new category “thinking out loud”.

So, if you found any of this inspiring or intriguing or … please join the conversation!

And if you need more food for thought right now, visit Jan’s blog for a dive into a related question:


  1. Manuel
    February 28, 2016

    Thanks for this thought provoking post, Olaf.

    In order to better understand why you find “going teal” incoherent, it would help me, if you explained in more detail what you mean by “going teal”. I assume you mean “cargo cult” adoption of teal practices.

    Would it still be incoherent, if it meant experimentation – in the way you defined experiments? If so, care to elaborate?

  2. Johannes Schartau
    February 29, 2016

    Great post, Olaf!
    Maybe to add a little coherence to your understanding of the concept of levels: Wilber says that there is a force at play in evolution that he calls Eros. According to him, emergence happens but there is a general drive towards greater depth of consciousness, a direction to evolution, not just a “chaotic” unfolding. Once the greater depth of consciousness has manifested, it becomes a groove or a habit in the universe. These are the levels and, supposedly, we see them everywhere. Laloux’s book is based on these ideas and applies the thinking to the “evolution” of organizations.
    I personally think it’s dangerous to read it in any other way than as one man’s opinion. As you said, it can lead you to think in different ways or ask different types of questions and that is great. But sadly this has led to what I call “The Hunt for the Teal Gem”: people thinking they need to go Teal without asking themselves why and what Teal actually is in the first place. If you follow the conversations, you can see that right now anything that is non-hierarchical is treated as Teal. It’s just a mish-mash of murky concepts and a lot of enthusiasm.

    There’s a lot more to say about this. I’m just trying to get the conversation started. Thanks for initiating this, Olaf. 🙂


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