The Irony of Scaling Agile from a Teal Perspective

A friend recently pointed me to a very insightful 2018 post by Sam McAfee where he critically examines the trend of scaling Agile across organizations, drawing attention to the inherent contradictions in these approaches. In the article, McAfee highlighting the paradox of scaling Agile, a way of thinking that thrives on flexibility and adaptability. He brilliantly compares it to replicating a small, successful organic farm across vast landscapes, a venture that fundamentally misunderstands the essence of Agile. This analogy resonates deeply with the Teal organizational model, which emphasizes organic growth, decentralization, and self-management – attributes at odds with large-scale, standardized frameworks like SAFe.

Inspired by McAfee’s arguments, this post aims to delve deeper into these complexities, particularly focusing on how organizations inspired by the Teal organizational principles detailed in Frederic Laloux’s book; Reinventing Organizations, might undermine their Teal aspirations by introducing scaling frameworks like SAFe. To understand this, it’s crucial to also consider the other stages of organizational development – Red, Amber, Orange, and Green – and how they compare to Teal.

Understanding the Colors: From Red to Teal

Laloux’s model categorizes organizational evolution from Red to Teal, each stage representing a different approach to collaboration and structure. Teal, being the most advanced, is characterized by holistic growth, self-management, and evolutionary purpose.

Red organizations operate with power dynamics and strong leadership roles, which is a stark contrast to both Teal’s self-managing ethos and the principles behind Scrum and SAFe. So far, so good.

Amber introduces more structure and hierarchy, focusing on stability and order. This echoes some aspects of SAFe, which also relies on hierarchical order and defined roles, but diverges from Teal’s decentralized approach.

Orange organizations are achievement-oriented, driven by innovation and goals. SAFe shares this trait with its focus on efficiency and results, but this can overshadow Teal’s emphasis on holistic growth and adaptability.

Green focuses on community and shared values, moving closer to Teal. However, while SAFe integrates some Green aspects like teamwork and collaboration, it still maintains a structured hierarchy, which is less prevalent in Teal.

Teal represents the pinnacle of organizational evolution in Laloux’s model, characterized by self-management, wholeness, and an evolutionary, purpose-driven approach. Teal organizations foster environments where individuals can bring their whole selves to work, decisions are made collectively, and the organization adapts and grows organically.

Scrum’s Synergy with Teal

Scrum aligns well with Teal principles, fostering self-organization, team empowerment, and iterative development. McAfee underscores the importance of respecting and empowering teams to make their own decisions – a core principle in both Agile and Teal. Scrum’s emphasis on self-organizing teams and adaptive processes resonates with the decentralized, fluid structure that Teal organizations advocate.

Self-Organization and Autonomy
Scrum promotes self-organization and autonomy, which are central to Teal organizations. Teams in Scrum have the freedom to decide how to best accomplish their work, reflecting Teal’s emphasis on empowering individuals and teams to make decisions.

Iterative Development
The iterative nature of Scrum, with its focus on continuous feedback and adaptation, mirrors Teal’s dynamic approach to organizational growth and development. It fosters a culture of learning and adaptation, key aspects of the Teal stage.

Holistic Team Dynamics
Scrum encourages teams to work collaboratively, considering the diverse skills and perspectives of each member. This holistic approach to team dynamics resonates with Teal’s focus on bringing one’s whole self to work, encompassing both professional skills and personal growth.

Scrum is not all Teal Unicorns and Rainbows

While Scrum and Teal share some similarities, they are also fundamentally different in their core focus and application. While Scrum provides a specific framework for managing complex work efficiently, Teal encompasses a broader organizational philosophy that transforms the entire way an organization operates. Scrum can be a component within Teal organizations, particularly in how teams operate, but Teal extends far beyond how Scrum teams work to encompass the overall culture, structure, and purpose of the organization.

SAFe in the Context of Teal

While SAFe aims to scale Agile practices, organizations introducing SAFe often ends up imposing a top-down, process-driven approach. This method contradicts the very essence of Agile and, by extension, Teal principles. SAFe’s structured roles and hierarchical decision-making dilute the essence of self-management and autonomy central to Teal.

Hierarchical Structure vs. Teal’s Flat Structure
In SAFe, the hierarchical structure with defined roles and layers of decision-making stands in contrast to the flat, decentralized structure advocated by Teal organizations. This hierarchical approach can dilute the essence of self-management and autonomy, which are central to Teal. Teal organizations thrive on fluidity and the ability to respond organically to changes, which can be constrained by the more rigid framework of SAFe.

Process over People
SAFe’s emphasis on processes and frameworks might overshadow the focus on individual autonomy and empowerment that is central to Teal. While SAFe aims to bring order and alignment across teams, Teal principles prioritize personal growth, holistic development, and the fostering of environments where individuals can bring their whole selves to work.

Reduced Flexibility
The prescriptive nature of SAFe, with its structured roles and ceremonies, may limit the adaptability and fluidity that is central to both Scrum and Teal. The ability of teams to respond dynamically to changes and challenges is a hallmark of Teal organizations and can be impeded by the structured nature of SAFe.

Diminished Evolutionary Purpose
Teal organizations are characterized by an evolving purpose, allowing them to adapt and grow in response to their environment. The structured planning and roadmaps of SAFe might limit this dynamic nature, potentially leading organizations to focus more on adhering to predefined plans than evolving organically with emerging needs and changes.

Impeded Wholeness
One of the key elements of Teal organizations is the emphasis on wholeness – the idea that individuals should be able to bring their full selves to their work. The formal structures and specific role definitions within SAFe can create boundaries that inhibit this level of personal development and expression, which are integral to the Teal vision.

Strategic Considerations

Organizations aspiring to evolve into or maintain a Teal culture need to strategically consider how the adoption of scaling frameworks like SAFe aligns with their core principles and values. It’s not just about implementing a framework but about ensuring that the chosen approach to scaling Agile practices enhances the organization’s ability to be adaptive, people-centric, and purpose-driven.

Any scaling framework should be evaluated on how well it aligns with the organization’s purpose and whether it supports or impedes the evolution of this purpose. The choice of a scaling framework should also contribute to a culture of empowerment, collaboration, and continuous growth, reflecting the ethos of Teal organizations. And last, but not least, leaders must ensure that the chosen scaling approach allows for the flexibility and adaptability required in a Teal environment. This means maintaining an openness to change and encouraging innovation and creativity at all levels.


McAfee’s critique of the scaling of Agile methodologies, particularly through frameworks like SAFe, aligns with the challenges faced by organizations aspiring to the Teal stage. For those seeking to create workplaces embodying self-management, wholeness, and an evolutionary purpose, considering the impact of scaling is crucial. Scaling might come at the cost of deviating from the fluid, adaptive, and people-centric ethos that defines Teal organizations.

Your Thoughts and Experiences

I would love to hear your perspective. Have you witnessed adoptions of scaling frameworks that have either supported or detracted from the ethos of Teal organizations? Please feel free to comment below and contribute to this conversation as we collectively explore the best paths forward for organizations in their Agile journeys.

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  • Falcon Ener Kise

    January 2, 2024 at 13:01

    While I agree that “SAFe’s structured roles and hierarchical decision-making dilute the essence of self-management and autonomy central to Teal”, I think quite many large organisations need to take preliminary steps, before getting ready for the potential of Teal’s “wholeness, and an evolutionary, purpose-driven approach”.

    SAFe is among the frameworks, that has the potential to carry out the transition, from a traditional top-down-oriented organisation, to one driven by the deeper trust, that lies in moving to a more mature place than Green.

    From this perspective, I think SAFe is a great place to start, but definitely, a greater strategic overlook needs to take place, than “just implement SAFe”.


    • Martin Ellemann Olesen

      January 2, 2024 at 14:17

      Thank you for sharing your insights, Falcon!

      I wholeheartedly share your perspective, as I’ve always advocated for SAFe as a commendable first step. Especially for those navigating the dense bureaucracy of large, traditionally top-down organizations, SAFe undeniably offers a tangible glimpse into the world of Agile. It’s a structured, familiar introduction to more iterative, flexible ways of working. However, the journey shouldn’t end there. Embracing true agility means transcending beyond frameworks and continuously adapting you ways-of-working.

      A crucial reflection in my post, which also aligns with your thoughts, is the limitations of SAFe when it comes to evolving into a Teal organization. While SAFe lays down a structured pathway, it doesn’t inherently bring an organization closer to the Teal paradigm, which embodies self-management, wholeness, and an evolutionary purpose.

      It is crucial not to let initial successes with frameworks like SAFe become the final destination. Instead, Leaders should build on the initial success and use it as a gateway to a more profound transformation, one that brings the organization closer to achieving agility in its truest sense.

      Once again, thank you, Falcon, for contributing to this important discussion.


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