The History of Teal OS at Ian Martin

*This document was originally created as a part of an application for the NextGen Enterprise Awards in the winter of 2020. (We won an award!)* 

The Ian Martin Group is a 60+ year old, 3rd generation family-owned staffing company, with 450 employees in Canada, the US, and India. When our current CEO and Chief Steward Tim Masson took over the business 10 years ago, he set about to not only modernize the company, but create a truly NextGen Enterprise.  

One of the first activities was to turn the company from being profit/shareholder driven, to being a force for good for all our stakeholders. We did this by changing our articles of incorporation, and raising our standards of business practices to become a Certified B-Corp in 2012 (https://bcorporation.net/directory/ian-martin-group). A major facet of this shift was to become purpose-driven in all our activities, which is to connect people in meaningful work. 

This singular focus on encouraging meaningful work was our context when Frederic Laloux’s book Reinventing Organizations came out in 2014. The book details the practices of 12 thriving organizations who replaced traditional hierarchical management with self-management practices, as well as focusing on employee wholeness, and an evolutionary purpose. These organizations made a radical shift towards employee empowerment and as a result created workplaces with amazingly high engagement, personal growth, fulfillment and greater performance and productivity. The more we learned about this new organizational paradigm, which Laloux labelled “Teal”, the more we believed that it could not only benefit our company – this approach just might solve many of the chronic issues plaguing business today. 

To explore and experiment with this paradigm, we decided to fully test a “Teal Operating System” (Teal OS) within one of the Ian Martin Group’s startup business units – called Fitzii.  

The main groups of stakeholders involved: 

On February 14, 2015, a team of ~10 people in the Fitzii business unit, had a fun ceremony called ValenTeal’s Day, to celebrate the official elimination of any management responsibilities and positional authority within the group. We even had a “No More Managers” cake and signs all around the office. We had decided that the tight-knit Fitzii team was the right group to test this with because their leaders were highly motivated to try radical new approaches that could push through the limitations of a hierarchical structure. Also the team operated at arms length from the rest of the company, so we could afford to experiment and make mistakes without affecting the core business.   

The chronology of the innovation: 

Fitzii’s plan was to manage all decisions through some version of the advice process, which of course is the keystone habit of self-managing organizations. In addition, there are many other key activities that managers formerly took care of, and would need to be re-engineered. The group brainstormed a list of activities such as strategic planning, employee performance reviews, compensation setting, onboarding, conflict resolution, hiring and (gulp) firing, that would all need to be addressed. 

On the day Fitzii agreed to be rid of management roles they also decided to gradually implement self-management changes to all these processes, deciding as a team which ones to do immediately, and which ones to leave for later. The re-engineering of each practice was done via the advice process, with one person typically leading interested team-mates through a series of advice collection, research and safe-to-try experiments.  

The Fitzii team has been working through these practices for the last five years, and this work of invention and iterative improvement continues today. The team has also written 14 fully transparent blog posts about their experiences in creating these self-management practices. These articles can be found here: https://blog.fitzii.com/category/self-management-teal-practices/   

Expected objectives: 

When the Fitzii team began the Teal journey, there were multiple expected objectives: 

  • Increased learning, growth, and fulfillment in meaningful work 
  • Increased employee engagement & productivity 
  • Lower attrition and lower recruitment costs
  • Better decision making which improves business results 

Two years into Fitzii’s experiment, it was clear that these expected objectives were being realized, which was the catalyst to begin exploring a larger implementation across the Ian Martin Group.  

The resources (internal and external) mobilized (number and cost): 

 Our Teal journey began its transition to the broader Ian Martin Group organization of 215 employees in 2017 with the formation of a working group of 20 employees from around the company called “The Navy Teals.” This group met monthly to experiment with self organizing principles and practices pioneered by Fitzii with the purpose of understanding how to formalize practices in a way that worked for the core business. The experiments were a success and led to the decision that on January 1st, 2018 we would become a self-organized company and that managers would no longer have positional authority.  

We had been laying the foundation and groundwork for this shift since our inaugural all-company offsite in May of 2015. That event was the kick-off of the practice of autonomous decision making at IMG. We asked everyone to read Dennis Bakke’s book “The Decision Maker” ahead of the event and then spent two days exploring the concepts as an entire company. The foundational ideas were that everyone was capable of making good decisions and that those team members closest to the problem or opportunity were best equipped to make decisions, provided that they sought the advice of others.  

Resources used during this transition were insight and advice from Fitzii team members and a variety of books. We hired no external consultants during this transition time in order to specifically support our transition to self-organization. We relied heavily on a handful of staff members who originally pioneered Fitzii’s practices, and those people “trained the trainers” and built capacity across Ian Martin.   

These Teal facilitators were not full-time dedicated to the task. They still had regular business focused jobs and it’s a realistic estimate that they spent 30% of their work time for two years to bring the Teal OS to life. A rough estimate of staff salary invested in this transition would be $100,00 over the course of 2 years. In addition to this, 18 people were active participants in the Navy Teals group and to date in our “do tank” called T Lab, we’ve had 15 different participants since its inception. This group of 25 individuals (a few have been in both groups) has spent roughly 60 total hours each over the course of the last 2 years creating, implementing and refining our Teal OS.  

The reasons why the innovation was accepted and implemented? 

The decision to implement the Teal OS company wide came primarily from a philosophical place which believes that the effective balancing of freedom and responsibility lie at the core of any high-functioning organization. When individuals operate from a place of both deep personal freedom and corporate responsibility, they make better decisions and the enterprise functions more effectively.  

Enough people at IMG have bought into this principle, which is what has allowed the dramatic shift to moving from a 60 year old established, hierarchical organization to one where leaders hold zero positional authority and all staff are welcomed into maximum empowerment and leadership. 

The move was adopted because the power of having a voice and participating in the fun of business proved to be very compelling to our staff. All along we adopted a ‘pull over push’ implementation strategy, which meant that our speed of change was directly proportionate to the interest level of our staff. Early on we adopted a rule that no change can happen to anyone without getting their approval via a consent based Generative Decision Making (GDM) vote of “thumbs up”, and everyone has the option to “block” any proposal.  

The Teal OS also aligns perfectly with our purpose of connecting people in meaningful work. Many staff have shared that being invited into greater personal growth and development by participating in practices that challenge them sets this work environment apart. Last year we celebrated an incredible achievement which is directly related to our Teal OS implementation. We were named by the Great Place to Work Institute and the #2 mid-sized company in all of Canada. This award is based on anonymous employee survey results, and you can see in the attached document the comments that our staff in Canada, the US and India have made. Approximately 70% of them mention Teal as a reason why IMG is a great place to work (please keep in mind that some of the respondents from “Sterling” came to IMG last year via an acquisition and we have only just begun introducing the Teal OS to them).  

What quantitative indicators have you monitored and measured?   

The following statistics are measurements we have been tracking to understand how adoption of our common Teal OS practices is unfolding. See the attached Practices Summary for a detailed description of what each practice involves, and how they relate to the Teal OS workflow.  

Sensing & Responding / Decision Making: 

Documented discussions and decisions made in our Loomio advice & decision making software. These reflect Consent and Advice Processes, Work Adjustment Advice Processes (WAAP), Role Advice Processes (RAP), and Compensation Advice Processes (CAP). The numbers from the last year indicate organization wide participation: 

  • 347 Discussion threads 
  • 214 Proposals (Decisions made) 
  • 2025 Votes in those polls 
  • 2948 Comments 
  • 12688 User sessions from 282 unique users over the year. 
60+ Role Advice Processes:  
  • Initiated by the individual him/herself, and resulted in that person staying in the company in a modified role (50+) 
  • Initiated by the individual him/herself, and resulted in someone choosing to leave the organization to pursue meaningful work elsewhere (3) 
  • Initiated for performance reasons, and person transformed their role and impact through the feedback and advice of others – and are now significant contributors (5)  
  • Initiated for performance reasons, and person moved on in a positive way and remained friend of org (4)  
  • Initiated for performance reasons, and person moved on dissatisfied (2) 
914 recorded feedback deliveries (#TIRs) (in 2019): 

Recorded in our internal weekly update and recognition software 15Five, these reflect the acknowledgement of Feedback received in 2019.  

27 Resolution Practice processes supported: 

Since the practice’s launch in the summer of 2019 

In addition to these metrics that we’ve tracked in the organization to measure the adoption of our common practices, we also consider the qualitative feedback of the comment section of our annual Great Place to Work anonymous employee survey (see attached). We have been conducting this survey for 5 years and both the scores and comments from the report give us a valuable perspective on employee engagement and investment.  

What are the values of these indicators and did they reveal whether the original objectives were met? The achieved results & impacts on the organization and the people: 

The above listed indicators help us to ensure that the practices are accessible and attainable for all staff and to course correct when we see low adoption of any of our tools. In considering our original objectives of: increased engagement, increased productivity, learning, growth, meaningful work and better decision making which improves business results – we believe that we have absolutely achieved improvements in these areas.  

Employee engagement, learning, growth & meaningful work: 

The comments from our October 2019 GPTW survey reflect a deep satisfaction in working under our new OS – over 70% of the comments made mention either Teal or self-management. The fact that our practices are getting regular use in the context of our daily operations is proof that it is not a handful of early adopters or keeners who are using the tools while the rest of the organization lingers behind – we are seeing broad and consistent use of the OS across every team, department, branch and location.  

Increased productivity: 

We have eliminated the cost of having managers, and seen an increased sense of empowerment which has translated into more people maximizing their positive impact on the business. We frequently hear a variation on this theme: “Things happen with me, not to me.” and “There’s no complaining here, because anyone can do anything”. No one is caught off guard when a decision is announced that impacts them. If something needs to happen that is going to impact a group, team members are invited to participate in the decision. This maximizing productivity because people with passion for a given project or opportunity are the ones stewarding them. We slow down to invest in teaching and coaching which leads to a much more robust and informed team. In addition, by allowing people the opportunity to evolve their roles through our Role Advice Process, they experience growth much more quickly than they would if they simply waited to be asked into a new role or task.  

Improved decision making, speed and agility: 

By involving all voices in clear decision making processes, higher quality decisions are made with transparency and clarity. Without heavy bureaucracy and many levels of approval to be sought after, we are able to move with agility on business opportunities as they present themselves. Since heading in this direction, we have added new clients to our business, solved core challenges that are common in staffing companies, and have increased our candidate satisfaction scores more quickly than we would have believed possible. Maybe the best proof point about our agility is that we are becoming known as the most progressive and advanced recruitment company in the world. 

If you had to do the same action again, what would you do the same way and what would you do differently?  

We’re currently at the start of our third year of the company wide adoption of the Teal OS. What we would repeat again in the future is to start with a small pilot group to test the paradigm shift. By starting with Fitzii, we were able to learn the value of operating without managers and we had confidence that the approach was good for business before implementing company wide. This organic, agile and experimental approach was pulled into the broader organization from a place of optimism and hope by a large contingent of staff and was never pushed from the top down. 

The next steps of iterating with Navy Teals and then T Lab gave us the opportunity to build on progress and momentum with a focus on capacity building with key individuals. We realized as we were launching the initiative company wide that a 3 year approach would be key. Year 1 would be considered launch year (2018), we knew that the 2nd year would effectively be the “messy middle” (2019) and our hope is that our current year (2020) is going to be the year of further systematizing and optimizing our O/S.  

The practices were cemented in the following order, evolved as were required, and to some degree sequentially built on one another. We would take this approach again in the future. 

  1. Feedback – giving and receiving 
  2. Foundational Skills – creating psychological safety through generous listening practices and equal talking time 
  3. Sensing & Responding – How decisions are made 
  4. Role Advice Process – The process for changing your role or addressing performance issues 
  5. Work Adjustment Advice Practice – The process for adjusting your role to accommodate life changes 
  6. Teaming Practice – The process for creating a charter that the Team abides by 
  7. Resolution Practice – The process for resolving conflicts and individual or team tension 
  8. Onboarding & Sponsorship Practices – The tools to onboard new staff effectively and train them into our OS and ensure that they are ready for the responsibility of self management 
  9. Hiring Practice – The tool to ensure we’re hiring the right fit for our company 

To conclude, what are the strengths of your project? 

We believe that the strengths of our five year project to create a home-grown Teal OS that suits the needs of the Ian Martin Group are: 

  • We created an integrated OS framework and workflow which is both custom for our business, but also has been used by other businesses. It starts with people spotting a problem or opportunity and illustrates how to navigate the practices from there.   
  • We have created robust, well tested new practices that other Teal organizations have copied or adapted. Our proudest and most popular creative achievements are Onboarding, Feedback, Role Advice Process, and the Resolution Practice (see the Practices Summary for detail).  
  • We took an agile, iterative and experimental approach which minimized waste and risk, and maximized resources, progress and momentum.  
  • We used no consultants, which meant that many of our people grew significantly in their organizational design knowledge and as effective servant leaders.