Probably the biggest barrier to moving towards autonomous, self-organizing teams is the fear of chaos. A valid fear indeed. Without a dedicated authority figure, it can be frustrating to distribute responsibilities and coordinate projects. But it doesn’t have to be frustrating or chaotic to transition to ‘teal’. This post looks at how organizations operating from a mainly teal paradigm might coordinate projects, and how to get from ‘orange’ to ‘teal’, without the chaos. In essence, we consider what does teal project management look like?

This is the third in a series of posts looking at the characteristics of teal workplaces.  The first looked at a possible organizational structure, and the second at the leadership style within a predominantly teal organization.  But first, let’s look at the intent of project management, or coordination.

The intent of coordination

The primary purpose of coordination – whether operating from an orange or teal paradigm – is to ensure all the different knowledge areas of project management are included in any project.

Another key purpose is managing expectations and alignment. I’ve never worked with a customer that is unhappy when you’re transparent, honest, responsible, and manage expectations.  That, in my opinion, is the primary role of project management.

With this intent in mind, let’s delve into the specific characteristics of each paradigm. We’ll first look at what the core characteristics are, and then a possible roadmap from ‘orange’ to ‘teal’.

Characteristics of ‘orange’ Project coordination

Typically, an organization operating from an orange paradigm coordinates projects through fixed meetings at every level. This often leads to meeting overload. Typically there is little time for productive work or communicating to the team what was said in the meeting, making it obsolete.

Traditional project management consists of several knowledge areas. Typically, an ‘orange’ project manager relies heavily on artefacts for each knowledge area. They often spend more time documenting evidence than responding to the challenges and changes within the environment.

Scope and time

There is typically a project manager for each project. They are responsible for producing detailed schedules and regular status reports to manage time and scope.

In larger organizations, there are also program managers to perform a similar function on a higher level. The project or program manager is the primary decision-maker when it comes to changes in priorities, scope, or due dates.


Information is mostly shared on a need-to-know basis. Most of the information is confidential. There are clearly defined communication channels, often formalized with regular status reports and meetings.

The focus is often on gathering evidence rather than delivering a project. Typically, a lot of time is spent on administrative tasks.

Company objectives

Typically the executive team might come together once or twice a year to decide on the next year’s objectives. This is usually more strategic in nature, looking at possibly expanding market share or reducing overhead in certain areas. The outcomes are communicated to the rest of the organization with little to no input from them.

Measures and incentives

Objectives are measured predominantly in absolute and granular numbers.  Individuals are rewarded for performance based on these numbers.

As this is such an important and key success factor, I’ll cover measurements and incentives in a separate, future post.  The key, however, is that the primary measure of success is profit and efficiency.

Managing risks

Many larger organizations have dedicated risk departments.  They are responsible for thinking about the worst possible scenarios and mitigating any risks proactively. This often slows down projects and can be in conflict with operational teams.

In smaller teams, the project manager is responsible for identifying and managing risks. In reality, few project managers proactively manage risks and usually address issues as and when they arise reactively.

Cost, Quality and other knowledge areas

Not intended to be a complete mapping and analysis of all the different project management knowledge areas, in summary, each knowledge area has a dedicated decision-maker who produces extensive policies and procedures for their area of expertise.

This often results in rather fragmented and unconnected procedures that create confusion and conflict.

Characteristics of ‘teal’ coordination

A predominantly ‘teal’ organization, using teal project management principles, on the other hand, manages in a content-free manner. Rather than control the project details, they design and facilitate processes. The role of project management thus becomes that of a designer and facilitator rather than a planner and controller.

Teal project management is radically simplified with no dedicated project manager role as such. Rather, the project management responsibilities are distributed between the team.

Below are the key characteristics or practices of what ‘teal’ project coordination might look like.

Open-space structure

Projects can be initiated by anyone in an open-space. A facilitator explains what an open-space is. Thereafter participants are invited to add any topic of their choice in the dedicated empty spaces provided on a first-come-first-serve basis. These topics are pitched in a marketplace format. Participants can freely choose which topics most interest them and join a discussion they feel they can either contribute to or gain something from.

When the time-box for a topic discussion is over, everyone moves on to the next topic of their choice. At the end of each session or the end of the day, the topics are briefly reflected upon. People have the opportunity to opt into taking a topic further outside the open-space, with the open-space’s main purpose being that of coordination and transparency.

This means that in the scope of teal project management only projects people believe in will be taken forward, drastically reducing waste. It also means that everyone is empowered to initiate a project, provided they can get adequate support.

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Where in an ‘orange’ organization or team there are fixed departments and roles defined, in a ‘teal’ organization these knowledge areas are handled as perspectives. A perspective can be held by one person within a cross-functional team, for example, a knowledge area specialist. Or it can be included using parallel thinking, where everyone in the team spends time focusing on one perspective before moving on to the next.

When a group decides to move a topic discussed in an open-space forward, all the required perspectives needs to be represented. These perspectives, serving as a shared vocabulary, will differ depending on the industry. In a typical software development team, for example, the three key perspectives needed are design (or product), engineering, and data. Within manufacturing, data might be replaced by operations or logistics. In retail, these roles might include sales and inventory management.

Apart from these key perspectives, there are typically also general perspectives that might be adopted by anyone. For example, you might want to add a risk perspective, a quality perspective, a financial perspective, or a marketing perspective.

Finally, an advisor role completes the cross-functional team. The advisor, or advisors, other than the rest of the team, is not part of the project team. They serve as objective outsiders to either provide specialist information or resolve conflict when needed.

Coordination requires that the important perspectives are clearly defined. Each project aims to add all these perspectives, either with dedicated people or in an ensemble style where each person adds to a specific area for a more complete view.

Team agreement

Once a team represents all the different perspectives required, a team agreement is defined. The primary purpose of the team agreement is to agree on responsibilities, scope, boundaries, communication preferences and needs.

As a predominantly teal organization typically communicates through fluid ad-hoc discussions, it’s important to explicitly agree on expectations at the onset of the project. What channel do you use to communicate? Do you want people to be available at specific times? Do you expect an answer or response within a specific time frame if async is preferred? How do you discern between important and normal work items in a chat? What do you document and where?

The team agrees on this upfront, however, if something is overlooked, a spot-contract can be agreed upon at any time during the project. It’s important to note that nothing is written in stone. A team agreement remains valid only because it works for everyone involved. Whenever something doesn’t work anymore, it is re-contracted.


Finally, once a team and the agreement are complete, work officially starts. Now is the time to reflect on accountability and how to show progress if it hasn’t been covered in the preceding forums. How will you know your project is successful? What are the key metrics? How and when will it be measured?

What do you do when a project doesn’t give the desired results? When do you pull the plug? Or when do you pivot? A ‘teal’ organization inherently requires responsible people for it to work and be profitable. Accountability is a key success factor for companies to benefit from autonomy and prevent people from working on projects that are fun for them but don’t directly contribute to the success of the business.

If you want responsible people, give them responsibility. Also, define the consequences of failure.

With great power comes great responsibility.” — Unknown

Getting from ‘orange’ to ‘teal’

Coordination is probably the hardest area to transition as it directly impacts operations and with that the cash flow of the company. It’s thus advised to start with practising and refining the process and practices in a risk-free environment.

1. Practice on an internal project

Allocate a few hours per week dedicated to internal improvement projects that do not impact a customer. For optimum results make it voluntary as it is better to have a handful of supporters than a room full of people who don’t want to be there.

If it works more people will inevitably join, growing organically. Either or, you have nothing to lose and might gain a few improvements by trying.

2. Roll-out on a low-risk single customer-facing project

Once the process works, adapted to your unique organization, choose a small, low-risk customer-facing project with a representative customer that is open to trying a new approach.

Invite the customer to streamline the process and co-create what it will look like. This will allow you to streamline the project when the stakes are low.

3. Add projects one at a time

When a low-risk customer project works, add more projects one at a time to give everyone a chance to adapt to the new ways of working without disrupting the status quo.

Transitioning to teal project management doesn’t have to result in chaos, and it doesn’t have to disrupt the status quo.  The question is whether the pain of staying where you are is bigger than the pain of trying something new.  It’s been done, and every case study reports positive results.  Are you brave enough to give it a try?

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With more than 20 years experience in the software development industry, Kate specializes in helping teams get unstuck, communicate better and ultimately be more productive. She believes in efficiency through fun implementing lean, agile and playful design as tools for process improvement and organizational change. Her goal is to create more happy, healthy and whole workplaces where each person thrives and productivity soars.