Tobias Mayer’s Thought Citizen(ship) workshop – A review

In August I signed up for Tobias Mayer’s Business Craftsmanship Workshop. “What’s all that about, then?” you might say to yourself, as did I. His website at provides some information and even a white paper on the subject. There are phrases there, such as “The transformation of the knowledge work environment” that ordinarily might make me cynical. Didn’t I use that in a game of Buzzword Bingo? Don’t I remember slumping in my seat as similar words appeared on the slick, well-polished pages of a management consultant’s snake oil presentation? But those phrases came from Tobias Mayer, and I find that reassuring. More on why later.

This might seem a strange way to start a review of a learning event – describing why I might be suspicious of its content, and its motives, while saying very little about it beyond a few cryptic phrases. I’ll try to explain my interest in organisational change first and then say why I felt this particular gathering might be of value to me.

Unthinking Systems

I have spent a lot of my life building computer systems and quite often these didn’t really do the things that the business paying for them had hoped. In an effort to improve matters, I moved into business analysis. From this new perspective, I could see how difficult it was to successfully define what a system, with or without computers, should do. Even where there was a clear high-level purpose, it seemed really difficult to line up people, management, projects and money to achieve the actual thing, whatever it might be. Often it appeared to be that ‘the system’ was set up to hinder the positive outcomes that might make the project worth delivering. I’m not saying that some people didn’t have worthwhile, fulfilling jobs that made them happy – it just didn’t seem to be very common. So understanding how to change organisations and the systems within them caught my interest some time back. It also helped me become much more familiar with terms such as Scrum, Agile and Lean.

It would be misleading to suggest that the concept of organisational change or transformation is new. (The New Model Army, which so dramatically changed England, formed in 1645) and the first management consultancy may have been started by Frederick Taylor in 1893, but there now seem to be more people than ever before claiming to know how to fix, optimise or transform an organisation. As mentioned earlier – I tend to be suspicious of most of them.

But I’m not suspicious of Tobias Mayer, whose approach blends his experience with software, improvisational theatre and community service into an authentic and powerful brew. One of the first Certified Scrum Trainers, but also a fearless critic of the Scrum Alliance (SA), he resigned as its Creative Director and at one time even renounced his own SA certifications. He also ran (and I attended) Welfare CSM and wrote the collection of essays published as The People’s Scrum.


Naming Conventions

And so, returning to the Business Craftsmanship Workshop. This event hadn’t run before, despite Tobias’s frequent use of the term in his talks and writing. So what to expect? Not too long ago I had attended his ‘beta’ workshop of what later became Storytelling for Presentations and, based on that, I guessed I wouldn’t spend long stretches seated.

Friday morning began after the usual greetings with a quick round of ‘The Name Game’, possibly at my request. I find it difficult to take on board a lot of new (or, worse, forgotten) names and then correctly associate them with faces at the start of a course or workshop. This can make it difficult to focus, so addressing the issue early is good. Get everyone in a circle, start somewhere with “Hi, I’m Dave”, move to the next person who says “Hi, this is Dave and I’m Sue”, on to the next person “Hi, that’s Dave, that’s Sue, and I’m Dan” and so on. Once you’ve been around everyone, mix it up and do it again. It fixes the names and breaks the ice. Games like this played a significant part in the two days.

We then sat in a circle while Tobias explained his thoughts on organisational transformation, the role of leadership and consultants, including a brief summary of Frederic Laloux’s influential book ‘Reinventing Organizations’. One of its key concepts is that organisational cultures have evolved through stages that can be labelled with a metaphor and a colour.

  • ‘Wolf Pack’ is Red,
  • ‘Army’ is Amber,
  • Orange is ‘Machine’,
  • Green is ‘Family’ and
  • Teal is ‘Living Organism’ or “the next stage in the evolution of human consciousness.”

See for a precis.

Context Switching

After setting the scene, we discussed the catchy phrase “Zeal for Teal”, expressing the idea that the executive level of many organisations are seeking to transform them to align with the principles of self-management, wholeness and evolutionary purpose and are looking to Laloux and his book for guidance. Or is it the management consultants who are the Teal zealots, with a new thing to sell to the CEOs?

Either way, Tobias was quite clear that he didn’t really care too much about execs and consultants doing stuff to organisations, which are after all just collections of people. He saw a danger of organisational transformation leading towards “…computomorphism – the attribution of mechanistic qualities to living entities” and with it the depersonalization of the organisation and its people. So, for the moment at least, Tobias was not comfortable with using the term Business Craftsmanship in this context. The search for better leaders is a futile one, and what we need is to engage everyone to become better, thinking citizens. Organisations don’t change, but people do. Surprise! We were now officially the Thought Citizenship workshop!

Dramatic though this might seem (how many learning events have you been to where The Actual Title changes in the first hour?), it is not in my opinion a huge shift from the views that Tobias has expressed before. Anyway, no one left at this point(!) and it firmly established what we were about – exploring the growth of healthy organisations through good citizenship and its balance of rights and responsibilities. We were going to explore some preconceptions and take a long, hard look at ourselves.

I’m not going to describe in any detail the structure and progress of the workshop from this point on, but instead try to give a flavour of what it felt like for me, the things that made it stick in my mind and why I feel it is very relevant to my interest in changing systems for the better.

Practical Citizenship

After the initial outlining of Tobias’s belief that successful organisational change cannot be top down, but must come from and fully engage the ‘Citizens of the Workplace’, we explored a natural progression of ideas. What does it mean to be coerced, often very subtly, into certain behaviours by the systems we are part of? How can we resist these pressures and what might urge us to do so? What are the implications of concluding that we should seek to make things better, despite our doubts and shortcomings?

Practical exercises made up the majority of this course. Some were short and simple (write down a value such as ‘respect’ on an index card and then be surprised and entertained as someone else describes what it means to them). Others involved quick thinking and movement like the frenetic Go Game. We also spent a happy and creative session in small groups coming up with fables (things like the Hare and the Tortoise), presenting them back to everyone else and comparing learnings. All of these activities added relevant insights, some enriching our understanding of the concepts we were covering, others taking us in a completely new direction.

Looking Back

I expected this event to be informative, of course, quite experimental, even unpredictable and with a few rough edges. I was looking forward to discussing what worked well, what didn’t, and so shape future iterations of the workshop. Looking back, all of those held true. However, Tobias referred to us as co-creators, and that’s a big step beyond in my opinion. He set up a safe stage for us all to interact, improvise, experiment and learn from each other. Or in other words, he acted as a Scrum Master.

So the key question for me is, do I now feel better prepared to go out and change organisations so that they can fulfil their destinies through self-management, wholeness and evolutionary purpose? Absolutely not. But I really hope that I can help some Thought Citizens to emerge from the organisational swamp.

This was the kind of event where you get close to the other participants, and this was a bunch of lovely human beings. I feel lucky to have shared fears, discomfort, excitement and quiet reflection with them all.

The Not The Business Craftsmanship Workshop was run in association with Adventures With Agile and hosted by Thoughtbot, who are thoroughly nice people with lovely offices.

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