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Regenerative Supply

by Carol Sanford

It is clear to most of the folks I talk with that the primary paradigm, or worldview, that we use to manage businesses (as well as government, education, and families) is causing a major shortfall for humans, economies, societies, and our living Earth. Interestingly, most people can list a few qualities of this paradigm but are unable to speak about a replacement for it, except in platitudes. For example, reductionism is an old-paradigm quality that people often cite immediately. Some folks will mention fragmentation as a second aspect. When I ask how we’re avoiding the old paradigm as we take on new ways of working for better outcomes, many point to their own intention to “do better by doing good.” But doing good is actually a characteristic of the old paradigm, showing up as the ultimately futile drive to slow the entropic forces of climate change or social decay. When they advocate for new ventures, good folks with great intentions often fall into the trap of using ways of thinking based on the old paradigm. They cannot see the conflict. Although they are doing less harm to forests or rivers or making great efforts to reduce their overall impact, they are still working only on fragments, still contributing to the causes of degeneration and devolution. The great need now is not for improvements in parts, but instead for shifts in whole systems. The old way works by cutting parts from wholes and attempting to improve them in isolation. But living systems, the basis of the new paradigm, always work as fully integrated wholes, and those who work with them create cascades of beneficial change through strategic interventions. This is the way businesspeople need to work, by creating enlightened disruption of whole systems for the purpose of regenerating them. This series of blog posts, “What is Regeneration,” lays out a way to very clearly understand and speak about a new paradigm, one that sees change through the lens of living systems. I call this paradigm regeneration and here I discuss nestedness, one of its primary principles. Nestedness shows up especially clearly when compared to the old-world view that some call “flatland.”

One Example

When Seventh Generation was founded, it advertised itself as a the producer of environmentally sound cleaning products. It conceived of itself as a better alternative than Procter & Gamble or Unilever, a source of nontoxic products marketed to people who cared about the environment. The company was at war with the producers and distributors of other cleaning products, and their brand soon began to develop a loyal following. A big shift occurred at Seventh Generation when I started a conversation with them about the ways in which life is nested and how every life form is dependent on all of the others in its ecosystem. For example, I pointed out that each of us is an individual human dependent on a family  and other social units, which in turn depend on a healthy ecosystem. When living systems are undamaged, this interdependence is seamless; there are no absolute distinctions among parts. This was not a concept that most people grasped—at Seventh Generation or anywhere else. At the time, human health and ecosystem health had different advocates, occupying different spheres of influence. Yet even so, Seventh Generation was already talking about how they were nested in an industry and how it would be possible to move purchases faster if they could help other companies develop the same understanding. They saw the potential to move the entire cleaning products industry and all of its distributors toward more regenerative practices. Understanding nestedness and the wholeness of living systems created a strategic shift for them. They started marketing to human health, knowing that when families did what was best for the least viable among them—small children, the chemically sensitive, and pets—they were doing what was best for forests and ecosystems. The Seventh Generation logo became a door into a home that was overlayed on an image of Earth. At the same time, Seventh Generation shifted from competition, another quality of the old paradigm, to collaboration on projects with  distributors who were engaged at the same level of outreach to customers. In this way, the company was able to influence Walmart in the development of a new policy requiring transparent  labeling from their suppliers, even when transparency was not legally required. When we see the world as a two-dimensional plane, we base our relationships with others on competition and convincing. When Seventh Generation began to see themselves and their suppliers nested within an industry that was nested within local ecosystems on a living planet, they were able to shift their entire strategy. On the day of the aha moment, founder and then CEO Jeffrey Hollender commented that because they hadn’t been thinking in terms of interdependence or of anything other than defending Earth, good as that had been, their strategy had been competitive, rather than strategic and nested. In general, average citizens have some intuitive understanding  of the fact that we live in an interdependent world. Most of us can even grasp that some levels of impact are greater than others. Thus we often hear, “If our planet dies, we will have no place to live.” This is usually only a humorous, off-hand remark, but it provides a door to a larger conversation about the way living systems are nested in one another, not just linked with one another on a single plane, and how the magnitude of our effects depend on the level where we position our interventions. This conversation explores how thinking in a living systems way is important to social and planetary health, including the beneficial effectiveness of business outcomes.

Living Systems Theory

Let’s reground ourselves here by returning to what we in business know already about living systems theory.  We have heard that life is self-organizing. This idea is often referenced by teams that set up and carry out their own work. Self-organization is defined on Wikipedia as “. . . a process where some form of overall order or coordination arises out of the local interactions between smaller component parts of an initially disordered system. The process of self-organization can be spontaneous . . .” It is often pointed to when the downside of hierarchical management structure is under examination. Advocates for a new way of managing point out that humans self-organize at home and in their communities and could do the same thing in their teams at work. There are several work models for just that. Another aspect of living systems is what we might call self-ordering. This term describes the way nature works in rings of complexity to guide a whole system. One example is social ordering: humans live in families, which are nested in communities within nations on a continent, which is on the planet. In some important ways, the larger rings of the system determine how the smaller embedded systems are ordered. But it can also work in the other direction. Cities have been known to cause shifts across entire nations, as occurred in the 1960s when riots in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles increased the push for civil rights across the entire United States, and again in 2001, when the events of 9/11 and New Yorkers’ responses to them precipitated changes in the world at large. We don’t tend to notice or take into account the nested nature of different scales and powers of systems. This ignorance explains why individuals are unable to see their personal impact on planetary climate;  we feel small and insignificant, and  Earth seems so large. We don’t seek to understand how personal decisions and patterns of human behavior affect social inequity or how  economic theories and the tax systems based on them actually cause disparities in wealth. Some businesses wake up and become customer- and market- centric when they learn to see that customers are the big Kahuna, the deciders when it comes to purchasing, and that thereby they have a greater impact on a business’s success than its  internal work on efficiency ever can. These businesses understand that, if they ignore their customers in order to focus on improving efficiency, the results will include a downgrade in the qualities of their products that matter most to customers. Understanding the interrelatedness of our effects requires us to think more deeply about the nestedness of systems. Buyers and markets make up a larger whole within which our businesses are nested. And buyers are humans, natural beings. They are strongly affected by their local ecosystems and by Earth as a whole, simply by being nested within them. Our way to cause regenerative changes in nature is through thoughtful attention to the lives of customers and what can most improve them. Far too often, we think instead in terms of power and hierarchies, searching living systems to discover who or what has dominance over other life forms. The organic structure of metabolic functions suggests that hierarchies of order have a very different nature than power relations. The more complexly organized a nested entity is, the larger its pattern-generating role; the larger its role, the more responsible it is for ensuring higher levels of active reciprocity within the system as a whole. This beneficial contribution—far more effectively than competition—helps to ensure the entity’s own ongoing evolution. Thus, beneficial contributions and evolution are the clearest, most effective way to think about nested systems.

A Flatlander’s Guide to Perceiving Nestedness

In 1884, Edwin Abbott—an English clergyman, educator, and Shakespearean scholar, published  Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, a scientific and mathematical fiction that provides an entertaining view of the mind and explores the complexity of nestedness. The story is a metaphor for human perception and intellectual experience. Its protagonist, A. Square, is a mathematician who lives in the two-dimensional world, Flatland. Here women are perceived as one-dimensional straight lines, the lowliest of beings, whereas men, two-dimensional shapes, are ranked higher socially, depending on their number of sides. Square gives an account of the social and cultural conventions within Flatland and narrates his adventures as he explores other worlds. At the turn of the millennium, a person named Sphere visits Flatland to introduce Square to the idea of a third dimension, in the hope of educating the Flatland population. Square cannot comprehend the idea of Sphere’s three-dimensional realm until he sees it for himself, and so he visits Spaceland. Here he meets Cube, and experiences cylinders, cones, and many other inhabitants. He then dreams of a visit to the one-dimensional world, Lineland, where he tries but fails to convince the monarch that a two-dimensional world exists. The monarch cannot see outside his own experience of straight lines. Square also experiences no-dimensional Pointland, where he reflects on his dimensional travels in the abstract. Ultimately Square entertains the thought of visiting a land with four dimensions and the possibility of fifth and sixth dimensions, and tries to convince Sphere of their existence. Sphere is offended by this idea and returns Square to Flatland in disgrace. Once returned, Square finds it difficult to convince anyone of Spaceland’s existence. Each person he speaks with is attached to and limited by the level of complexity from which they view their own world and the possibility of the existence of others—in much the same way that our politics and business practices reflect our own lack of comprehension. Flatland has long been popular among mathematics and physics students, and lately it has also become a wonderful challenge to business’s view of the world. Imagining ourselves in Spaceland with Square can help us develop the will and imagination to look at our work through the living-systems paradigm and understand how our worlds are nested in orders of interdependent, complex wholes. When the moment of change arrived at Seventh Generation, most of the players were  flat—some were only lines, some were more advanced triangles, and some even more advanced squares. When a sphere became apparent, they entered a realm where they co-existed with distributors, suddenly seeing them as something other than evil disrupters. As their living systems thinking developed, they were able to conceive of the changes that later made them leaders in the field of cleaning products and helped Walmart start the transparent labeling revolution. Realizing how Earth’s health was intimately connected with family health was Seventh Generation’s trip to another dimensionality. From it, they developed the insight required for the invention of new product offerings and communication strategies. They learned to tell a different story, just as Square did when he reflected on his adventures in different dimensional realms. As their insight deepened, the company went to work with Whole Foods to open up a new category, advertising with others in the market and supporting the development of other providers, all the while growing their value to investors and building loyalty among customers.

Effects of Flatland Views

When a business thinks from a flatland perspective, they perceive everything as linear, with at most four or five key points to consider, all of them equally important. Business books written by two-dimensional authors point out the four, five, six, or seven strategies necessary for success. Without the shift in paradigm and comprehension of the nested nature of living systems, they are no better off than squares and triangles in a two-dimensional world.  Businesses rarely elevate themselves to realms of more dimensions, from which they can take make regenerative contributions to their customers’ lives and their industries’ successes. We are all mostly unaware of the nests we live in, but developing the capability to perceive is the only truly effective way to influence the unfolding patterns that will create our future. Markets are living systems, characterized by natural ordering and organizing processes. Discovering and understanding these processes enables us to become innovators, but this critical thinking skill isn’t taught in business schools or by other developmental means. Most often, when we begin to perceive them through the fog of our flatland perspective, we are caught by surprise. Nevertheless, the best companies base their work on the ordering and pattern-generating nature of complex living systems nested within larger living systems. Our adoption of this and other aspects of the new paradigm will guide the next wave of effective entrepreneurialism, determine the role we play in mitigating climate, and decide whether or not we create a viable future for ourselves. Ask for an invitation. The Regenerative Business Summit will change how you do business and live in the world. For more on the living systems paradigm, please check out the previous posts in the “What Is Regeneration” series. “If you would like to learn more about the principles of regeneration drawn from living systems science and theory, please join us October 16-18, 2016 at The Regenerative Business Summit. You will find videos and other information about the summit, including how to request an invitation.” You can experience the story of Flatland through a computer animated feature film made in 2007. A trailer, narrated by Martin Sheen, is available online. The wonderful novel is still in print and available in many formats.

Save the Date: First Annual Regenerative Business Summit. Oct. 18- 20, 2016. From Friday Evening on 18th to Noon on 20th. Seattle WA. At The Foundry by Herban Feast. Get Notified:[UNIQID]

Carol Sanford is an Educator & Thinking Partner with Game Changing Fortune 500 executives and Rock Star Entrepreneurs for 40 years. Author multi-award winning books The Responsible Business &The Responsible Entrepreneur: Four Game Changing Archetypes for Founders, Leaders & Impact Investors, Top 100 Global Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business Behavior. TEDx X4.

This article was reposted from the Carol Sanford Institute with permission from the author. The original post can be read here.


Education, Regenerative Principles, Regenerative Supply

by Carol Sanford

A current, prevailing worldview is that everything and everyone can be categorized as a particular type. Each of us—plant, animal, or human—can be classified within a system of limited possibilities. Based on this belief, all of us humans are hungry to know who we are and how we fit into our time and place. We so eagerly want to know what types of lovers, wives, parents, or men we are that when magazines promise us quizzes to sort ourselves out they quickly disappear from newsstands. This helps us identify ourselves, and it may seem to help us understand nature and other beings. But despite its allure, by itself it cannot give us real knowledge. On the other hand, we hate it when we are compared to a specific other person or when our situation is described as a generic example of things as they are. We love the idea that no two snowflakes are alike. We know from genetic science that there are no combinations that repeat. Nature does not create exact duplicates. From microbe to baby deer to human brain, every particular example of each life form is unique. To overcome confusion about the degree or quality of likeness and difference among living beings requires discernment developed over time. It is true that based on surface characteristics, a person, a tiger, or a watershed is not unique and can be identified and categorized according to rating scales similar to the ones we enjoy reading about in magazines. Personality characteristics and personal strengths are easily organized into typologies. Nevertheless, at our cores each of us is singular, and every whole, living being has an essence that is permanent, not an accident of birth, and not the result of socialization. This irreducible reality is captured in the root meaning of essence, which is not to become something, but to be something.

Why Does Essence Matter to Business?

In the business world, we have a firm grasp of differentiation, which is often the basis of branding. A truly great business—one with a long and consistently creative life—goes beyond differentiation to essence or singularity. It becomes aware of its unique identity early on and adheres tenaciousrosely to it over the long-term; it hires to preserve it, develops products and services that express it, and makes it the basis for orientation and development. Singularity is the source of disruptive innovation, and a wise business jealously guards it. Yet even so, a great business often does not express equal understanding of singularity with regard to people and natural systems. In a living system the only lasting and precise way to augment health and wellbeing is to work with the essence of a particular whole—the same way we work when we’re raising a child, governing a city, or growing a brand. For example, when we mistakenly set out to make a child more like an idealized someone else, she quickly loses her identity, which is the source of her intelligence and vitality. The best way to set a child on the wrong track is to tell her to be “more like your father” or “more like your sister.” Advocating or advising from ideals of any kind interrupts essence expression. Ideals arise from societal or cultural aggregations of assumed truths. We form them in order to corral people who seem to be wandering beyond the bounds of accepted society. In other words, we use them to standardize norms, to make people all alike so that we can predict and control their behaviors. The imposition of ideals to for the purpose of dominating is not only characteristic of our relationships with children. We extend it to everything alive. John Mohawk, a tribal elder and a professor at New York University, has said that “ideals are how one culture eradicates another, as the Europeans have come close to doing with the Native People’s of North America.” Within the context of standardized identity, people learn to normalize themselves by mimicking others. In the business world, this can show up as the imitation of products or approaches that belong to other companies’ brands, a symptom of the failure to identify and adhere to singularity. And because we have spent so much time collecting and organizing ideals, standards, best practices, competences, and categories, most of us haven’t learned to recognize and value singularity in any aspect of our own businesses.

Developing the Capability to See Essence

In a regenerative process we look for singularity not in existence, but in potential. I love to suggest that the essence of the IRS is not collecting taxes. That is only a surface. At its founding, the IRS was intended to increase the wealth-producing capacity of citizens and fund the agreed-upon costs of existing as a nation. How would our relationship with the IRS change, if we were able to see through to that essence? How would the IRS work with us if they were able to hold in mind their unique identity? Would the nation ever experience a shortage of revenue? I suggest that every one of us living in the United States would be wealthier and probably happier. It isn’t easy to see the essences of people around us because they are often obscured by the challenges of family, school, and work life. When people are persuaded to conform, their essences are overtaken by personality traits, and the characters they play take center stage, nudging out their true selves. In order to develop the capability to recognize and engage with essence—our own and others’—we must hold it in mind and pursue its living expression in all of our efforts. Every watershed, community, and business has an essence. No two businesses are alike, although at a functional or object level (as with personality in humans), they may share many traits. We may classify types of employee, natures of raw material, categories of business plan, but until we take the time to know people, materials, and systems as their singular selves, we are failing to know and nurture them in the same way we fail to know and nurture a child when we exhort her to be like her father. A regenerative view of the world sees phenomena not only as dynamic, but as singular. That is, instead of categorizing, identifying, and grouping according to what things have in common, a regenerative business always seeks to discern the essence that makes each thing distinctly itself. It accepts and welcomes the realization that each expression of being is one of a kind. This ability to appreciate singularity becomes the basis for deep creativity and motivation, a diametric opposite of the deflating belief that everything has already been seen and done by others before us. It requires constant resistance of the tendency to categorize and pigeon hole. Instead it seeks to see each phenomenon, each customer or retail location or product, as unique and new and deserving of our full presence and attention. Looking to existence, writing down our observations or collecting facts, will not reveal singularity. In order to sniff out essence, we must become trackers and look for it in the same way that native peoples follow the traces of animals who have passed by. Essence becomes apparent in the patterns that are specific to a person, those that reveal how they engage with the world, their purpose in life, the unique value they create as the result of their endeavors. The same is true for the essence of any natural system, community, or organization.

Save the Date: First Annual Regenerative Business Summit. Oct. 18- 20, 2016. From Friday Evening on 18th to Noon on 20th. Seattle WA. At The Foundry by Herban Feast. Get Notified:[UNIQID]

Carol Sanford is an Educator & Thinking Partner with Game Changing Fortune 500 executives and Rock Star Entrepreneurs for 40 years. Author multi-award winning books The Responsible Business &The Responsible Entrepreneur: Four Game Changing Archetypes for Founders, Leaders & Impact Investors, Top 100 Global Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business Behavior. TEDx X4.

This article was reposted from the Carol Sanford Institute with permission from the author. The original post can be read here.


Regenerative Supply

by Carol Sanford

It’s Not about Better Problem Solving! This is the third post in a series on the seven first principles of regeneration, drawn from living systems sciences. A regenerative business sees the world in terms of potential rather than problems. By focusing on the core of what’s trying to happen instead of what already exists, a company is able to introduce profound and transformative disruptions into an industry. For example, PayPal enables people to engage directly in exchange, bypassing the problems created by banking infrastructure. Instead of trying to improve banking, business PayPal asks what customers are trying to pursue and invents the means to support them. This requires reining in the strong tendency to start with what is already in the system, and instead to focus on the evolutionary impulses behind what people are striving toward but not yet able to accomplish. When you start well-intended efforts by identifying a “problem,” you are trapped into thinking that you have to fix it. This leads you on a search for the causes and results in efforts to try out many solutions. It pulls all of your energy toward an endless effort that is based on the mindset that got people into the rut in the first place. Einstein warned us about that. But how to do we not start with what exists, what we already have? Here’s what to avoid:

  1. Don’t do surveys to find out how people feel or what they want. They are starting with existing conditions and trying to improve on them.

  2. Do not do an environmental scan or try to build a database of existing skills or resources and figure out how to make better use of what you already have and are currently doing.

  3. Don’t ask customers what they want. They start with what they have and how it doesn’t work or isn’t sufficient. Plus, they’ve already told your competitors what they want and sent them on a wild goose chase.

  4. Don’t pay consultants to collect data for you. That’s a waste of money. It can never lead you to innovation or better competitive positioning, much less disruption. And, according to the Harvard Market Research Center, most customers won’t respond well to what you come up with based on data.

Maybe it’s not a surprise that no matter how well intended the effort, focusing on problems doesn’t eliminate them, only makes room for them to become chronic. Getting people to behave less badly is counterintuitive to the human brain. We are asking people to punish themselves and every bit of research in the world of motivation says this does not work. Okay! Okay! So what do we starfishdo? As crazy as it sounds, we skip over what exists. We act as though the problem doesn’t matter. This sounds harsh, even cruel, but consider: within regenerative processes, problems are not useful information.

Nature doesn’t care that rat populations are exploding in the suburban countryside. Regeneration in this instance occurs when this niche within the ecosystem is filled by returning populations of foxes and owls. Circumventing problems is how much real change comes about and particularly the kinds of change that disrupt markets—and also history, for that matter. Instead of lamenting a problem, ask, “What are customers (or the planet or social groups) seeking to achieve and why?” This is the route to the creation of something that doesn’t yet exist. Don’t look at why current methods aren’t working. Keep your eye squarely on the your buyer’s intention, on the intentions of living systems and social groups. How can you make their lives, as a whole, more workable. To be clear, I am talking about the highest intentions of people as communities, not selfish individual ideas. What is possible in order to make our lives and the living Earth around us what they are intended to be?

Thinking along this line is how Elon Musk got to Tesla. He calls it starting with first principles. He saw that people want to get from one place to another, to go places that enhance living. That was it. So he didn’t improve current automobiles; he bypassed the current concepts and started with the core intention. This is also how Larry Page and Sergey Brin got to the driverless car. They didn’t try to solve a problem in the existing system, foundering on what is currently being explored.

They asked what are the core processes involved in moving from place to place, under all conditions. We can see this at work in the physics of energy. Kinetic energy is already released and has exhausted its potential. The only place where the potential for qualitative change exists is “before”—before energy is manifested and spent, before problems are created. Regenerative thinking dwells in this before, with the potential for what can come into existence. Seeing true potential requires us to go back to the DNA of our intentions, conscious and unconscious, back to first base, where the uniqueness of the opportunity exists. What is screaming to be directly realized directly? This is the question that PayPal answered when they noticed that customers were encumbered by the current banking system and could be released by a method to make direct payments. The same is true for engaging with people. For example, when we pay attention, we see loads of potential in the children around us.

We see their shortfalls as well; there is no end of shortfalls to fix. But if you start with who a child really is, deep inside, what makes them unique, and you help them realize more and more of that, to become closer and closer to their own singularity, then they thrive. Who wants to make a child “less bad”? Don’t we instead want to support them in their quest to realize their unique potential? And don’t we feel the same about each new business and each watershed? No two living systems are the same; each is pursuing a unique potential. Find that and you become a great business leader or a great biologist.

Going back to the DNA of an intention is graspable by looking at how a starfish regrows a broken limb, which I mentioned in my last blog. A starfish or a salamander is capable of regenerating a limb lost as the result of injury, disease, or aging.Some of their cells are able to reform and resume their stem cell nature. They use the DNA of that specific animal, in that ecosystem, and then regenerate a new set of cells. Regeneration is always about going back to base material and regenerating from what is at the core. The regeneration process bypasses the existing problem, a missing limb. It doesn’t try to sew it back on or build an artificial replacement, or teach the animal to adapt to its loss. It generates the limb anew, from the same base that created the original one. As it does so, it takes account of changes over time, the evolutionary capacity of natural systems, and adapts the new limb to the starfish or salamander’s current age and habitat. That is the way a regenerative thinking process works for economies, agriculture, investing, or any other arena. Find the core of the intention. At The Regenerative Business Summit, we are creating a way for people to explore the ideas and principles of regeneration for themselves. “How can we increasing work regeneratively?” The summit will include no outside experts, panels, or business promotion, but will work entirely attendees who have been testing their own ideas about regeneration and who want to work together in a field of inquiry to explore and apply new ones. They will engage in business assessment processes to decide where they are on a path and where they want to go with regard to regeneration. Attendance at the summit is by invitation only and we are filling up fast. Please check our website,, and let us know if you would like an invitation. Also read about our opening night festivities, which will include the awarding of The Regenerative Business Prize. You might like to nominate your own or another regenerative company. Please also talk to us about joining the movement to create more and faster change through Enlightened Disruption.

Save the Date: First Annual Regenerative Business Summit.  Oct. 18- 20, 2016. From Friday Evening on 18th to Noon on 20th.  Seattle WA. At The Foundry by Herban Feast. Get Notified:[UNIQID]

Carol Sanford is an Educator & Thinking Partner with Game Changing Fortune 500 executives and Rock Star Entrepreneurs for 40 years. Author multi-award winning books The Responsible Business &The Responsible Entrepreneur: Four Game Changing Archetypes for Founders, Leaders & Impact Investors, Top 100 Global Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business Behavior. TEDx X4.

This article was reposted from the Carol Sanford Institute with permission from the author. The original post can be read here.


Education, Regenerative Supply

by Carol Sanford

Phase One: Discern a Living Structured Whole and Avoiding “Part” Thinking

How to know if you are doing something else and calling it Regeneration! Last month I began a series of blogs on the concept of Regeneration. The idea of Regeneration has a very long history of practice.  It comes out of the concept of Living Systems Thinking.  Charles Krone, one of the pioneers of Procter and Gamble’s revolutionary work design, developed something called framework-thinking, which promotes the ability to see wholes at work. The one used here, he called Levels of Work, employed by all P&G Soap employees to understand markets, customers and even soap making, as a living process. The Levels of Work framework enables our understanding of the different kinds of work we take on, in business and other activities. Using it well utilizes a hierarchy of work, some with a better return for innovation, some better for problem solving. Each activity requires different natures or work. He called the base of the hierarchy “operational work,” getting things done and done well. The next level is “maintain or sustain,” how to keep something at its highest level of functioning in a changing ecosystem. “System evolution” level increases the capability of a complex system to evolve over time. Finally, “regeneration work” builds the capacity of wholes to, on an ongoing basis, uniquely bring new value from its role and contribution.  All of these levels are needed, but much is lost if we cannot tell where we are, or worse, fool ourselves. I see this happen with innovation often.  The situation required regenerative work, but often used maintain problem solving tools.

The first blog in this series was an overview of the history, including my forty years with the concept, and the etymology of the term Regeneration as an approach to change and health. When one sets out to work Regeneratively, it is with the intention of Leaping-Frog-300x300finding the full potential of some effort, one that will proceed through seven phases of thinking and acting, where each phase builds and interacts with the others. The use of phases instead of stages allows you to revisit as you move along. Phase One is the subject of this blog, which offers a more in-depth look as the first requirement to even begin thinking about working Regeneratively.  You begin with discerning a living structured whole. When my daughter graduated from Swarthmore College, Tim William, now a professor emeritus, granted her a Distinction in Biology. She had refused to dissect animals and insects, still graduating Phi Beta Kappa, and instead studied them in motion, sometimes with imaging equipment. In appreciation of her wisdom, he offered his own relevant experience in the Peace Corps as a teacher in Zimbabwe. He had invited the young village students to capture frogs and bring them back in jars he provided. He proceeded to show them how to kill the frogs with chloroform using his frog. The children froze and then screamed, all running out of the makeshift classroom. Very shortly, the local Chief emerged and asked why he was teaching the children of the village to kill frogs. Tim explained that is was just a necessity of being able to cut them up to be able to understand a frog. The Chief, with a toothless grin, got down in a squat position and began to leap around croaking, in what Tim reported was a very accurate depiction of frog behavior.  When the Chief rose, he said to Tim, “You cannot understand a frog, without a WHOLE frog doing what frogs do.” He made Tim squat and hop and “be” a frog. Smiling broadly as he walked away, the Chief added, “You have to feel the whole frog in motion, to truly understand.” He had also removed the lids and gleefully watched all the frogs hop back into the brush.

What is a Living Structured Whole?

Think of the human body, both literally and metaphorically. You know it is a whole for one reason. It has structures, systems and processes of its own.

  1. It has a self-contained and containing structure. E.g a skeleton.

  2. It has systemic working systems, which order and organize the working of activity inside the Whole. E.g. digestive, elimination, and cardio-vascular systems.

  3. The processes it engages in make use of a self-managing open exchange, rather than a closed one. E.g eating is an exchange with other systems, repeating, always with fresh material. Closed systems always require the importation of energy from an external system. An open process can engage in value-adding or value-extracting processes with its ecosystem.

Other examples of wholes with structures, systems and processes that meet these criteria are a Customer, Earth, a Place, or an Employee. They each have a self-contained and containing structure, systemic working systems to manage the recurring working of the whole, and the processes that manage exchanges and fuel. A Business example: a corporation means “the body of the whole.”  Some business units are wholes with their own structures, systems and processes. A school most often is within the larger school system. It operates independently as a whole within a whole.

Why regeneration requires a structured whole?

It is the structures, systems and processes that get regenerated. If it is not a living system, it cannot be regenerated. For example, a curriculum or programs, which are “part” of processing, can be upgraded or refreshed, but not regenerated.  In another example, our skeleton can be regenerated, which happens after an accident or bone loss. It is done in the context of the whole body if it is really regenerative, with its unique DNA, in that context and age, and is specific to that person. This happens even beyond the physical, one’s spirit when depressed, for example. 

What happens if we don’t start with a whole?

We promote and work from fragmentation like with bones when seen as a “part” of the body, not structuring for a whole. We seek to treat the “parts” as problems in decline and try to stop the decline (i.e. doing not as bad), or we pursue something generically good, which is not matched with the whole that we want to regenerate.  E.g., medicine when it is not holistic, or sustainability approaches when practiced as parts of the whole (water, forests separately). The undeveloped mind collapses to perceiving parts. We have to learn to see wholes. In business, it leads to having someone supervise all the parts to bring them together. In medicine, we see one specialist after another for different parts of a subsystem.

How do you discern a whole?  How can you avoid fragmentation?

Medicine has been moving toward a holistic view of human health in many quarters.  This means working less to find solutions for symptoms and working to see what health creation might look like for the whole human being. How do we work from what makes systems healthy, like the cardiovascular systems, metabolic systems, and circulatory systems, in the context of the whole in which they are nested? Otherwise, it is working with the “parts of a cut up frog” to understand a living frog. It cannot be understood if it can no longer jump and croak.  What makes the “being” healthy as a whole, working to create vital structures and systems at the same time through regulation of the processes the person engages in. Fragmentation tends to be our default, and it is often hard to break the habit from out training.  Here are some hints

Use a living systems framework that evokes questions that helps us understand the working of a particular “whole.” E.g. the Levels of Work Framework I used to create this blog and many other works. A Framework is not the same thing as a model that shows how to replicate an existing pattern. It can be First Principles, like in classical and quantum physics. Frameworks invite the generation of a pattern, in this time and space, rather than follow a preset pattern. We need models for building airplanes, but not businesses, ecosystems or families. A systems framework is a mechanism for questions rather than answers.

For example, all my books are written with a living system framework. The Responsible Business uses a pentad, a five-term framework for looking at an ecosystem’s vitality, viability and evolution. It invites you to use it as a system rather than divided “parts” of the system . The understanding is not the same from one time to another. Rethinking can invite a higher quality of thinking and energy. It shows the connections and relationships. 1. Examine the characteristics of a Whole:

  1. Ask what structures it contains, as a being or entity.  Not all structures are living systems. Neither a ladder nor a building is living.

  2. What are the systemic systems that keep its life in order?

  3. What does it exchange with other systems? Are its processes only internal ones or exchange ones? Living processes promote exchange.


  1. Lists! – A quick clue you do not have a “whole.”

  2. Functions of a whole, like marketing in a business.

A major challenge of our times is the development of a mind that can see wholes and their working, thus overcoming fragmentation of mind and then fragmented initiative on living beings, like Earth. The next blog is #3, How to See Something Alive and Working Without Cutting It Up Into Fragments Through Dissection.  Once you have a whole frog, how do you understand its working?

Save the Date: First Annual Regenerative Business Summit.  Oct. 18- 20, 2016. From Friday Evening on 18th to Noon on 20th.  Seattle WA. At The Foundry by Herban Feast.
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Carol Sanford is an Educator & Thinking Partner with Game Changing Fortune 500 executives and Rock Star Entrepreneurs for 40 years. Author multi-award winning books The Responsible Business &The Responsible Entrepreneur: Four Game Changing Archetypes for Founders, Leaders & Impact Investors, Top 100 Global Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business Behavior. TEDx X4.


Education, Regenerative Supply

by Carol Sanford

Forty years ago, I meet a cadre of business designers and developers who called what they did Regenerative Business Design. They had led a revolution with extraordinary success in Procter & Gamble, which gave the business world a state of the art approach in producing Return on Investment with people and assets. They delivered earnings for the consumer products giant that were the envy of all industries, in an industry whose margins were collapsed to below 5 percent. Their approach to innovation in offerings and business models was copied widely, but mostly without the same level of return, since they did not understand what was behind it. The cadre had already taken the samregene methodology into banks, the chemical, paper, and food industries, among others — each time with phenomenal success! They were the most studied success story of the 1960s though 1980s by Harvard and its famous management faculty: Michael Porter, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Michael Hammer and others. I picked up the mantel in the late 1970s and now have extensive case stories of my own all based on Regenerative Business Design. You can read a few of those in The Responsible Business (I tried to name the book The Regenerative Business, but Jossey Bass told me no one would have heard of such an idea). Sustainability was hot and I was pressured to give it a title to appeal to that market. In the meantime, many beside myself were seeing the incompleteness and shortfall of sustainability and searching for another idea. They knew it had to be more than “less bad,” which the reigning practices suggested (and still do)!

Many consultants, conference planners and authors adopted new terms seeking to show how they were moving “beyond sustainability” (that was my editor’s first idea for my book title). The dissatisfied folks tried out “resilience.” They revived “restoration.” Some tried “renewal,” which had been popular in the pre-sustainability days. And then a few started picking up the term “regeneration” and running with it. It was a lot sexier and less worn. Regenerative Economies. Regenerative Cities. Regenerative Business. But using the term and understanding its deep meaning is a lot like what happened at P&G. Borrowing an idea does not produce the outcomes and transformation as much as going deeply into the meaning of the idea. This is the beginning of a series of blogs to take us deeply into the history, the practice, and even the etymology and science of regeneration.

Definition of Regeneration from our School of Thought?

A paradigm and accompanying set of capabilities that consider any life form as singular, able to express and grow itself to contribute that essential singularity, over time, to nested wholes in which it is embedded, with reciprocity. It can only be regenerated if pursued as a value-adding process.

That is a lot of ideas, but it takes them all to be regenerative. Let’s look at each one. As a paradigm, regeneration is based on ideas and beliefs about how the world really works. Not how it should work but does. It differs from a worldview, which is how we ought to live, whereas a paradigm is what we count as knowledge. Regeneration has its basis in science of living systems. Particularly the science of life based on DNA and the ability of living entities to bring into existence a form that draws on but evolved based on context, a version of an entity. It is unique to each entity, and further, it evolves to fit the age and context of the entity, or part thereof, being regenerated. As a capability, it makes it clear that it does not prescribe a “doing,” but rather an ableness that has to be built to see the world through a different lens. It requires education and development to avoid falling into a familiar but incomplete way of seeing, much like we begin to see those close to us incompletely and even as fixed. The capabilities are not part of a traditional education, or even an advanced education, for the most part. Its singularity specifies that no two living entities are identical, particularly at the level of their physical and even being DNA. They each have an essence, a distinctive unrepeatable core that is never created again, except by regeneration from which it emanates. It lives and thrives or dies based on the nested wholes in which it lives. Biota lives in soil, embedded into vegetation, in a specific watershed and ecosystem. Nothing is isolated and much is determined by other aspects of the system. But each entity contributes to it working effectively or else it is extractive from the health of the whole. That is the reciprocity. Understanding the working of the nested whole allows humans to intervene beneficially and not extractively. Seeing any entity or endeavor as a value adding process means to see it alive and unfolding toward more of its Essence. More of who or what it is! It leads to releasing more potential — e.g. once you know the chemical sodium cyanide has an essence of binding (most used to extract gold), you can see it as able to ‘bind’ other toxic materials and extract them. This takes a currently used toxic chemical and puts it back to its core task. Healthy soil receives a seed, which it and the ecosystem nurture. It grows into a mature plant throwing off food and new offspring. See it at any point in time, or studying on that phase of its life, it’s cutting it apart into non-living parts. The same is true of the human body. It cannot be segmented to be understood, in spite of what your biology teacher told you when cutting up frogs and fetal pigs. That is seeing a living process and the value adding that takes place at each phase toward the contribution to the next and to the end product or next cycle.

In the next blog, I will look at seven phases of regeneration that are required before an endeavor or entity can claim it is working regeneratively. And later we will look at the six essential value adding processes that are necessary for promoting health, vitality, viability and evolution of any entity or endeavor.

Save the Date: First Annual Regenerative Business Summit. Oct. 18- 20, 2016. From Friday Evening on 18th to Noon on 20th.  Seattle WA. At The Foundry by Herban Feast.  I am looking for the link that was in recent newsletters to sign up for further info. You may know where it is. I will send when i find. Get Notified: 

Carol Sanford is an Educator & Thinking Partner with Game Changing Fortune 500 executives and Rock Star Entrepreneurs for 40 years. Author multi-award winning books The Responsible Business &The Responsible Entrepreneur: Four Game Changing Archetypes for Founders, Leaders & Impact Investors, Top 100 Global Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business Behavior. TEDx X4.

This article was reposted from Sustainable Brands with permission from the author. The original post can be read here.