Businesses are no longer solely focused on profit and growth. In today's society, consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the negative impacts businesses can have on society and the environment, creating a demand for companies to not only minimize harm but also contribute to positive change. So although sustainability has been the focus for many years, companies are now taking a more ambitious approach: regeneration.
However, many businesses adopt regeneration superficially, without fully embracing its true potential. This is a missed opportunity, as regeneration involves a radical departure from business as usual and unlocks a company's true potential, transforming it into something previously unimaginable. It's not just about solving sustainability problems but rather about achieving a quantum shift towards a whole new state of being.
In this article, we will delve into the philosophical foundation of regeneration and explore its transformative potential. Let’s make sure that businesses embrace regeneration in its deepest sense, enabling them to realize their true evolutionary purpose.
The Paradigm Shift: From Ego to Eco
Joseph Campbell once said, "If you want to change the world, change the metaphor." This idea applies perfectly to regeneration as well: viewing it as a shift in metaphor. Our perceptions of the world are shaped by the narratives we use to understand it. In order to fully embrace regeneration, we need to shift the underlying paradigms that shape our reality. This is no small feat, as it requires a fundamental transformation of our worldview.
So, what worldview characterizes the business mentality that we are moving away from? It may be best illustrated by Gordon Gekko's famous quote from the movie Wall Street: "greed is good," which encapsulates the essence of the old paradigm. For decades, economic theories have depicted individuals as "homo economicus"—rational actors motivated by self-interest. This perspective essentially claims that people are inherently selfish and in constant competition with one another.
One manifestation of this perspective is the shareholder value culture prevalent among businesses and investors, which advocates for companies to prioritize shareholders' interests above those of other stakeholders. At its core, this view of economic agents embodies a mechanistic perspective of the world, treating reality as a collection of fragments that interact logically through linear cause-and-effect relationships.
However, over the past century, this view of reality has begun to shift. In Western culture, this shift began with the discovery of quantum mechanics in, challenging our reductionist view of the world and opening the door to new perspectives. Following this revelation, studies in complexity and systems thinking emerged, focusing on the interconnectedness of all things. David Bohm, a major contributor to quantum theory, said: "The notion that all these fragments are separately existent is evidently an illusion, and this illusion cannot do other than lead to endless conflict and confusion.”
This illusion also applies to business and our relationship with nature. As we reach the limits of the ecological systems we are part of, the illusion of separation can no longer be upheld. We are intrinsically interwoven with all living systems. Businesses are not mechanical machines that function solely on a rational and functional basis, they are living systems that are in reciprocal exchange with the larger fabric of life.
This shift in perspective invites us to reevaluate our roles and responsibilities as individuals, organizations, and societies, transitioning from an anthropocentric worldview to one that embraces our humble place within the web of life.
For businesses, this implies redefining value creation by focusing on giving back and being of service, operating with a bigger, more all-encompassing view of their impact on the world. The objective of a regenerative business becomes generating positive value not only for shareholders but also for the environment, local communities, and other stakeholders.
When compared to the dominant thinking of our contemporary culture, this shift can be likened to a Copernican revolution. Much like the realization centuries ago that we are not at the center of the universe, we are now beginning to grasp that we are not at the center of life on Earth. This transformation represents a shift from ego-centricity to eco-centricity, as we start to recognize our involvement in the living processes around us, moving towards a reciprocal relationship where giving is just as important as taking. In terms of the metaphor mentioned earlier, we are shifting from viewing reality as a machine to seeing it as a living system.
It is worth noting that this "new" paradigm is not entirely new. In many respects, it signifies a revival of an ancient narrative. Charles Eisenstein refers to it as a "new old story." Although it is considered "new" within the context of our modern world, this perspective is largely aligned with ancient Eastern wisdom and indigenous worldviews. In the Western world, Romanticism also embodied many aspects of the emerging holistic worldview. Nevertheless, it represents a significant departure from the dominant practices in today's Western world.
Unlocking Essence-Based Potential
During the 1990s, the business world started embracing the shift from mechanistic to holistic thinking, largely due to the ideas of systems thinkers like Peter Senge and Arie de Geus. Senge's famous book, "The Fifth Discipline," stressed the essential role of systems thinking in contemporary businesses and a few years later, Arie de Geus's 1997 work, "The Living Company," advocated for viewing organizations as living entities with the ability to learn, adapt, and evolve.
Both thinkers emphasize the importance of systems thinking as a means to increase a company's competitiveness. The adoption of systems thinking is not driven by a moral obligation to do good, but rather by the potential to foster creativity, adaptability, and employee engagement within an organization. Therewith systems thinking is not a moral imperative; it is an approach that can unlock the true potential of both companies and the individuals working within them.
The same goes for the regenerative paradigm, which I consider a further evolution of systems thinking from the 1990s. While regenerative thinking emphasizes transcending sustainability, serving society, and benefiting the environment, its core focus is not on doing good. Instead, it is about developing true potential. ‘Doing good’ is a logical result of that. It's crucial to emphasize this distinction, as regeneration is not rooted in idealism, which is a form of anthropocentrism. Rather, regeneration is about working in harmony with the living dynamics of reality.
Every living system possesses self-organizing capacities, which is the defining property of such systems. This self-organization endows living systems, including companies, with emergent properties that bring the system to life. This is where the whole becomes more than the sum of the parts. We recognize this wholeness through the essence identity of organizations.
Exceptional businesses often thrive due to their robust culture, adaptability, innovation, and a brand that clearly resonates with consumers. These attributes are vital to a business's competitive edge but are intangible and challenging to manage. They emerge as indirect results of a healthy, integrated system. From a mechanical perspective, success is a direct outcome of an action, whereas from a regenerative standpoint, it is an indirect result.
For instance, I began my career at P&G, a company renowned for its powerful brands and innovative power. I remember the company's strong performance culture and its relentless drive to create value for customers. P&G consistently emphasized its purpose and commitment to creating value for society at large. Culture is an elusive concept and very hard to cultivate, yet it was the driving force behind P&Gs success.
In this regard, P&G had a very strong essence identity. Although it cannot be captured, everyone working there could recognize it. In the realm of regenerative thinking, essence identity refers to the core identity or inherent nature of a system, be it an individual, organization, or ecosystem. The essence of a system plays a critical role in its regenerative capacity, as it informs us about the unique role an organization can play in its environment and how it evolves over time.
When individuals or organizations connect with their essence identity, they start acting in alignment with their true nature, no longer requiring external instructions. As such, essence serves as the foundation from which true potential is derived. Potential evolves from the inside out, not from best practices or copying others, but from connecting with who we really are. This holds true for people and is no different for organizations.
Serving the Greater Whole
But fulfilling potential is not isolated. It is always in relationship to the larger context that we are part of. Regeneration is about fulfilling our deepest mission and serving those greater systems we are a part of. These systems inform and shape the roles businesses are called upon to play in the world. For example, a business may play a vital role in the industry of which where it is based. Famous examples include brands like Tony's Chocolonely and Ben & Jerry's, both founded with a social mission to combat social injustice and source their products ethically.
The central question becomes, "How can we serve the system we are a part of, enabling it to reach its full potential and contribute to the larger world?" Regeneration, therefore, focuses on actualizing the greater potential of the systems we are a part of. It is an act of service.
Today, the concept of purpose is widely adopted within the business world. But while a purpose-driven approach aims to do good, it may not always be deeply rooted in the underlying system dynamics where potential resides. In a regenerative business, purpose is not an add-on or a message requiring constant repetition; instead, it is intrinsically woven into the business's fabric, as it serves the larger systems of which it is a part. In this context, purpose and the realization of potential become one and the same.
Businesses that regenerate respond to the deep yearning for meaning that today's workforce, especially younger generations, is seeking. There is increasing discomfort with the extractive ways of operating in mainstream businesses, and regenerative businesses can address these needs for employees.
Serving something larger than oneself leads to the regeneration of employees as well, in contrast to relying on external motivators like financial incentives bonuses. When employees' intrinsic motivations and personal missions do not align with a business's overarching goals, they may simply comply rather than fully engage. However, when all team members are wholeheartedly engaged and dedicated to the company's mission, the real magic happens. This is when organizations begin to transform into a true force.
Fostering Adaptation, Innovation, and Conscious Growth
Stephen Covey once drew a distinction between efficiency and effectiveness, stating that efficiency is about climbing the ladder quickly, while effectiveness is about positioning the ladder correctly. With this in mind, regeneration focuses on effectiveness rather than efficiency. In contrast to the many companies that have become experts in efficiently climbing the wrong ladder, regeneration is about existential fulfillment—pursuing what you are meant to do.
As the rate of acceleration increases, businesses acknowledge that adaptation and innovation are critical for future success. Revisiting Covey's notion, a rapidly evolving world demands that businesses reposition their ladders more frequently. The only way to do that in a consequent consistent way is to be guided by a strong sense of authentic essence and the role that should be played in relation to the larger systems we are part of.
Charles Darwin's notion that it is not the smartest or strongest species that survive, but the most adaptable ones, applies here as well. Regeneration is fundamentally developmental. It is about evolving into the higher potential envisioned for an organization. And this process is not limited to the boardroom; it applies to all levels of an organization, including front-line teams.
The ability to evolve into something new isn’t about static frameworks or predefined action steps; it is a way of perceiving the world. It's about acknowledging ourselves as servants of life and humbly participating, not controlling or extracting, but contributing to it.
While this perspective may appear idealistic or naïve from a mechanical, zero-sum worldview, it makes perfect sense within a living systems framework. Thriving businesses require a thriving context, and it is the reciprocity in our relationships that catalyzes the growth and evolution of both ourselves and the systems we are part of.
Embracing the Journey Towards Regenerative Business
I’m positive about the changes that are happening in the world today. For instance, I recently watched Peter Bakker, former CEO of Dutch mail giant TNT and current CEO of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, speak on Dutch television (Buitenhof) about the necessity of reforming capitalism to create a system that serves the environment and society as well. In Europe, at least, advocating for capitalism to transform into a more sustainable model that incorporates both nature and society is becoming increasingly common.
However, we must also be honest about the long road ahead. While writing this article, I struggled to identify examples of truly regenerative companies. In the strictest sense, I cannot think of a purely regenerative business, and the examples that do exist tend to be regenerative only partially. The challenge to be regenerative is often not due to a lack of willingness, but rather the constraints imposed by our current economic system, which often incentivizes non-regenerative practices.
Thus, I believe our efforts should focus on cultivating a shift in perception. We need to transition from a mechanistic view of business and the economy towards a living systems perspective. We must evolve from seeing ourselves as ‘homo economicus’ to embracing the concept of ‘homo reciprocans’ - human being whose main motivation is to reciprocate or give back to others in exchange for what they have received. By doing so, we can work towards regenerating the parts of the system that are within our reach, gradually moving towards a fully regenerative system.
Buckminster Fuller's statement, "You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete," captures the essence of our journey towards regenerative business. This path will undoubtedly present challenges, and some critics may argue that our efforts aren't sufficient. In response to this, it is crucial to maintain an open-minded approach and concentrate on the potential we strive to unleash, rather than dwelling on our shortcomings. Ultimately, regeneration is not about dogmatic idealism; it is about our journey to actualize our fullest potential.