Global Marketing
Management Consultants
Global Marketing
Management Consultants
Global Marketing
Management Consultants

Regenerative design of business and organisations with living systems principles

Regenerative business design

This post is by Dr Hugh Jellie, founder of Āta Regenerative and a partner of Savory Institute and nRhythm. He helps businesses, organisations, communities and individuals change to deliver improved environmental, social, financial and health outcomes.

We’ve probably all been there, sales falling, a product not performing, business just not being where you want it to be. This is obviously exacerbated by our current global business environment with business looking for quick solutions in desperate times. 

Our go-to tends to be to call for a new strategic plan. Experts are sought, consulted, contracted and away they go. They drag the ‘key people’ away for a few days of magic and voila; come back with a new plan which is going to turn the company around within a short time. 

The reality is that this is often not the answer. Yet, the process is often repeated. Great if you are in the strategic planning business, but not good if you are part of the organisation and on the receiving end of this constant restructure and re-organisation. 

Why do we expect that people from outside the business or organisation with little feel for the people, business or the culture are able to ’fix’ things? 

Moving from machine design to living system design

When we manage our organisations as if they are machines it’s bound to end badly. Yet this whole process of conventional strategic planning is based on a mechanistic paradigm.  We conduct as if we understand all the inputs and steps required to predict an outcome in defined time (usually 3- 5 years). But we rarely ever get the outcomes predicted and it often becomes more about protecting the plan than adapting to what is happening in the surrounding environment. 

The strategy is not actually designed to fix what is broken but to restructure work and existing resource more like shifting the chairs around on the deck of the Titanic! To achieve sustained healthy outcomes we need to first fix what is unhealthy. 

People are the foundation of businesses and organisations which means they are based on living systems. The mechanistic approach of conventional strategic planning reinforces that businesses and organisations operate as machines, but this design process is not only ineffective but degenerative when applied to complex living systems. 

We know we can drive productivity in agriculture by applying large quantities of artificial synthetic chemicals, but we are also seeing the dire consequences this has on the health of the environment. Similarly, in our businesses and organisations we can drive productivity, but this is often at the expense of culture with impact on people.   

We just have to look to nature to demonstrate that living systems function in a way that machines can’t. In nature, things function effectively without any external inputs or daily maintenance. When we study any living system, we recognise a level of function, complexity, diversity, and resilience so far completely unmatched by any human created machine. 

What is life?

If we are going to use living systems as the basis of the redesign of our organisations, we need to better understand what that means and answer the question “what is life?” 

The first study of biology dates back to 1799, but even after all this time there is still no strong scientific consensus on the definition of life. Most attempts have turned out to be imprecise and inexact and it is easy to find exceptions to the various criteria which have been established to separate life from non-life in all its contexts. 

However, there is some recent work where two scientists, Maturana and Varela, from Santiago, Chile took a systems based holistic approach to answer the question, ‘what is life?’ 

They attempted to understand the whole living system as a total entity by examining a simple E coli bacterium. Their ground breaking work revealed that when viewed as a whole system, the complex set of all the activities and pathways within the cell interact and regulate one another in a deeply interdependent, non-linear set of relationships. The culmination of all of these interactions allows the cell to self-repair and self-maintain all of the functions it needs to continue to live with no external inputs. 

Maturana and Varela called this process Autopoiesis (from the Greek meaning Self Making) and recognised that it is in fact what separates living systems from non-living systems. From this discovery, Maturana and Varela offered this definition of life: 

Life is an organised system capable of maintaining itself within a boundary of its own making.” 

This definition provides the first precise, scientific definition of life that successfully separates living from non-living systems in all contexts and has relevance to our businesses and organisations.

Regenerative living systems

‘Regenerative’ is coming into common use and in fact is becoming a bit of a buzz word. It is being applied from agriculture to healing the wounds of structural racism in regenerative community development. While all of these usages are valid and important, Maturana and Varela’s work demonstrates that regeneration is more than a ‘buzz’ word or metaphor. Self-maintenance and regeneration (Autopoiesis) is synonymous with living and in fact defines regenerative. Only living systems have the ability to be regenerative. 

Regenerative ability is not centrally located or controlled by any one part of the E-Coli but dependent on all of the interconnected and interdependent energetic pathways in the cell.  While each pathway can be recreated on its own in a lab, it can only self-maintain and regenerate when it is interdependently operating with all of the other pathways within the cell wall. Life is a property that “emerges” from all of the interdependent relationships in the cell and functions in a decentralised fashion in all parts of the living system.

It is this interconnectedness that sustains life in living systems and creates the conditions for regeneration. For example, if we consider our bodies – we are made up of multiple parts or organs interconnected in multiple ways; blood, lymph, nerves etc. We can sustain the individual parts with machines and technology to a point, but this is energy/input intensive. 

Living systems graphic 1

We can apply this to other living systems we work with. Organisations depend on communication to perform and thrive, a breakdown of this communication creates silos and degeneration of the health of the organisation. 

Living systems graphic 2

If we can define life, what is death? While this seems obvious, death or lack of life is the loss of the ability to self-regenerate.  More specifically death involves the breakdown of the interconnected relationships within the cell wall or boundary. 

Maturana and Varela also examined an individual organism’s relationship with it’s environment and recognised that the cell constantly exchanges materials and information across the cell wall (the boundary of its own making) and both responds to changes in its environment and also actively affects its environment. 

Living systems are not just passive actors dependent on the environment but also actively create and affect conditions in the environment. 

Simple, complicated and complex

There are 3 types of problems and those relating to living systems are complex problems. A reductionist approach works well for the resolution of simple or complicated problems but can not solve complex problems. 

Simple, complicated and complex

Designing with regenerative design principles

When we build and operate our organisations like machines we begin with blueprints and create operational instructions and manuals, industry standards and best practices. This works in complicated situations but not complex. 

If we fully embrace each organisation as a unique living system then we need a new design approach. We need to observe and learn from the patterns, structures, and processes of living systems and design and manage with these learnings in mind.

The result is not a set of blueprints or best practices to follow but a series of Regenerative Design Principles based on the foundation of key insights from living systems science to frame our questions, guide our design, decisions, and day to day management or our organisations. These principles are themselves interdependent and inform one another and therefore are not presented in any specific order.

Holism: The whole is more than the sum its parts – in living systems, regeneration and life can only be understood when viewing the system as a whole. We design and operate in a way that values the entirety of the system and creates conditions for abundance, resilience, and impact to emerge from the interdependent contributions of all team members, clients and partners.

Interdependence: Inherent value of all relationships – in living systems regeneration, resilience and abundance emerge from the diversity of interdependent relationships of all kinds in the system. We design and operate our organisations in a way that recognises the complexity of our deep interdependence with our clients, suppliers, partners and even competitors.

Uniqueness: Original and the possibility of individual genius – each living system and every member of the system is unique and expresses their individual genius. We design and operate our organisations in a way that fosters the expression of the genius of all members within the greater context and purpose of the organisation.

Evolutionary: Maintains a dynamic balance with ever-changing environmental conditions – life creates the conditions for life. We design and operate in a way that both responds to and also creates change in our organisational environment to maintain a dynamic balance with constant change.

Nodal: Decentralised and distributed – living systems are not centrally controlled and organised and that resources and functions are distributed throughout the entire system. We design and operate our organisations in a way that does not rely on centralised command and control structures and allows all members of the system to be resourced, empowered decision makers.

Developmental: Growth and health of all members – all members of living systems are in constant growth and development and the health of a system is dependent on the health of its members. We design and operate our organisations in a way that creates the conditions for all members to grow and thrive in conjunction with the health of the system.

A machine or organisation?

If we replace the word “Machine” with “Organisation” in a common definition for machine the result is:

An [organisation] is a structure that uses power to apply forces and control movement to perform an intended action.”

If we do the same with the model of living systems summarised in this article the result is:

“An [organisation] is a holistic system capable of self-regeneration and self maintenance that emerges from each of the unique, developing members of the organisation and their interdependent relationships.

Which of these organisations would you prefer to spend 40-60 hours a week working within? We know in our hearts and minds that we are living beings, and long to not be treated as expendable parts in a machine. 

The mechanistic paradigm which dominates in management is causing major degenerative impacts on our businesses and organisations.  This is showing up as lack of engagement of employees, low morale, high staff turn over and reduced company performance. Actively disengaged employees cost NZ $7.5b in lost productivity per year! 

We need to shift from degenerative machine based best practices and operational instructions to Regenerative Design Principles to realise the unrealised potential in our people and the impact that can have on our businesses and organisations. 

Changes in marketing strategy require new, more effective structures for delivering that strategy. Find out how TrinityP3 can help here

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    Dr Hugh Jellie is the founder of Āta Regenerative and a partner of Savory Institute and nRhythm. He spent 17 years researching farming systems and regenerative agriculture around the world. He now helps businesses, organisations, communities and individuals change to deliver improved environmental, social, financial and health outcomes.

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