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Regenerative Business: Diving Into the History, Etymology and Practice of 'Regeneration'

Image credit: The Vital Edge

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 same 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. 

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… [Read more about Carol Sanford]