What Is Regenerative Thinking In Leadership & Business?
It's easy to talk about regenerative business, agriculture, or leadership. It's less simple to define what lies at the heart of regenerative thinking. In this article, Nick Jankel attempts to define the essence of thinking regeneratively.
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- What Is Regenerative Thinking In Leadership & Business?
- Regenerative Technologies: Digital That Slows Down & Mends Things
- What Makes A Business Or Brand Regenerative? 15 Design Lenses For Regenerative Businesses
- 30+ Key Innovations In Regenerative Business & Operating Models
- Is Regenerative Leadership & Business The Next Stage Of Human Evolution?
- Five Essential Regenerative Leadership Capabilities
Why Regenerative Thinking Is Our Last Great Hope
Having spent a few decades studying, experimenting with, and practicing various approaches to systemic, social, and sustainable change—the kind that can create a future worthy of our noblest and most purposeful aspirations as leaders—I have become convinced that regenerative businesses and organization, lead by truly transformational leaders, are the best, only, and last available solution to resolve our “polycrisis” composed of climate change, pollution, addiction, inequality, identity conflicts and more.
With the exuberant aliveness of nature at its core, regenerativeness—and regenerative business and capitalism in particular—can become a lodestone for all those in sustainability, purpose-led leadership, impact investing, and both climate and social activism to come together around a shared vision for a future of our species.
“Nature is a totally efficient, self-regenerating system. If we discover the laws that govern this system and live synergistically within them, sustainability will follow, and humankind will be a success.”
R. Buckminster Fuller
The vision at the heart of a Regenerative Renaissance is juicy, rich, and alive in a way that most social impact and sustainability frames and references, born from the rational/analytical scientific mind alone, are not. This is because life, and the affirmation of it, is at the heart of regenerative thinking and the regenerative leadership it can birth.
But I did not always think like this.
Discovering Regenerative Thinking After A “Purpose Epiphany”
In 1999, inspired by the zeitgeist of the dot com revolution, I left my sexy and safe job as a creative strategist in a top London ad agency to start a digital start-up accelerator.
As a trained medical scientist, I assumed that science and technology—especially the (potentially) democratizing force of the internet—could liberate humankind from social repression and psychological depression.
Over time, as we morphed into a business model innovation consultancy, I spearheaded the development of a game-changing approach to innovation that can reliably deliver disruptive innovations in any sector or industry. It does this by combining rigorous data-driven thinking with rebellious collective imagination.
But even as we grew fast as a company, something was wrong. After a sustained period of burnout and overwhelm—and what I understood later was a kind of “purpose heartbreak”—I realized we were helping businesses leverage the latest technological advances to sell stuff to people they didn’t need, accelerating consumer addictions, inequality, waste, pollution, and the release of carbon in the process.
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After this utterly inconvenient and uncomfortable “purpose epiphany,” I left the business I had thrust six intense years of 24/7/52 entrepreneurship into—without the payout of millions we were offered to sell it to a competitor—I embarked on a lifelong journey to see how to leverage innovation ideas and ideals to reduce consumer addictions, inequality, waste, pollution, and carbon.
Purpose-Driven Innovation & Business
As a methodology, Breakthrough, disruptive, or transformational innovation is agnostic. It can create scalable solutions to the most complex and challenging problems humankind faces. It is perhaps the most robust set of thoughts, tools, and techniques our species has yet generated for creative problem-solving at any scale.
However, suppose it is used solely to drive speed, performance, productivity, and profit. In that case, as it still is in most commercial cases—wy accelerates the extractive machinery of advanced capitalism that is degenerating our ecosystems (and nervous systems) and undermining their ability to nurture life: our lives.
Karl Marx summed it up perspicaciously in a prescient paragraph in Das Kapital that acts as a foreshadowing of the ‘deep ecology’ movement:
“Capitalist production… disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth… all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is progress towards ruining the more long-lasting sources of that fertility.”
Unless business innovation, and the exponential growth it can unlock, are led with the right mindset, it creates dazzling technologies that make a few people fabulously wealthy and well-known. Still, it robs us all of the life-supporting systems we need to thrive now and in the future.
From Industrialization To Regeneration
Modernity—and modern consumerism in particular, which drives 70% of the US economy—is premised on democratizing and distributing ever more comfort and convenience. This scaling of (often cool) stuff has been unlocked by the once-in-a-planet release of cheap energy from burning ancient fossils, releasing stored carbon in the process.
Climate change, and ecological breakdown, are just some of the side effects of this capitalist ‘big bang.’
As we have collectively invented ingenious ways to convert nature into capital, we have grown seemingly without limits. Most assumed that waste (carbon, atmospheric pollutants, toxic by-products, etc.) and psychological disturbances like anxiety, addictions, and alienation were ‘external’ to the balance sheet of business and politics.
As they say, in Silicon Valley, we have moved fast and broken things. We are fragmented within and without. In doing so, we have disrupted—and not in a good way—the biological and ecological systems that allow life to thrive on Earth.
In just a couple of dozen decades, not even a blip in planetary time, we have changed our geological era from the Holocene (so-called as it was climactically stable enough to nurture flourishing human lives and cultures) to the Anthropocene.
We have the inglorious reputation of having a geological time period characterized by massive climate change, biodiversity loss, and systemic collapse, called after us, we anthropos.
We are only now really realizing the costs. The removal of messy, rich, and organic human nervous systems and ecological systems from the profit and loss statements for businesses and nations was a time-limited, once-in-a-species project that we have come to see can never be repeated.
It is clear that there are human and ecological limits to industrialized growth. ‘Externalities’ like pollution and depression are not external to the complex, adaptive system of society and the planet.
From Thrivability to Regenerativity
Back to my own realizations of these hard, cold facts. After working on myself and my own mindset for a sustained period, I founded a new company focused on purpose-led business and the transformational leadership required to unlock it.
I retooled my innovation method to deliver sustainable, yet still exponential, products, processes, and business models—and spent many (many!) years unfolding a Self-to-System™ leadership curriculum that ensures leaders can wield such powerful tools properly and purposefully.
The final module of the Self-to-System™ leadership curriculum is regenerative leadership.
At this time, I was using the frame of “thrivability” as the ultimate goal for purpose-led business and innovation that integrates the ideals of social, sustainable, and individual flourishing.
But the word was hard to explain and not sticky enough.
As I discovered more about regenerative thinking, itself blossoming and expanding like a riotous mycelial rhizome, I found total coherence around the ideas and ideals of ‘regenerative’ business, capitalism, and innovation.
But all of these aspirations rely first on us, as leaders, developing regenerative thinking. Our minds need regenerating before our crisis-hit world can be regenerated.
Unlocking Regenerative Thinking
With regenerative thinking, we can decouple creativity and innovation from carbon, pollution, addiction, and depression. We can continue to do what makes us so human and feel so alive—to invent, innovate, and expand human horizons—without further damaging the world, our societies, or our own hearts and minds.
This is crucial as there are few things that human biologies and psychologies like less than being constantly constrained and restricted from living joyous and comfortable lives by well-meaning environmentalists and sustainability activists who say we must reduce, reuse, and recycle.
With regenerative thinking, we may lose some modern comforts and conveniences, but, in their stead, we gain more connection, community, resilience, and adaptability. We have less (cool) stuff, but we gain more of what matters: meaning, well-being, laughing, loving, and belonging.
With regenerative thinking, we can have our cake (albeit one without industrially-extracted refined sugar) and eat it too. We can harness emerging technologies—like AI, nanotech, and gene editing—as well as disruptive innovation methods, business performance engineering and efficiencies, and economic power to restore broken ecology stems, heal societal wounds, and regenerate our crisis-hit world.
Why Regenerative Thinking Requires We Transform Ourselves
But, there is a ‘but.’ Regenerative thinking does not just spontaneously appear in modern minds that are busy producing, delivering, and earning. Regenerative thinking requires a whole-body transformation that occurs in the heart and gut as much as in the mind and our beliefs.
We must relinquish some of our most cherished assumptions about our own business and operating models—and the purpose of business and capitalism as a whole—in order to access the enlivening and inspiring excitement of regenerativeness.
Having given most of my adult life to the cause of co-creating a better economic and psychological system, I am convinced that our only chance to make it without the twin specters of death and degeneration stalking our world is to return to the source of all life: nature. In fact, nothing could be more natural than for us to develop regenerative thinking, for regeneration is intrinsic to nature. There can be no life without it.
To live and lead with regenerative thinking, we have to return to a rooted connection to the dirt, to our own limits, to natural cycles and rhythms. Life, with all its inherent expansions and contractions, love and loss, grief and gratitude, must become central to our being in the world, wherever we find ourselves in the complex, adaptive system of life and leadership on this planet.
To have regenerative thinking, we place pre-modern and indigenous ways of understanding nature—and our place in it—at the pulsing heart of our modern ideas, businesses, and technologies.
This restores in us our capabilities to adapt to the climate weirding and societal suffering that we have ourselves created and which will continue to unfold irreversibly, even if we cut carbon emissions to zero today.
We can only lead our teams, ourselves, and our organization to a Regenerative Renaissance if we start within. This is leading from the inside out.
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