It is common knowledge by now that executives and employees alike are driven not by carrots and sticks, but by a sense of purpose.  People want their work to be meaningful to someone, to change people's lives. We feel much better about getting up in the morning and going to work if our company is a vehicle to make that change.

In her latest book, "The Regenerative Business," Carol Sanford describes how companies can develop the capacity and imagination of purposeful employees. In order to become fertile for the kind of disruptive innovation that will make it wildly successful, a business must reposition itself as a kind of living human development lab, using creativity and teamwork to regenerate the systems within which it operates. "A business that adopts a systems regeneration approach moves the boundary of what it is taking into account," writes Sanford. "It begins to take responsibility not only for its own internal systems (such as accounting or production...) and the systems in which it is immediately embedded (such as markets or distribution networks), but also for the larger social and natural systems that we depend on collectively. By extending its purview in this way, a business is able to become much more strategically powerful within its markets and its industry, and in society at large."

Sanford walks her readers through a phased process, explaining that there is no "recipe" to be copied and pasted onto a business strategy. She maintains that environmental and social programs tend  to be add-ons rather than the deep repositioning of a company through a redesign of its working relationships and organizational structure.

The process begins with introducing a "conscious shock," meaning radically questioning the habits of the business. A core team is assembled and begins to grapple with questions about the company's roots and essence and what these suggest about its unique offerings, as well as its role in transforming society and the planet.

The company also reimagines its hierarchical roles, giving everyone a voice and new ways of working together.  "In company after company that I have worked with," writes Sanford, "the effect of awakening creative intelligence in the workforce is like an earthquake." This shifts the orientation of workers from a machine-like view of themselves as cogs delivering a specific skill within a greater whole, to dynamic strategic thinkers. Phase two in a nested series of initiatives (not necessarily entirely chronological) is to evolve a courageous culture; phase three is to evolve people and thinking processes; phase four is to evolve business work systems; and phase five is to evolve work structures. The development of enabled, thinking, and accountable workers, Sanford points out, brings the added benefit of developing intelligent and engaged members of a functioning democracy.

Despite the evolution in business practices over decades, Sanford points out that we are still entrenched  in old ways of thinking. The recently introduced "behavioral paradigm," based on behavioral psychology, humanizes the worker by examining conditioning in people's behavior, but it is still a paradigm where an outside authority is dictating direction. Lately, we have a "human potential paradigm," where organizations do try to train and grow their people. But even this falls short, because the entire organization needs to change in parallel. "Businesses, if they truly want to unleash human potential, have to commit themselves to developing it," writes Sanford, "not just utilizing it."

When I met Sanford, I was struck in particular by her approach to envisioning the future. Rather than deciding what society, or a business, should look like in advance, for her it is all about the journey. We are constantly evolving, and as humans we aren't afraid of change as long as we are in the driver's seat, making the evolution happen. We are, indeed, designed as creatures of change.

Published on: Oct 26, 2017