There is an increasingly pressing need these days to cultivate organizational cultures that are able to adapt, learn and thrive amid increasingly complexity and transformative.

The acronym VUCA – Volatile Uncertain Complex & Ambiguous – is no longer something to speak about on stage at a conference, it’s the lived reality for any organization operating on the world-stage today.

Yet, how do we encourage our leaders, teams, organizational participants, to not merely ‘cope amid complexity’ but to actually ‘thrive amid complexity’?

This is the inquiry I have been exploring for a couple of decades now culminating in my regenerative leadership & organizational development – Regenerative L&OD – work, and latest book Leading by Nature, the Process of Becoming a Regenerative Leader.

What I’ve found through working with hundreds of leaders and their organizations, across all sectors and sizes, globally and locally is that, when we cultivate a DEE culture, then the organization and its people thrive amid complexity, unlocking potential and empowering teams to adapt and evolve in a fast-paced ever-changing business climate.  So, what is a DEE culture?

DEE = Developmental, Emergent, Evolutionary.  A Developmental-Emergent-Evolutionary (DEE) organization navigates for future-fitness in applying a living-systems mindset and therefore by definition is on the journey toward becoming a regenerative business.

In defining these three organizational qualities, I draw from many disciples arising out of the Quantum-Complexity breakthrough, such as systems thinking, non-linear dynamics, complex adaptive systems, living-systems, biomimicry, regenerative design, self-organizing systems, systemic coaching, quantum management, learning organizations, adult developmental psychology, and the related fields of conscious, adaptive, systemic, servant, spiritual, regenerative and quantum leadership. Let’s dive-in to each of these three key organizational qualities.

Developmental

The living-organization is constantly learning, developing, creating, renewing and growing amid an ever-changing environment. By ‘developmental growth’ we do not mean the maximization of scale, production and profit, we mean growth through psychological and relational development by becoming more integrated and authentic in our relationships – inter-personal, inter-team, inter-organization, inter-stakeholder. This means a deepening understanding of authenticity and purposefulness in ourselves as leaders and also across the organizational culture. Developmental organizations celebrate learning. Everyone in the organization has the opportunity to develop. This requires organizational and leadership capacities that create psychologically safe yet developmentally challenging environments for everyone to feel able to develop, learn and grow in ways true to themselves.

There is a healthy tension to be found in applying overarching governance and top-down framing within which the developmental culture lives-and-breaths, while allowing for bottom-up diversity, self-organization and personal freedom in how people attend to their own learning, adapt to local issues, and make informed decisions without too much top-down interference. We each take self-responsibility for finding our own way of integrating learning into the everyday rhythm of organizational life through the alchemy of self-awareness-in-action and systemic-awareness-in-action, enabling each of us to feel able to pause, listen, notice, reflect, feedback, share learnings, co-create, collaborate, and grow individually and collectively. 

Essentially, it’s about inviting people to treat everyday conversations as reciprocal learning explorations, where we intentionally create non-judgemental two-way learning, through how we listen, speak, ask open-questions, use non-violent communication methods, bridging language, generative dialogue techniques, and a frame of inquiry. We approach conversations with a participatory attitude of listening, exploring and learning together rather than a transactional attitude of identifying, solving and fixing before something deeper might emerge through the conversation.  Just as helpful are feedback methods like 360-degree feedback and feedback circles. Relationships are powerful ways for helping us see inner shadows and blind-spots as we often project ‘our stuff’ on to others, and so others can see learning-areas we may not be conscious of. As we become more authentic in our relationships, we help serve the living-organization and its creative potential, while manifesting life-affirming futures right here in the present moment. The developmental journey starts where we are at, in how we are showing-up for each conversation and meeting.

Key words characteristics for Developmental: Learning, reflection-in-action, feedback, coaching.

Emergence

Emergence is the way life unfolds. As the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said, its nature’s creative advance. All living-systems express themselves through the self-generating self-organizing property of emergence. Organizations are no different in their need to creatively adapt to an ever-changing context.

Emergence is propelled by tensions. Tensions create anxiety in us that stimulate and cajole us out of the status-quo and into emergence. Tensions arise between the space of divergence (diverse perspectives) and convergence (alignment around purpose and values). The sweet-spot between divergence and convergence creates emergence – not too much divergence (or chaos ensues) and not too much convergence (or rigidity forms). Living-systems thrive on this edge of chaos-order, and it’s this edge that enables adaptability and vitality across the living-organization. Dee Hock, former CEO and Chairman of VISA uses the term ‘chaordic’ to describe this alchemy of chaos (divergence) and order (convergence). He views this chaordic sweet-spot as the essential organizational ingredient for future-fitness; it’s helped VISA be consistently successful in a fast-evolving market-place. 

Tensions challenge us to grow yet if we are too stressed or overwhelmed by too much divergence, we burn-out or switch-off. This is one good reason why the living-organization’s developmental culture is so important because it provides psychologically safe yet demanding environments for everyone to embrace complexity and grow through tensions. The developmental culture creates the right space for tensions to be held, observed and allowed to unfold in ways that provide the right learning and growing environment for diverse people with different stress and anxiety tolerances. Reduce anxiety all together and you take out tensions, and the organization loses its life-force to adapt and evolve.

Divergence occurs through greater levels of self-management, personal freedom and responsibility. This allows people to adapt quickly and locally to tension and affect change right where it’s needed without the cumbersome need for chains of command. Yet contrary to popular opinion, self-management does not mean the absence of structure, work-flow processes or rules. This is where convergence comes in, stimulated through clarity of purpose and values, methods of communicating and collaborating, meeting practices, decision-making and advice-seeking processes, group dialogue practices, feedback and learning methods, and more.

As well as encouraging self-management, divergence is stimulated across the organization by encouraging a diversity of perspectives by working across boundaries, encouraging people to go to the edges of the system, and engage with a variety of departments, specialists and external stakeholder groups. For instance, visiting frontline operations, liaising with different customers segments, and engaging with diverse groups of people in society, ensuring diversity in age, creed, culture, gender and sexual orientation, all of this brings divergence that can unleash energy and insight. There are practices like stakeholder dialogue interviews, World Café and Future Search workshops that help with this. In particular I have found dialogue to be a powerful way of allowing tensions of difference to be worked through into emergence of creativity and innovation. The word ‘dialogue’ comes from the Greek dia meaning ‘through’ and logos meaning ‘relating through words’. In dialogue we relate to each other’s perspectives by empathically listening and sharing. Often I hold-space for dialogue circles whether in the boardroom or round the campfire in nature. Instead of asserting a view or attempting to persuade the other as in debate, one is opening into a space of listening, sharing and respecting another’s feelings and perspectives, holding-space for what wants to emerge between the differences of opinion. 

Our everyday conversations provide creative-crucibles for noticing and reflecting (self-awareness-in-action). Learning to sense-in to the interplay of interactions across the system (systemic-awareness-in-action) and noticing how we cope with our own and other’s anxiety in working through tensions (developmentally safe yet demanding environments) is the continuous work-in-practice each day, every moment. Mistakes are simply opportunities to reflect, learn and grow.

Key word characteristics for Emergence: Divergence-convergence, holding-tensions, conflict-transformation, self-management, dialogue

Evolutionary

The more we journey toward regeneration, the more we realise that the living-organization is continuously adjusting and adapting both within its self with its external environment through relationships. Everything is in continuous participation with everything else. This is quite a shift from feeling the need to compete, assert, control and survive. We begin to ask – how can I best help the organization become a truer version of itself?

Psychological energy that was consumed by the need to relentlessly ‘achieve’ in order to better one’s career, status, salary and personal ambition is now flowing into a deeper listening-in to what really serves the organization and its deeper purpose beyond hitting-the-numbers. What is the organization really here to do and be? The more we become attuned with the systemic dynamics within the organization, the more we sense what best serves the evolutionary potential of the organization and what is holding it back from serving its purpose.

For the organization, the shift in focus is from profits to purpose. For sure, profit is vital for any business, yet healthy profits flow from purpose not the other ways round.  I like the analogy of breathing: we need to breathe to live and yet breathing is not our reason for living. The organization needs to live by generate healthy profits, yet that’s not its reason for living. As Brian Robertson, founder of the consultancy Holacracy explains, we need to learn to listen and tune-in to the evolutionary purpose of the organization and ‘the key is about separating identity and figuring out “what is the organization’s calling?” Not “what do we want to use this organization to do, as property?” but rather “what is this living system’s creative potential?” That’s what we mean by evolutionary purpose: the deepest creative potential to bring something new to life, to contribute something energetically, valuably to the world…It’s that creative impulse or potential that we want to tune into, independent from what we want ourselves.’

As well as receptively listening to what wants to emerge while tuning-in to the underlying evolutionary purpose of the living-organization, we can also proactively scan the future horizon. In Leading by Nature, I explore a comprehensive toolkit that draws upon foresight, backcasting, scenario-planning, system mapping, stakeholder interviews and other tools to form a systematic approach to Systemic Innovation by identifying emerging trends that resonate with the evolutionary purpose of the organization.  This combined capacity of anticipating the future horizon a few years hence while being ever-receptive to the emerging future right before us helps ensure evolutionary fitness. 

Key word characteristics for Evolutionary:  Sensing-in, listening to the living-organization’s evolutionary purpose

Embracing the Tensions of Life

For Regenerative L&OD we embrace everyday life as a creative learning process, a constant dialogue of self-other-world. This is what DEE enables, a constant noticing, sensing, creating and evolving.

As the ancient Chinese Book of Changes, the I Ching, notes, ‘whatever is flexible and flowing will continue to evolve, whatever is rigid and blocked will wither and die’. 

In this urgent-age, we need patience and trust to forge symbiotic relationships where we evolve in life-affirming ways together. Yet with the emerging IoT we can also form loosely coupled affiliations across social media with diverse communities of interest. While such loose affiliations are easier to pick-up and drop, they still have an impact on the brand, influencing how people might perceive us. Actively sensing across the system with regular dialogue across diverse community groups helps discern which affiliations feel right and which do not. This is a moveable feast, and so regular system-scanning helps sense what’s emerging in this fast-paced, hyper-connective yet often distracting and confusing field of possibilities.

The proliferation of differing and often highly-polarized and politicized perspectives can lead to emotive exchanges. Rather than dialogue, people get ensnared on heated debate and us-versus-them polarity ensues. When, as leaders, we get distracted by social media or whipped-up into polarized right-versus-wrong feelings we undermine our capacity to sense-in to the system and make a wise holistic appraisal of the underlying tensions at play.  As leadership specialist Deborah Rowland notes, ‘This trend to exclude the other, to eliminate difference, or ban people whose views you don’t like is not conducive to open inquiry and deeper systemic perception. When we stand in judgement of something, or someone, it breeds wider division as we fail to see the system from which the target of our dislike originates.’

Throughout life, nature and human nature we find tensions.  By illuminating the inherent tension within each of the three DEE qualities, we can start to understand the nuances involved in truly embodying a regenerative culture in practice. Let’s take a look at three tensions inherent in DEE.

Developmental Tension –  One side of the tension is ‘psychological safety’. The other end of the tension is ‘developmentally challenging’.  We need both.  The point of the tension is not to allow one side to dominate and so collapse the tension, but rather to hold the tension open in order to work with the energetic-emergent-evolutionary force impelled through the tension.    If we focus on ‘psychological safety’ too much, without enough energy given to creating a ‘developmentally challenging’ environment, then we drift toward passive-aggressive collectivism. The culture feels stuck, where people may feel ‘safe’ by remaining in their comfort zone, rather than being catalysed to courageously go through the fear-zone into the learning and growth zones.

(Source – this image is adapted from one of the posters Vivobarefoot uses as part of its People & Culture immersions with Giles Hutchins & Vivo’s Head of Transformation, Ashley Pollock, amid the ancient woodlands of Springwood Farm – see a series of short videos here sharing aspects of Vivobarefoot’s approach to Regenerative L&OD, called ‘Living Barefoot’)

Emergent Tension – One side of the tension is ‘divergence’, the other side of the tension is ‘convergence’. As explored above, we need the sweet-spot of divergence and convergence. Think of them as two sides of the river, holding the tension so the river of emergence can flow, allowing for a future-fit agile living-organization to continually adapt and thrive amid an ever-changing landscape.  We need BOTH convergence (structure, roles/responsibilities, decision-making protocols, etc.) AND divergence (self-managing, relationality across silos, dialogue, creative explorations, out-of-the-box thinking).

Evolutionary Tension – One side of the tension is ‘self’, the other side of the tension is ‘system’.  We need a cultivate a deeper sense of individual purposefulness, deeper self-awareness, and soul-connection with who we truly are AND a deepening relationality, connectedness and coherency with the teams and organizational systems we work with on a day-to-day basis.  We learn to attune how our individual sense of purpose works with and, is aided by, the organization’s sense of purpose and vice versa.   This comes with an opening in our meaning-making from individualistic-self into independence-AND-interdependence: we cultivate our own self-agency and empowerment through our self-aware purposefulness, yet deeply sense the systemic nature of life’s interdependence.

(Source – this image is adapted from one of the posters Vivobarefoot uses as part of its People & Culture immersions with Giles Hutchins & Vivo’s Head of Transformation, Ashley Pollock, amid the ancient woodlands of Springwood Farm – see a series of short videos here sharing aspects of Vivobarefoot’s approach to Regenerative L&OD, called ‘Living Barefoot’)

So, we can summarise the Regenerative DEE Culture as one that intentionally and actively inquires into the tensions of:

Psychologically safe AND developmentally challenging

Divergence AND convergence

Self-awareness AND systemic-awareness

Independence AND interdependence

Practical business examples are exponentially growing in number by the day. I have the real pleasure and honour to be directly assisting a wide range of different organizations across the globe on the regenerative journey – by example: 

The B Corp consultancy Greenheart – who explain ‘Sustainability is no longer enough. For a meaningful transition to a future-fit economy we need more.’   With their expertise in B Corp, impact management & planetary health they help clients build businesses that are regenerative by nature. You can check out their work here.

The award-winning minimalist footwear and wellbeing brand Vivobarefoot – who say ‘Why is Vivobarefoot becoming a regenerative business? Because the status quo needs shaking up with actions that urgently revise ingrained, habitual approaches to commerce.’ You can check out their work here.

The insurance and professional service provider AXA Climate – who affirm ‘Reducing our negative impact on the planet is not enough. Our collective challenge is to switch from extractive companies to regenerative companies. To that end, we are transforming our business models, our organizations and our collective missions. And this transformation movement drives us.’ You can check out their work here.

The consultancy, footwear producer and insurance company (along with the investment bank, food retailer, design agency, fashion brand, manufacturer, creative agency, wellbeing provider, food charity, global corporation, local housing association, and many other diverse organizations I directly engage with on the regenerative journey) all share in common an authentic deeply-felt sense of the challenges and opportunities in unfolding toward becoming regenerative – to work the way nature works – not just in some theoretical way, but through practical methods enabling future-fitness, agility, entrepreneurialism and synergistic value throughout the business ecosystem, society and ecology.

For more detailed case studies, tools and processes see my latest book Leading by Nature, The Process of Becoming a Regenerative Leader.

Leading by Nature is THE handbook for conscious leadership. A must-read for every business leader who genuinely cares about the future of humanity.’   Jayn Sterland, CEO of Weleda UK

Giles Hutchins is a pioneering practitioner and senior adviser at the fore-front of the [r]evolution in organizational and leadership consciousness and developmental approaches that enhance personal, organizational and systemic agility and vitality. He is author and co-author of several leadership and organizational development papers, and the books The Nature of Business (2012), The Illusion of Separation (2014), Future Fit (2016), Regenerative Leadership (2019) and Leading by Nature (2022). Chair of The Future Fit Leadership Academy and Founder of Leadership Immersions, co-founder of Biomimicry for Creative Innovation and Regenerators, he runs a 60 acre leadership centre at Springwood Farm, an area of outstanding natural beauty near London, UK.  Previously held corporate roles – Head of Transformation Practice for KPMG, Global Director and Head of Sustainability for Atos (150,000 employees, over 40 countries). He provides coaching at individual and organizational levels for those seeking to transform their personal and/or work lives. Giles is a keynote speaker on the future of business and regenerative leadership. He is also a Reiki Master, a certified advanced coach, trained in advanced Integral Solonics leadership development, certified in Adult Developmental Harthill LDF, and other modalities.

A truly exceptional and timely book that redefines the locus of power in relationship to leadership; leadership that seeks harmony and alignment with nature.    Giles reminds us to bring awareness/presence to everything that unfolds.    This book is the teacher we all need.” Sue Cheshire, Founder and former CEO of The Global Leaders Academy

Leading by Nature gets to the heart of the shift in leadership that is now required to create a sustainable future for humanity.”  – Richard Barrett, Director of the Barrett Academy for the Advancement of Human Values.

“This book is a must-read for those involved in the future of business.  I can’t recommend Giles’s work highly enough.” – Norman Wolfe, CEO of Quantum Leaders and author of The Living Organization: Transforming Business To Create Extraordinary Results

“Giles Hutchins has for over a decade led the way with his championship of learning through nature. His new book is a really important evolution of these ideas emerging into a philosophy of systems thinking/being – it’s bang on the money, a really important book that will inspire all those whose role it is to champion resilience and adaptability, ethical commercial development, wellbeing in the workplace and the nurturing of a moral compass.” – Sir Tim Smit, KBE, Founder of The Eden Project

If you are interested in engaging in an embodied experience of regenerative leadership in practice, this special two-day deep-dive on regenerative leadership may be of interest to you, on 23-24th May 2024, amid ancient woodlands near London, with easy access from airports and international rail links, see here for more information: https://thenatureofbusiness.org/2024/02/21/leading-by-nature-a-deep-dive-into-embodying-next-stage-regenerative-leadership-consciousness/

Feel free to join the Leadership Immersions LinkedIn Group here https://www.linkedin.com/groups/13767578/