Regenerative Thinking for Social Change

April 16, 2015 3 Comments

“Look well to the growing edge. All around us worlds are dying and new worlds are being born; all around us life is dying and life is being born. The fruit ripens on the tree, the roots are silently at work in the darkness of the earth against a time when there shall be new leaves, fresh blossoms, green fruit. Such is the growing edge.”

Howard Thurman

Spiral Fern

Spring seems to have finally arrived in New England after a long and very hard winter. For me this brings with it gratitude and utter amazement at the regenerative power of life. To have seen the mounds of snow and ice only a month ago, and along with it many frozen hearts and souls, I find it amazing as I watch the colors and sounds and spirit of this new season come forward with what almost feels like reckless abandon. Such is life and its regenerative nature, the ever present “growing edge.”

This is cause for me to reground in the teachings of mentors I’ve had who have introduced me to the power of “regenerative thinking,” an approach that aligns with a living systems view of life. Regenerative thinking can stand in contrast to mechanical approaches, which assume a rather linear, predictable and controlled environment. The very notion of regeneration is an invitation to examine some of the underlying assumptions of our actions, to lift up for closer inspection how our thinking may or may not be in alignment with what we are really after, what we are trying to bring to life, in the realm of social change.

With a bow of appreciation to Carol Sanford, Pamela Mang and Joel Glanzberg, here are a few offerings in the form of questions that may help to locate where our minds are and if this is where we want them to be:

  • Are we looking at parts and pieces OR are we working from wholes? In mechanical systems you can swap and replace parts/pieces in more generic ways. Not so much in living systems. Wholes are much more than the sum of their component elements and demand an understanding of and respect for their unique essence.
  • Are we trying to arrest disorder OR are we trying to enliven/support evolution? Mechanical systems tend to run down over time. Living systems evolve as long as energy continues to cycle through them. Only trying to stop entropy or perceived chaos, can be a fruitless and damaging approach with living systems when we close them to inputs and flows.
  • Are we leading with generics and abstraction OR are we trying to ground in what is? Living systems are complex and unique, and not prone to responding to “best practices” or prescriptions. Abstraction quickly leads to an inability to intelligently respond to and work with living systems.
  • Are we trying to eliminate or minimize difference OR are we embracing it? Difference and diversity is the life blood of living systems, facilitating exchange and adaptation. Mechanical systems prefer predictability and therefore strive to reduce difference. Reducing difference and diversity in living systems robs them of their vitality. Difference is often seen as unhelpful restraint in mechanical systems. In living systems, this is what leads to emergence.
  • Are we trying to control the system OR are we trying to support self-organization?  Command and control is the essence of mechanical systems, an effort to fight entropy and keep things humming along predictably. Living systems thrive on the impulse to self-organize. This requires a different kind of “change management,” one that supports people and groups to “do what they do best and connect to the rest.”

Welcoming your thinking on any of this and how it connects to what you are trying to make happen . . .

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