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Regenerative Leadership in practice: building the framework

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Theories of Regenerative Leadership 

A lot has now been written about the theories of regenerative leadership; what it means, the mindset shift it requires and how it might look. What’s still emerging, however, is the playbook. In contrast to the ubiquitous mainstream management handbook there is no set of operating instructions for a regenerative business because so few companies are doing it (yet). Of course, there are some fantastic pointers and case studies in books like ‘Regenerative Leadership’ by Giles Hutchins and Laura Storm , as well as ‘Reinventing Organisations’ by Frederic Laloux and Brian Robertson’s ‘Holacracy’, but there is no clear template for what it looks like in practice.

I could tell you inside out what a so-called ‘best practice’ disciplinary or grievance process looks like; I’ve done performance management and have seen it all tested in employment tribunals. I didn’t like it then, and I don’t like it now.

Armed with plenty of formative experiences of the dominant management paradigm, I set out to ensure Greenheart Consulting is a business that operates very differently. Naturally, it wasn’t long before I found myself faced with the question: “OK Tom, so how do we actually do this?” I was completely flummoxed.

It’s a totally understandable question of course – regenerative leadership is not intended to be a free-for-all; it cannot simply become a chaotic vacuum where everyone gets by with nothing but a prayer and a purpose to guide them. It needs roots and strong foundations like any organisation; it needs structure and policies – or frameworks and guidance as we prefer to call them. And, yes, occasionally it needs a return to mechanistic thinking to keep a business working within a linear economy on track.

So how did I approach this flummoxing question? In the same way as all the questions that have vexed us since we set out on this journey; together.

The Regenerative Leadership Operating System 

Even though Greenheart is a predominantly remote organisation, we are unfaltering in our commitment to togetherness and always gather in person at least once a season to collaborate on the pressing issues of the time. And so we started unpacking the ‘what do we do’ question during our Spring gathering last year.

The first step we agreed on was defining the parameters and principles for our operating framework. It looked a bit like this:

regenerative leadership preparing the soil

Looking back, this was such a critical step and one to which we still refer. We could draw the principles from the theory, but refine them based on what really resonated with us as humans (a critical litmus test for all things regenerative).

With these guardrails in place we could start to list out the functions/activities for which we needed to develop a regenerative response. Rather than just list everything we knew about traditional business, we chose to focus on the most urgent perceived needs which, at the time, were around decision making, recruitment and personal development.

In what I maintain was one of the most powerful bits of consultancy Greenheart has ever done, we then got in a room, listed out these needs and started to brainstorm what a regenerative solution might look like, drawing connections between the various elements to ensure we were designing in consistency from the outset. After three exhausting hours we had created the ‘bowl of spaghetti’ that was to become our ‘Regenerative Operating System’ (ROS)

Yes, horrendous isn’t it?

Nurturing our ecosystem, nurturing our clients and ourselves

But it gave rise to 12 key areas we knew were critical to us being able to drive the business forward. We could develop and iterate frameworks and guidance for them, use them to guide our personal development. Eventually, also use them to measure our performance against them.

  • Enabling our best work (technical systems etc)
  • Communicating brilliantly
  • Making great decisions
  • Being the preferred home for the brightest and best talent
  • Leading the thinking
  • Being our best selves
  • Delivering amazing work
  • Building our brand
  • Building our business
  • Innovation

Split across the three dimensions of:

1) nurturing our ecosystem
2) nurturing our clients
3) nurturing ourselves these were

Reinventing Organisations 

We knew they would take an age to design, develop and implement so we consciously decided to deal with them as they became essential. This involved letting go of the need to have all the answers at once, another critical feature of regenerative thinking.

One of the first topics we looked at was ‘Making great decisions’. Our aim being to is to de-centralise decision making so that we can innovate nimbly but sensibly.

“In a self-managing organisation, change can come from any person who senses that change is needed. This is how nature has worked for millions of years. Innovation doesn’t happen centrally, according to plan, but at the edges, all the time, when some organism senses a change in the environment and experiments to find an appropriate response. Some attempts fail to catch on; others rapidly spread to all corners of the ecosystem.”

(From “Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness” by Frédéric Laloux, Ken Wilber)

Making Decisions 

The process we sketched out, and are still working to, looks something like this:

  1. Create an open source budget with the input of everyone in the team – we do this in the winter (with the rest of our ‘business planning’) ahead of our winter rest. This way we emerge in January with a clear agenda. We have evolved this into a live, full and transparent P&L accessible by anyone in the team and discussed actively at quarterly gatherings;
  2. Develop a decision making matrix – so that appropriate decisions can be made in the context of the available budget but without the need for unwieldy and potentially slow layers of authorisation;
  3. Decisions with more significant cost or operational implications can then be made with advice and guidance from affected stakeholders (including colleagues and shareholders). This does not mean the decision is passed up a chain of command, but those with greater experience or relevance to the question can provide their input

Does it always work like this? Of course not, not everybody’s comfortable making decisions on behalf of the business. But we have seen some major innovations come through this process. I’m absolutely sure it’s potential is unbounded.

I could go on and on but I hope this gives a flavour of how we initially started embedding regenerative thinking into how we operate.

This will forever be a process of iteration and evolution. Next time, i’ll look at some of the lessons we learnt from our first foray and what we did in response.

Hear my conversation with Giles Hutchins about regenerative leadership on his Leading By Nature podcast here.

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