The Regenerative Organization – Guidelines to Design Work and How to Manage People for Innovation, Growth and Responsibility – Part II

In this blog, Carol Sanford explores guidelines for The Regenerative Organization including management and work design.  How you embed responsibility into work design?  Do supervisors have to go away? I discuss the key factors in building organizations that are self-led and why structural change is not the key, but should follow much more put in place beforehand.

Scroll below to read the transcription.

In Part I of the series, Carol discussed Zappos, the history of work design and the guidelines for discernment in regard to them.  To read it, click here.


Audio-only version




I’ve been having a lot of fun in the last month I would say. There are a number of people who have called and asked me, “What do you think about Zappos and what they are doing with work design?” Then of course there are the Amazon stories which are describing what might be the future of work. Everyone wanted to know what I thought from a regenerative perspective. I said well that’s the right question because it’s not that there is any filter that I can see that they are using except some experiences. And in fact, most of the filter they are using is let’s do something less harmful and more productive than the typical traditional work systems. So I decided that I would write a series of blogs about this given that I’ve designed work systems for four decades. I’ve designed work systems without supervisors. I have taken existing work systems with supervisors and transformed the relationship they have.

I’ll tell you more about that, with no one being laid off and a complete non-hierarchical process of decision making. So I did my first blog on this subject about three weeks ago and did it in a regular written blog. I thought I would do the next five based on you being able to see me and to see some graphics because I need those to be able to explain. What I want to start with today in this first blog is a foundation from which to assess yourself, what you think about work systems that are being designed. It’s a very hot topic obviously for a very good reason. So I have some beliefs about responsibility that when you apply them to either Zappos or Amazon, you would find that they are not living up to what regenerative principles should be. I gave you some of those guidelines in the last blog, but this one I thought I would give you some of the belief systems that I have behind them. The first one is that life exists nested. Now what I mean by that is nothing is up on a plane, one next to the other.

Although we often think of it that way, so we think of we humans existing in an environment so it’s like it’s on the same plane. Really what’s true is that we humans exist in an ecosystem. We exist in nested systems that involve an impact that we have because of the nested relationship of systems. For example, what I mean by nested is you find a tree and that tree makes sure the squirrels can eat because they eat the new growth tips. Those squirrels make sure the soil gets fertilized, and that the mushrooms which are growing there get what they need to grow, and in that process bring down and feed the root systems which goes back into the tree. Humans, in the choice that they are making all the way along, are affecting whether or not that cycle in that system that is at work can be effective. In order for humans to be able to do their work, they need a particular kind of ableness, because everything in that system has a role.

Everything has a purpose, it has work to do. The nested nature means that humans, if they don’t have the ableness to play that role, then everything breaks down. Now what is human’s role then? I am advocating to have one aren’t I? Human’s role is related to the power of consciousness to make choices about systemic affects. So let me talk about what I mean about two sides of that. Systemic affects are when you do one thing; it does not affect just the one direct thing, which we learned from Newton. It’s not just a one to one relationship. It affects like the squirrel and the tree in a more systemic way. But we don’t look at that unless we actively chose to. So the role humans have is to help bring that consciousness to bear. Now there’s a great book if you want to know more about the nested relationship of humans with forests, by Kat Anderson called “Tending the Wild”.

What she discovered is that more than eighty percent of the forests which are on the west coast, and particularly in the northwest, were tended by, grown and moved by the native peoples who lived there. We always think the forests grew themselves, but it turns out that’s not true. So the ability of humans to actually be able to see their affect and the related effects of all those things in that forest is the role that humans bring. Let me give you another angle on that. There’s a man named Alfred Korzybski and he is the founder of General Semantics, but he also did some other very interesting things. One of the things he pointed out is that the system has plants, animals and humans, of course humans being an animal. Plants can’t get up and move. The gorillas and the great apes can move as can all animals, but they don’t seem to be able to build on their past experience.

So the learning is centuries and centuries old only by the entire community. The exciting things about humans is that we can build on one of those learning. Now, we don’t often. Sometimes we just ignore what others have figured out and we decide to do it on our own. But we have that capacity if it is developed and used. So that is the first thing that I think is really important to understand when we think about work systems, is we have to have a capacity to be able to see how work really happens in a living system. So for example, work systems are a part of a strategic direction and a culture that a community decides to carry forward and an impact that it has on earth and communities. Most work systems are not looked at as a systemic affect; therefore they are not engaging responsibility. Now I am going to give you more of that as we go forward, but I want to just do a really quick foundation that you can use.

You don’t have to call me; however, I’m happy for you to call me and send me emails and ask me what I think about every work system that comes along. But one of the first things that you should be looking for is, are they thinking about first, second and third line work. Now those of you who know me, know I talk about that a lot. The first line is the growth of the individual, and I mean as a unique individual, not as an individual like all people should grow. Does the essence and uniqueness of that being grow? Secondly, does the business grow along with all of the teams and actors that are within it? Third, does it create an affect that is evolutionary for all of the things that it touches? So if you can’t see that laid out and see that all three of those are there, then you know that they are not including all of the regenerative nested ideas.

One other thing that you can look for is there are some distinctive characteristics which I mentioned last time that you have to ask “Is this considered in the work design?” In the coming of four or maybe even five video blogs I am going to do, I am going to give you examples of how to do it in a way that this can happen, not just say don’t do the things you are being told. So the first one is does it foster internal locus of control? Does it foster every individual human being feeling in control of their own life, their own choices in their ability to contribute? Most work systems work to make people feel at the control of others. You cannot live the full potential of a human being if you can’t build that capacity, and work systems should do that. Secondly, do they build external considering into the system, which means, do they help everyone who is working there be aware of their impact in these larger rings, including the third ring where customers live.

Now we are used to giving people information inside of a system about what customers want. But I’m talking about external considering, true caring doesn’t come unless they are directly connected to a customer. I am going to give you some ways to do that. I call those two things getting linked the kind of connector or the rod in between those personal agency. So that agency comes about when I feel in control, I see something that I can make a real difference in, and it awakens that personal agency in me. So if those three things aren’t present, they are not yet working on a regenerative work design and management system. So come back and I will give you some more of how to do those and how you can assess Zappos, Amazon and all other work designs.