RSA Fellow Zahra Davidson and Enrol Yourself Host Tina Liu reflect together on how business could be a force for regeneration.
The words ‘business’ and ‘growth’ are so often together, like inseparable best friends. But has the friendship become toxic and is it time for both business and growth to grow up and make new friends? There will always be a relationship between them, but is it time for it to change?
The word ‘regenerative’ also has an inextricable relationship to growth, but the difference is that it also has a relationship to death and renewal. It is cyclical rather than infinite. As a result it reflects the natural world, and, we wonder whether it might be a healthier best friend for business. We have been discussing what regenerative business might mean in practice, each bringing different perspective on this topic and have come to three broad conclusions.
First, we need to unlearn our definition of success. It seems to us that the first step towards business as a regenerative practice is recalibration of our idea of success. If we don’t do this, we simply get swept up in all the dominant narratives and expectations.
We grow up in a society that conditions us to view success in a certain way. We might be able to see past this, and see how our addiction to endless growth is damaging, but we still strongly associate it with success. Markers of growth might still trigger us to think of success, even if we can see that the growth is coming at too high a cost elsewhere ‘in the system’.
Anyone who has ever been part of a business accelerator programme will have heard ‘how are you going to scale?’ a hundred times, but possibly never ‘what limits to growth are you going to design in?’ Of course every business is different, it might be very suitable for many of them to aim for scale. But we were interested in this deeply ingrained bias, and how we might unlearn it.
We can decide, intellectually, that we think a successful business is one that contributes to shared societal wellbeing (for example), but it is quite another thing to believe it all the way through to our decisions and actions. Our beliefs are usually reflective of our context and environment. It’s a social thing. So changing our social context is one way to enable ourselves to unlearn: surrounding ourselves with those who are also doing this unlearning.
Example of businesses defining success differently: Patagonia, (For Profit) the outdoor clothing retailer, which “Use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis”; and Buurtzorg, healthcare organization (Non-Profit): "Helping home-based patients become healthy and autonomous". Patagonia turn into a $540 million company employing 1,350 people, the first Californian company to achieve ‘B Corp certification’ at the beginning of 2012. Buurtzorg has grown from four people in 2007 to 10,000 employees in 2016 without using any conventional marketing.
Second, instead of growing fruit, we need to cultivate the soil. Once you have unlearned your definition of success, you need to unlearn your ways of working towards it. What kind of processes would be more reflective of regenerative processes in nature? Can we evolve towards success instead of trying to tightly control the process? How can we learn to surrender to not having a clue where we’re going? Can we learn to take the next step, trusting that the consequences of that step will teach us how to take the next one?
In Korean Natural Farming (KNF), farmers do not grow vegetables, they treat the soil. In a healthy environment, vegetables know how to grow themselves beautifully, without intervention. The only things we have are the seeds and the environment for the seeds.
We can draw an analogy with key performance indicators (KPIs) and how we implement them in our organisations: it is a bit like fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides; we deploy a sophisticated combination of them, which often do not lead to long-term healthy development of the organisation. Can we cultivate the mindset that we are not growing our business (KPIs), but we are creating a rich soil for our business to flourish in its natural course?
And finally we need to embrace cycles of endings and beginnings. Nothing grows forever in the natural world, and nothing lives forever.
The average lifespan of a company listed in the S&P 500 index of leading US companies has decreased by more than 50 years in the last century, from 67 years in the 1920s to just 15 years today. Of course this is not representative of all businesses, but nonetheless it is interesting how surprising and taboo it feels to read this. Like a dirty secret. So contrary to the intent behind most businesses. Human life expectancy is increasing but business life expectancy is rapidly shrinking. Can it continue to shrink on this trajectory? What would happen if it does?
For those of us working on businesses in this reality, what can we do to face up to the nearness of death and demise? Perhaps we can be thinking of the skills, capabilities and capacities that people and teams develop through the business as the value that is created, almost looking at business as schools? Can we think about the value created by businesses not as locked into static products or services, but almost like energy, transforming from one state to another?
And beyond this, might we deliberately start businesses that are designed to extinguish in a finite period of time, perhaps because they have achieved their aims, or because they were a reflection of a particular moment in time? And if we can’t (or won’t) do this, how might we honour endings in other ways along the journey?
Clearly, this thinking raises more questions than answers, but we are learning through practice, trying things out with our businesses and communities and will return to these in a future blog. In the meantime, we would love to know how you’re using your business as a regenerative practice for people and planet, feel free to get in touch.
Zahra founded Enrol Yourself in 2017 and has been learning how to run a small business ever since. Tina is a business executive and intrapreneur who is dedicated to sustainable use of oceans through business leadership. Tina is also hosting a Learning Marathon called Business Unusual, which will connect practitioners who want to multiply one another’s ability to use business as a force for regeneration.
This long read sets out why need to act for the long term, to ensure our actions now build cumulatively towards a future that we need to be able to face.