What Is a Regenerative Organization?

February 21, 2020 Lynne Levy

5-minute read


What will organizations of the future look like? How will they integrate into the broader social fabric of our communities and our world? These are big questions that companies and leaders are beginning to evaluate as they look 10, 20, and even 30 years down the road.

Let's start with what we know:

  • Employee engagement at work is at an all-time low across most Western businesses.
  • Globally, we face a large number of existential challenges, such as climate change.
  • Companies can play a critical role in accelerating positive change through disruptive innovation.

How can organizations unleash the human creativity and innovation needed to tackle these challenges?

There is an emerging concept from the NeuroLeadership Institute; Carol Sanford, author and thought leader; and Dean Carter, corporate officer at Patagonia, that the most effective way for companies to drive disruptive innovation and tackle these global challenges is to, as Carol explains, "look at an organization as a living lab, using creativity and teamwork to regenerate the systems in which it operates." In essence, the organization becomes regenerative.

A regenerative organization grows its employees into innovators by building a culture where anyone can bring forward radical ideas. It thinks beyond the current quarter, year, and even decade. It asks, what would change if we started planning for the next 100 years? How would the current models of leadership, operations, and systems be redesigned? 

The regenerative organization thinks beyond its business walls and in service of society as a whole. Carol has said, "A business that adopts a systems regeneration approach moves the boundary of what it is taking into account. It begins to take responsibility not only for its internal systems, but also for the larger social and natural systems that we depend on collectively."

What can be done today to pave the way toward becoming a regenerative organization?

1. Reframe the nature of work itself.

First, we need to change the lens with which we view the nature of work and employees, says  Dean. For an organization to thrive and commit to solving these global challenges, it must stop thinking about employees as resources, where the end goal is to extract as much productivity as possible. Instead, organizations need to create cultures where the employee is better off because of their work. Some ways Patagonia is improving the lives of employees include:

  • Providing onsite childcare that integrates emloyees’ children into the fabric of the organization. For example, having children eat lunch with their parents in the cafeteria.
  • Giving employees a three-day weekend every other week, which enables them to do things like go to the doctor, run errands, and take care of personal matters while also spending quality time with their families.

2. Push creativity down the hierarchy.

The regenerative organization taps into each employee’s creativity and innovation to build disruptive products. To effectively do this, hierarchy must be reimagined. What is needed, according to Gary Hamel, is "an organizational model that gives everyone the chance to lead and influence if they're capable, and a talent development model that helps everyone to become capable."

Some ideas from Gary include:

  • Break large parts of the organization into smaller units, thereby creating more opportunities for individuals to become leaders
  • Encourage and support "self-organizing" teams where "natural leaders" get the chance to shine.
  • Push down P&L responsibility and give lower-level employees decision-making autonomy.
  • Use peer-based reviews and compensation systems to identify and reward leadership wherever it occurs.
  • Give associates at all levels the opportunity to help re-engineer core management systems and processes.
  • Hold leaders responsible for increasing the stock of "leadership capital" within their teams through coaching and delegation.

3. Recruit for culture add, not culture fit.

The regenerative organization also understands that having diversity of thought is critical for disruptive innovation. Most organizations today hire for culture fit – people who think like us, work like us, and live like us. Hiring for culture fit is fraught with bias, hinders diversity, and leads to homogenous cultures.

Instead, forward-thinking organizations are starting to hire for value fit. An employee who identifies with company values is typically a higher performer and more engaged and passionate about the organizational mission. As such, organizations like Wellbeing Teams are moving toward values-based recruitment, where the hiring process is focused less on candidates’ resumes and more on understanding each candidate as a human with unique interests and strengths.

Organizations are also looking to hire for culture add, focusing on where a potential employee could add a positive element to the culture and bring in new ideas. For example, Red Hat asks the following questions to determine what an employee can add to the culture:

  • Will they be effective in our environment, today and tomorrow? Red Hat wants a workforce that's inspired to learn, grow, and be able and willing to adapt as the company and the business landscape changes.
  • Will they take away from the culture?
  • Does their purpose align with the purpose of the company?

Regenerative organizations will define the future of what we as a society can achieve. They will enable thriving, prosperous companies that transform the lives of employees and the greater society in which they operate. It starts with transitioning from a "What's in it for me?" approach to a mindset of collaboration, creativity, and contribution.


3 Things Gary Hamel Tells Us to Stop Tolerating at Work

Adam Grant's Tips for Hiring and Developing Original Thinkers

Is Work a Relationship or a Contract?

About the Author

Lynne Levy

Lynne Levy is a Workhuman evangelist who lives and breathes helping organizations build cultures that bring out the best in the employees. Her mantra is “do what you love, love what you do.”

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