A White Paper on Regeneration’s Significance — Part 2: The Four Modern Paradigms
I call the four governing paradigms of modern living Extract Value, Arrest Disorder, Do Good, and Evolve Capacity. They are ordered here from the most pervasive to the least influential and understood, and from the oldest historically to most recently articulated (although they have existed in parallel for decades, generations, and in some cases, centuries). Most of us today think and behave inconsistently because, although we are in general governed by one of the four, we are constantly influenced by all. We don’t reflect on them and don’t perceive them ruling us, and therefore we aren’t able to sort out and order ourselves.
The Four Modern Paradigms Framework
- Evolve Capacity/Regenerate Life — Know by examining the dynamics of living systems
- Do Good — Know by moral teachings and metaphors
- Arrest Disorder — Know by scientific method with sensorial inputs
- Extract Value — Know by accepting the authority of those with power over us
In business settings, the Extract Value paradigm assumes some people — such as powerful civic and religious leaders — know more than others. We accept what they focus us on, which is primarily getting the most out of people by employing their human skills for the benefit of the powerful, with insufficient thought to the return workers receive beyond pay or professional experience. In physical terms, we get the most from materials by using them efficiently and from resources by not worrying about how they will be replenished. In businesses ruled by this paradigm, workers may see managers as the benevolent sources of rewards, while managers tend to see workers as interchangeable cogs in a machine. Management may offer skills training, but with the intention of improving the performance of a machine, rather than benefiting human lives.
This paradigm is built on the assumption that powerful businesses own the labor of their employees through processes of transactional exchange — human knowledge, effort, and energy are purchased; employment contracts are drawn up; employee manuals are signed onto. “What is good for General Motors is good for the rest of us.” Managers have the right to control the behaviors and attitudes of workers because their time and skills are bought and paid for. As concerns materials and resources, the assumption is that Earth belongs to humans who have paid for its lands and waters and thus have the right or obligation to dominate their nonhuman assets and use them for human benefit.
The Arrest Disorder paradigm limits knowledge to what can be learned by following the scientific method. In any study, a question is asked that includes only a single variable; a control group not subject to the variation is set up for comparison; and thus, exploration is limited to a narrow focus on a single, isolated aspect of the subject under examination. This way of seeing only the limbs on trees in a vast forest results in narrow understanding and a bias toward problem solving that neglects the larger, dynamic context of living wholes. More importantly for our understanding here, it leads to work on making problems less bad, rather than making whole systems more fully alive.
Limited by the scientific method, we have no way to know if we have selected the right variable or if our work has been effective in making the whole work better. The only framing allowed by this paradigm is to seek change by starting from the definition of a problem. This allows for no other way forward than to solve the problem. Not until we get beyond problems, variations from the ideal, as the way to determine what we can work on, will we ever get beyond arresting disorder and on to making real, beneficial changes.
The shift from Extract Value to Arrest Disorder is the shift from the assertion that “only experts and other authorities know the truth” to the belief that “anyone can define a problem and work on solving it.” Arresting disorder activates us to work primarily on imperfections or variances from targets or ideals. It is based on standards and best practices defined by the organization, which everyone involved is expected to pursue and achieve. The focus is on set tasks and measurable behaviors, which gives a sense concrete reality.
Leaders operating from this paradigm tend to regard people as having fixed personalities and unalterable intelligence levels, and thus manageable only by external interventions targeting changes in behavior. Emphasis is placed on solving personnel problems, reducing shortfalls, and setting workers on right performance paths. In ecosystems, the Arresting Disorder paradigm focuses on reducing harm by limiting negative impacts on living aspects of the landscape. It drives the sustainability, circular economy, prevention, restoration, and resilience movements.
The Do Good paradigm calls on us to use culturally accepted ideals (e.g. competencies) as the basis for defining what is worth promoting and contributing to. Its epistemology acknowledges moral boundaries to what can be known and held as true. Individual communities determine their own moral good and work to convince others that it alone is the true good. Doing good invites, us to hold the belief that people are able to change and become both more responsible and more skilled over time, and it is the source of social rules and “good management guidelines.” These are seen as universal and applicable to all persons and situations and are developed in line with the intention to make meaningful contributions to something valuable and to benefit persons we care about.
The Do Good paradigm is the source of the feeling that philanthropy and volunteering are rewarding and worthy of approbation. It is a heart or feeling orientation that generates work assessed in terms of its effect on the organization and its stakeholders. We become passionate about our causes. When we give an employee a review and observe their response or when we see an employee we have been coaching achieve a goal, we are most likely engaging from the Do Good paradigm, the essence of which is achieving standardized, generic ideals of good.
In ecosystems, this paradigm focuses on restoration — for example, replanting forests, revivifying riparian systems, putting private lands into conservation trusts, and legislating to preserve public lands as wilderness preserves. The shift from Arrest Disorder to Do Good is from defining a problem as the motivation for creating good in the world to acknowledging that change for the better is the effect of the capacity of every person to be their own researcher and truth seeker. The Doing Good paradigm dictates decisions based on moral choices that affect whole communities. Its source of knowing is the self-examination of individuals and communities.
Evolve Capacity/Regenerate Life
In business, the Evolve Capacity paradigm fosters commitment to the development of capacity in every employee and company team, focusing on their potential to evolve themselves and contribute to the living systems in which they are nested. Its methodology is continual regeneration. Managers focus on the essences of the persons whose work they oversee, the individuals who are evolving right in front of us, now, today, seeking to bring forward and develop each person’s unique potential. They support the growth and development of employees in ways that allow their essences to be increasingly expressed. This entails becoming fully present with one person or group and acting in the specific situation, with the intention of enabling them to act from personal agency, to become more uniquely themselves, and to achieve more. When an employee discovers something that might be called “her true self,” and then reveals new capacity and takes on ever-bigger challenges, she is likely to be working in an organization committed to evolving capacity.
The shift from Do Good to Evolve Capacity is from individual moral compass to the working of living systems. In the entire process of our human collective development, we are required to move our boundaries from the authority of power to starting from problems to moral choices by individuals and collectives to imaging the working of whole, living systems. The Evolve Capacity paradigm requires a much greater ableness than the other paradigms to see the potential effects of our actions. Most often, this is a capability that we have to consciously develop in ourselves in order to exercise it more often and more completely in all of our activities. It also requires moving away from standardized ideals and projections of our personal or cultural standards on others. Self-directed responsibility arises in people when we connect them to external effects and their potential to contribute to them.
The Evolve Capacity paradigm is especially concerned with the consideration of communities and ecosystems. Every community and every watershed — or really, every life shed — is unique, with an essence and distinctive potential of its own. When working regeneratively, there can be no standardized management practice. Like every other living entity, each watershed demands that we approach it individually, using the first principles of regeneration to guide an exploration of this specific place in order to reveal and support its unique potential. The overarching intention is to assist in the evolution of this life form to express this potential on its own and as part of the larger living system within which it is nested. To diminish with extraction, to restore or sustain by arresting harm, or to impose a uniform set of ideals is at odds with the unique essence and the underlying wholeness of every particular place, community, and person.
In the next part of this series, we’ll see how supposed paradigm shifts are so commonly just a renaming of the existing way of working, as with greenwashing.
About Carol Sanford
Carol Sanford is a regenerative business educator, the award winning author of The Regenerative Business: Redesign Work, Cultivate Human Potential, Achieve Extraordinary Outcomes, and executive in residence and senior fellow in social innovation at Babson College. She has worked with fortune 500 executives and rock star entrepreneurs for 40 years, helping them to innovate and grow their businesses by growing their people. Learn more about Carol and her work at her website.