How can business design a regenerative future?

Waiting for the TEDx video edit of my talk is like watching the pot that never boils, so whilst I wait, I thought I might as well publish the text.  That of course, I didn’t stick to!!!!

“Good afternoon Kingston.

I would like to start by asking you a question. What does human wellbeing depend upon? Any ideas? [Some of the answers were: Wifi? Money? Love? Health? Food? Safety? Optimism, Friendship. Water. Music? Chocolate.]

I think we’re in a time where it’s really important for us to have a really clear picture for ourselves about what our wellbeing depends upon. I think we can express what our wellbeing depends upon so simply I have it here.

Upon these things: Food, water, housing, health, education, shelter, security. What we might call the 20th century human rights project. Basic needs that all the countries in the world agree everyone has a right to but where we’re still in serious undershoot, under delivering in many countries in the world.

The other half of our wellbeing depends on this – our little blue dot in the Universe. Stable climate, fertile soil, thriving biodiversity, ample fresh water, healthy oceans. Where, according to scientists we’re in overshoot o r going over safe planetary boundaries.

We are only just beginning to realise the state of the inter-dependence of these two things. No stable climate; no security. No fertile soil; no food. No healthy oceans, no fish.

Our challenge, our generational challenge is to somehow get everyone on the planet to a place where we all have those things we agree we need without going over any more boundaries and by reining in the ones we’ve already overshot. I like to think of it as the Biggest Human Adventure of our Lifetime.


I believe one of the biggest players that can have a transformative effect on the future is business. But at a time when we need all the creative energy we can muster, there’s another layer to this generational challenge which is the level of disengagement with work.

People in work aren’t happy. When you start to research the future of work, the research quickly reveals that 63% of us are disengaged with work. 2 out of 3 of us hate our jobs. 1 in 2 people who have a poor relationship with their manager has no trust in the company they work for. How are we going to get business behind the enormous challenges we face if 2 out of 3 people hate their jobs?

What is driving these kind of figures is complex but key to them is the fact that traditional hierarchical management structures

aren’t making it possible to humans to fulfil human psychological maturity needs like purpose, meaning, making a difference. Integrity, honesty, transparency. Growth and learning. Creativity and self expression.

And in the worst cases these structures are incubating negative human characteristics that are driven by fear of lack. As Yoda said – fear of lack leads to the dark side. Greed, envy, anger, frustration, division, competition.

While I was interviewing business leaders I inadvertently also came across three key ways in which companies can address these three critical issues of our time.

The first way is to Redesign The Shape.

Let me introduce you to a company called Matt Black Systems a British Aerospace company. They make guidance systems and electronic components for the large aircraft that fly over our heads in Kingston every day. 7 years ago they were in trouble. They got excellent quality report from their clients – no planes fell out of the sky – but they were late on delivery 83% of the time.

Both Julian Wilson and Andrew Holm had tried everything to imrpove. Expensive external consultants. MBA qualified managers. Implementing Agile & Lean management theory. Partnering with to see if they could up productivity and share the profits. Nothing worked and the management were exhausted.

Just as they were about to give up They noticed that the only thing that hadn’t changed in all this time was backlog of work and overtime. They tried one last experiment. They took away overtime but agreed to pay everyone exactly the same as they had earned working with overtime through an outcome bonus for completing on time.

In the first month 1 person finished their work on time and went home. At the end of 3 months 50% of people finished their work on time and went home. At the end of 6 months everyone bar one person – who happened to be getting a divorce and wanted to avoid his wife – finished their work on time.
What they had discovered were that there were two kinds of management system. Their own and an informal one that had been operated by the employees to drive a solution that was best for themselves and keep the production system constantly in backlog.

Over the next 7 years they changed just about everything about this company. It’s a regulated environment, and to ensure no planes fell out of the sky, they carefully documented every single process and step that would ensure they were in regulatory compliance.

They experimented at first with one team, giving that team complete control accountability and responsibility for budget.Profit & Loss and Balance Sheet.

They re-organised again into smaller teams who would be responsible for securing contracts themselves, for scheduling work, setting machinery, relationships with suppliers, the HR function. The teams were now 100% responsible for success or failure of the team and company setting their own team objectives, responsibilities, roles and managing the accountability between them.

They gave them freedom to vote for their own salaries.They gave them freedom to choose where and how they worked. Work from midnight to 3am as long as you don’t put your team agreement at risk. Take 8 weeks holiday as long as you don’t put your team agreement at risk.

Finally they arrived at an operating model where they have a group of individuals who each operates like an entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Today Matt Black systems employs 1/3 less people, has cut costs by 50%, has raised productivity by 300% and has the best delivery record in the industry.

The directors pop in once every 7 weeks, they coach their teams via Skype when they have personal growth challenges and support the engineers birthed second business from the increased confidence they’ve gained.

It wasn’t without pain. Some people didn’t want to sell, some people didn’t want to give up their important titles, some people absolutely hated the exposure of being fully responsible for the success or failure of the team and company.

In all of the companies I interviewed that have implemented some form of self management, those people left. These companies didn’t just include small businesses. I met with global companies too. W L Gore who makes the Goretex we wear. Outdoor company Patagonia who make jackets using Goretex. Semco in Brazil probably the birthplace of self managed business.

So one approach – ReDesign The Shape & Structure – activates entrepreneurial talents like creativity, responsibility, imagination as well as productivity and engagement.


But what about those people whose egos or limitations couldn’t be overcome. After all you wouldn’t want a bunch of unemployed disgruntled egotists wandering around. One might do something stupid and run for President.

So I started to look at redesign companies to help us get over the limitations of ego or the limitations of fear based behaviour. Who can identify with these things?

I don’t like speaking out in meetings because I’m not sure how my idea, opinion, or question will be received?
I can’t be honest in my annual 360 review because it would be professional suicide to criticise my boss.
I would rather stick red hot needles in my eyes than have a difficult conversation because I don’t know how.
I can’t show I’m struggling with my mental health because my boss might take it as a chance to move me sideways.

To help people grow past fear based behaviour develop psychological maturity you have to do two important things.

Design to bring behaviour out into the open that would otherwise normally be hidden.
Design to make weaknesses normal.

You achieve this by shifting the emphasis from Performance to Practice. From Annual Pain to Daily Gain.

So to draw a picture of what these practices are like, I’m going to use myself as a guinea pig.

At the start of being employed by businesses concerned with psychological development and security you first have to really understand the person, way beyond normal psychometrics and things like Strengthsfinder 2.0. You have to dig into the level of psychological development, cultural background, character personality, life experience to find out what their natural talents and potential are, what their fragile strengths are. You can only do this by digging into the subconscious mind to understand where your negative behaviours have come from.

You have a complete profile of the level of psychological maturity and you make it public to everyone in the company. So every knows my natural strengths are service to others, moral resilience, initiating, innovation, analytical, leading. They also know I have challenges with unity with others, trust, empathy, control, listening, and asking for help. And they know why.

We then concentrate on giving me opportunities to practice getting better at all those things. So for example once a week I take an Empathy Walk. I pick someone who has a completely different life or opinion about something than me and for two hours I listen to them. Last month it was a farmer who believes strongly in industrial farming and the use of pesticides and glyphosate. Now I’m someone who believes that if I met the Devil in person he would have glyphosate tattoed on his forehead and Monsanto on his chest.

But what I learned was that farmers are lonely. Farmers don’t get out much. Farmers work long hours and they don’t have time to indulge in new learning. And if you’re not consistently regularly exposed to new ideas, the fear of the new grows exponentially. So they’re very resistant to change. They’re used to the CAP system. And they’re scared of what Brexit might bring. I don’t agree with him but I no longer want to beat him over the head with a broomstick. That’s the start of understanding and dialogue.

We use the Talking Partners practice where you pair two different people together and at the start of each day they share anything from outside work that is causing distress; kids playing up, thinking about getting divorce, beloved dog is on his way over rainbow bridge. Why? Gets rid of negative focus right at the start of the day.

You talk about Work. Each TPs responsibility is to challenge their partner to push for greatness. Everyone has done a thorough analysis of their weaknesses. Each person has open access to improvement cards and they are expected to call each other out. If you’re reviewing someone’s TED talk you don’t say, yes that’s great to be nice and encouraging, you push always for better, for improvement.

We have Talking Circles where once a week we get together in circle and reflect on how we’ve overcome one of our challenges that week. They’re filmed and put into an open access archive so that anyone who has a similar challenge can see how other people addressed it.

Companies like Atlassian who design Trello , Google automated these reflective practices online through apps where you might have a 10-minute pulse-check on the five dynamics of do we feel safe, can we depend on each other, do we have structure and clarity, is work meaningful, does my work matter – a report that summarizes how the team is doing, a live in-person conversation to discuss the results, and then tailored developmental resources to help teams improve.

The key point about practices is around eradicating fear and creating new habits. We all know that something you’re afraid of gets bigger and bigger in your mind if you leave a longer period of time between when you have to do it. And we all know creating new habits is hard.

Now If it sounds like therapy to you, and something that you would rather stick red hot needles in your eyes than do every day, The whole idea is practice with support. Probably 10,000 hours of practice From Annual Pain to Regular Gain.

So we’re addressing engagement growth, learning, compassion.

Now we have organisations which have redesigned shape & structure which release creativity and autonomy. We have organisation which have re-designed for better humans to overcome fear and ego.


But to come full circle that doesn’t necessarily solve the big challenges we started off with.

The final part of the jigsaw is Designing new companies and redesigning existing companies with Planetary Purpose – not just Purpose, but Planetary Purpose.

We’ve got the Global Goals and we’ve got the Planetary Boundaries. What we need all existing companies and new startups to do, is take this framework and ask two very simple questions of all of the people that the businesses touches.

How are we delivering the Global Goals today? What do you care about most in the future where our business can have an impact?

Let’s take the humble condom. Jeffrey Hollender and his daughter care about different things. Jeffrey cares passionately about the future of rainforests and the sustainable harvesting of rubber and latex. HIs daughter cares passionately about women’s reproductive freedom and health. How do you meet the UN SDGS by disrupting the condom business? You design condoms made with Fair-trade sources and sustainably produced latex, you don’t use carcinogenic chemicals, you market just to women to make it ok to carry a pack of three and you give profits to educational charities that are focused on women sexual health. And you nail four SDGs in one business: Health, Gender Equality, Reduced Inequalities, Responsible Production.

A lavender growing company. Started out making bars of soap for farmers markets. Now farms 350 acres, has farm centres and stores and even its own label products. Has a great opportunity to grow. But can’t quite decide what, where and how. By asking all its stakeholders what do you care about, unsurprisingly the answer came back – nature, planets lavender – obviously – but also bees. A brave management team can then simply decide that the planetary purpose of its organisation is going to be to do something about bee population decline. And staff can be energised to create self-managed projects to run education days with school. Other staff were motivated to create product line of bee-friendly garden design. Another employee decided to create bee-keeping classes for customer. Any creative agency could come in and come up with these ideas. Not rocket science. But when you ask people involved in a business themselves, guess what you get. Increased engagement, great productivity, increased sales – enthused staff, lower sickness rates, a community that comes together. You have activated the collective intelligence of the organisation.

But are there any companies out there that do all three things?

As it happens there are. These are the companies you would die to work for but probably have never heard of. Companies like Patagonia, Interface, and a whole host of creative startups that are forging brighter futures.

These are the fully Activated Enterprises. Redesigned for Autonomy and Creativity. ReDesigned for Activated Humans. ReDesigned for Planetary Purpose.

My challenge to you. Three bold questions when you go into work on Monday or when you go to your next job interview.

How can we redesign management for freedom and creativity?
How can you help me be a more conscious human?
How are we aligning to the UN SDGs to drive a Planetary Purpose?

All businesses have a chance to play a part in transforming the future that’s currently looking rocky to a thriving regenerative future for future generations. The only question for you is to choose the part your company is going to play.

By | 2018-03-08T15:55:16+00:00 March 8th, 2018|Culture, Future of Work, Self Management|0 Comments

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