Overcoming the Burden of Potentiality — Our Lives Depend on It!
Everywhere I look, I see savvy, well-intentioned, and highly dedicated individuals and organizations (businesses, nonprofit, institutions, foundations, governments) working very hard to address the complex, multi-sector social, ecological, and economic challenges we face. I wonder if the progress in addressing these challenges is proportional to our efforts, not to mention our spending.[i] Certainly poverty, homelessness, climate change, pollution, and loss of ecological diversity, to only name a few, are complex and systemic issues; they are wicked problems and adaptive challenges that do not have simple fixes or solutions. So how might we address them? From a regenerative perspective, a powerful alternative to ‘fixing’ complex problems is to focus on system actualization, that is, to evolve the capacity of whole systems to realize their inherent potential.[ii] Knowing how to work with potential is key here, yet it is seldom chosen as the approach — why is that? After all, I have witnessed first-hand the level of inspiration and motivation that arises when people begin to see the higher potential of the systems that they are trying to evolve, and the energy that is freed when one is able to unleash that potential. So, why is it so difficult for individuals and organizations to shift from the traditional mindset of fixing problems to focusing on uncovering and unleashing the potential of systems?
One response to this question jumped out at me while reading a summary of a 1998 developmental dialogue with the late Charlie Krone.[iii] He stated that “Unless we accept the burden of potentiality as a group or nation, we will probably wipe out the planet.” This sentence hit me with a flash of insight: What? There is a burden that comes with focusing on potential? Indeed, there is! The burden, I believe, is twofold: first, we must move beyond our analytic and reductionist minds that we inherited from our traditional education systems and develop new minds able to embrace complexity and see potential; second, unleashing potential requires us to engage in value-adding roles that are different than the functional roles we are used to playing. Unless we understand what is holding us back and use this understanding as a source of will to shift toward a potential-driven approach, our chances of surviving on this planet may well be limited. This article explores the limits of our current approaches and shows a possible path for us to make the required shift.
The Limits of Approaching Complex Situations from an Existence Mind
The following story is one example of the way we often approach complex challenges: a small-town has been struggling for years to fight poverty, lack of jobs, and decreasing economic opportunities. Pressed by the local community to take action, the newly elected officials explore solutions to address these issues; eventually, they decide to welcome a Wal-Mart store — not an uncommon choice for many communities. In the short term the strategy performs as intended — new jobs are created, low-income families can buy affordable products, and the town gets new tax revenues. But then what happens? Over time, unintended consequences arise — the mom-and-pop stores that have been in town for generations struggle to compete and eventually close, the community loses its character, traffic congestion increases, local capital leaves the community, and low wage jobs become the norm.[iv] What was initially perceived as a solution to economic development actually becomes the impediment to prosperity and growth over time. Worse, whatever potential the community had before Wal-Mart is now undermined and the community is thrown into a downward spiral of degeneration. (This, by the way, is an example of the “Shifting the Burden” archetype that creates a “Limit to Growth” pattern over time.)
Now, we must ask, why would a community and its elected officials choose such a strategy? Because our motivation to address complex societal challenges is confronted by the need to act quickly and to choose strategies that can be easily implemented, provide immediate benefits, and solve short-term problems — in other words, bringing in Wal-Mart is a neatly packaged traditional-thinking solution that is really a convenient compromise — one that does not require us to change our thinking. But by doing so, we trade long-term prosperity for short-term improvement! This dynamic is shown in Figure 1.
Strategies built on compromises operate within the domain of existence, that is, the material reality that we perceive with our five senses and where problems and their solutions reside. In our story, both the activating and restraining forces — the call for addressing the community challenges and the desire for convenience, that is, for a straightforward, easily understood, and immediate solution — are grounded in the community’s current reality. The chosen strategy reorganizes elements of reality such as Wal-Mart, mom-and-pop stores, capital distribution, etc. in a new configuration, with limited benefits and disastrous consequences for the whole system. In such an approach, the true potential of the community, based on its uniqueness and distinctive characteristics, is never explored.
This is what happens when we focus on fixing problems: first, we reduce systemic complexity to smaller, more manageable problems that we can deal with based on our capacity as individuals, organizations, or as stakeholders. We choose only the pieces of the complex puzzle we can see and address, leaving the rest for others to deal with. After analyzing our pieces and gaining some clarity as to what might work, we jump to action. Doing good for the world is immediately gratifying. After all, our work is making a difference for some segments of our society! Short-term impacts reinforce our sense of pride and most importantly demonstrate the value of our work to our stakeholders and funders. However, over the long-term, the issues we have left to the side often throw a wrench into our progress. Symptoms that we believed we had solved come back, and unintended consequences emerge that are now compounded by our earlier actions, making our problems increasingly more complex. We get back to work harder than before. We design new strategies, create incentives to influence behavior, develop regulations, engage new stakeholders, and so on. This may keep us busy for a lifetime but the costs of this approach to us, our society, and to the planet are tremendous.
Understanding and Working with Potential
Potential is beyond existence. It is a living system’s inherent capacity for growth and development — for becoming something that is not yet manifested. Regenesis[v] defines potential as “a way of conceptualizing the gap between what something is and what it could be, if it fully realized its purpose.”[vi] We cannot imagine “what could be” based on our personal projections and egocentric hopes for a “better future.” Instead, true potential must be grounded in the unique characteristics of a given system (e.g. community, company, or industry) and its essence. Moreover, Regenesis emphasizes that “using the word purpose in connection to potential reminds us that the potential of something is connected to its ability to make a beneficial contribution to the working of a larger system.”[vii]
The following two examples illustrates the benefit of seeing and realizing potential.
Portland Stormwater Management Strategy — Most cities see stormwater as a problem to fix and spend billions of dollars on infrastructure to remove runoff as quickly as possible. In contrast, a few years ago, the City of Portland, OR, began to consider the positive aspect of stormwater. The municipality created financial incentives to influence property owners to manage stormwater at its source, on their properties, by installing water technologies such as rain barrels, cisterns, rain gardens, and bio-swales. In doing so, the city not only reduced the need for costly infrastructure, it also helped its economy by creating a local marketplace of service providers for stormwater management technologies.
Brattleboro Co-op in Vermont — To support its growth while remaining aligned with its sustainability values, the Co-op engaged Regenesis in 2002 to develop a design strategy for replacing its old store with a new LEED-certified building. Looking at the Co-op within the context of its larger ecosystem — a once rich agricultural community — Regenesis realized that the design of an energy-efficient building was a narrow goal, addressing the wrong problem. Indeed, they discovered that, like most food stores in the US, almost all of the food on the shelves came from far away — 1,500 miles on average. This made the Co-op vulnerable to any disruptions of its supply chain from crop failure, fuel price, or truckers’ strikes. In contrast, there was much potential for regenerating the local agriculture. Thus, Regenesis suggested the Co-op become a catalyst for change and play a value-adding role that reflected Brattleboro’s unique nature as an agricultural community. This led to the creation of a hundred‐year plan as a source of direction. The Co‐op went to work on creating programs that would make a difference right away, and became intensely involved in community building with more than a dozen other cooperatives in their region. From this they began to envision a local credit union, an agricultural education program, ways to involve youth, a cooking school emphasizing local foods, and much more. As it turned out, producing food locally would save far more energy than the building alone.[viii]
These two examples show that the activating force for a successful system change initiative cannot be grounded in problem solving, but instead originate in the potential of the system (see Figure 2). Once uncovered, potential can unleash possibilities that are ‘of the place,’ and be a magnificent source of energy to effect whole system change.
Unfortunately, working with potential is elusive for most people. There are two main reasons for this. As stated before, the initial burden relates to the limitations created by our traditional mindsets. First, we don’t even think about working with potential because our cultural programming directs us to think that there are generic or “ideal” solutions to problems that we can aspire to and apply to any context. Second, uncovering potential is often perceived as a “woo-woo” dreaming activity, which is true of most visioning exercises that are based on personal projections of what a better future might be. Third, addressing low-hanging fruit and being rewarded quickly is tempting while uncovering potential requires effort. After all, problem-solving is what’s usually expected and rewarded by the system. Fourth, and perhaps the most challenging restraint to overcome, people don’t understand or value potential. Potential is usually considered as only an elusive possibility while, in fact, potential is grounded in the unique characteristics of a system and its inherent essence that make it who it is. Our Western analytical mind is challenged to see potential or essence because these are qualities that reside in the interstices of systems — in the relationships between things — not in the things themselves. In his book, The Geography of Thought,[ix] Richard Nisbett recalls a visual attention experiment demonstrating the differences between how Westerners’ analytical minds and Asians’ more holistic minds perceive reality. When shown a picture including a strong individual figure in the forefront against a complex background, Westerners look first to, and spend most time examining, the foreground figure, while Asians do just the opposite, paying more attention to background and the relationships between the elements in the picture. The capacity to perceive reality beyond the individual thing to include patterns and relationships is one that we must develop to work with potential.
The second burden relates to the fact that, although uncovering potential is highly inspiring, unleashing it is often beyond the capability of what any single person can do. Indeed, seeing potential involves a systemic process that expands boundaries. Realizing potential requires diverse stakeholders to play new roles and develop the capacity and capabilities to do so. For instance, the potential uncovered for the Brattleboro Co-op and its local community could not have been realized without growing the value-generating capability of local farmers, landowners, and food processors, as well as growing the Co-op’s internal capability to truly serve all of its stakeholders. This can seem overwhelming at first — and it was for the Co-op who needed to evolve beyond its traditional grocery provider role to become a catalyst for system change. The good news is that the work toward realizing Brattleboro’s potential was not the responsibility of the Co-op alone but was distributed through a web of reciprocal relationships that ensured long-term success.
Overcoming the Burden of Potentiality with Living Systems Thinking
Overcoming the burden of potentiality requires a new way of thinking. We’ve inherited the way we think today, especially in the West, from the period of the Enlightenment — the European intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries influenced by philosophers such as Descartes and Newton. They emphasized reductionism and the scientific method, mechanistic approaches that are appropriate when understanding the working of machines, but that are utterly ineffective in addressing our highly complex socio-ecological challenges. In recent years, systems thinking has been introduced as a method to address change in complex systems. However, most systems thinking approaches are grounded in systems dynamics, which aim to understand non-linear behavior and the root causes of complex systems by mapping the interconnections and feedback loops between the known elements of the systems; hence, once again mapping elements that are in existence. Other system change methods such as human-centered design and design thinking are also problem-centric in their application and, despite the fact they build deep empathy for the people they are designing for in order to understand their needs, they rarely work at the level of potential.
Humans and social systems such as organizations, communities, industries, economies, and society as a whole, as well as ecological systems, are all living systems. The science of living systems, which has been made popular by Fritjof Capra in his 1996’s book “The Web of Life”[x] is expanding our body of knowledge of how living entities work and evolve. We need living systems thinking, a way of thinking that allows us to explore the uniqueness of living systems and to uncover their inherent potential, as well as to see the patterns and processes at the core of how life works. As such, living systems thinking provides the reconciling force to overcome the burden of potentiality (see Figure 2).
Working with living systems requires an imaging mind capable of mentally seeing and experiencing a system from the inside, alive and working and in relationship with other systems. To borrow from my colleague Joel Glanzberg, one must develop a “pattern mind,” able to cut through the complexity of a system to unveil the workings and the dynamic patterns that are not yet actual.[xi] This requires practice because imaging patterns involves a shift from analytical thinking to whole system thinking.
In addition, change in living systems must be understood from an evolutionary perspective that considers the living systems’ natural drive to evolve toward increasingly higher levels of coherence and order over time. This ordinate hierarchy is mostly absent from systems thinking approaches that only reorganize elements within a horizontal progression. To visualize this, image a spiral or vortex where organizing occurs on the horizontal dimension while ordering occurs on the vertical dimension of the movement. The potential of a system creates a pull for the system to evolve on the vertical dimension toward increasing wholeness.
Finally, a living systems perspective necessitates a shift in thinking from fragmenting to seeing and working with interconnected wholes. For instance, how we frame the activating forces will influence our ability to reconcile the restraints, hence the outcomes we generate. In the earlier story of the small struggling town, the activating force could be stated as ‘improve economic development.’ But how we define economic development is based on the different worldviews we hold. For some, getting financially richer might be the town’s driving force for action. For those who are grounded in a holistic view, however, economic development is about long-term prosperity of the whole community, including its surrounding environment, since a living system cannot be considered independent of its context. Prosperity for the whole ecosystem can be accomplished by lifting up the value-adding processes that occur in the region through the development of a network of mutually beneficial relationships among diverse stakeholders. As a result, the overall quality of life in the community increases: people have access to parks and recreation areas, good schools, well-paid jobs, local organic food, and so on, and the overall health of the community improves. While in some situations it is possible for a particular area in the community to actually be getting poorer from a traditional financial capital perspective, it might nevertheless be experienced as richer thanks to the availability of new forms of social, human, natural, and manufactured capitals that compensate for the lack of financial resources.
Living systems thinking is the only effective way to work toward the regeneration of our communities, ecosystems, and the planet. To embrace this approach, we must find the will within ourselves to move beyond the attractiveness of simple and easy solutions and work toward developing the capacity to engage with and understand complexity rather than being intimidated by it. This is highly rewarding work because living systems are who we are, individually and collectively. It is our responsibility to make that shift. This may not be easy, but our lives and the lives of our children depend on it.
Thank you to the members of the Regenerative Business Alliance (Glenna Gerard, Josie Plaut, Bill Reed, Max Shkud, and Carol Sanford) as well as to Pamela Mang from The Regenesis Group, for their input and editorial comments on this article.
[i] To put things into perspective, the National Philanthropic Trust reported that charitable giving in 2017 from individual Americans was $410.02 billion, against $20.77 billion from Corporations, and $66.90 billion from Foundations. https://www.nptrust.org/philanthropic-resources/charitable-giving-statistics/. Considering the scale of charitable giving, one would expect to see tangible results achieved, year after year.
[ii] Note that the meaning of ‘system actualization’ is not the same as “actualizing systems change.” System actualization means actualizing the potential inherent to a given (living) system while increasing the system’s vitality, viability, and capacity to support its own continued evolution.
[iii] Charlie Krone was a pioneer in the field of organizational development and systems change as well as an educator. He was the mentor of my own mentors, Carol Sanford and my colleagues at The Regenesis Group.
[v] The Regenesis Group is a leader in the field of regenerative development and design.
[vi] Mang, Pamela and Haggard, Ben (2016). Regenerative Development and Design: A Framework for Evolving Sustainability, John Wiley & Sons, New Jersey, page 118.
[vii] This quote is from The Regenerative Practitioner Series™ — a distance-learning seminar offered by Regenesis for worldwide practitioners interested in integrating regenerative development into their practice.
[viii] For more information about the Brattleboro Co-op project, see my blog: Building a Place-Sourced Regenerative Economy: Co-Evolving Relationships between a Regenerative Organization and its Socio-Ecological Environment. https://regenesisgroup.com/place-sourced-regenerative-economy
[ix] Nisbett, Richard (2004). The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why. The Free Press.
[x] Capra, Fritjof (1996). The Web of Life: A new Scientific Understanding of Living Systems. Anchor Books, Doubleday, New York.
[xi] See Joel Glanzberg’s Pattern Mind website: http://patternmind.org/