Review – The Regenerative Business

September 9, 2018

Review – The Regenerative Business:

What is a Regenerative Business?

There are a dozen buzzwords describing the modern, desirable company. It is agile, lean, and nimble, disruptively innovative, robust, resilient, antifragile, sustainable and even kind. So what the hell is a regenerative business supposed to be? In the words of author Carol Sanford

“Regeneration is a process by which people, institutions, and materials evolve the capacity to fulfill their inherent potential in a world that is constantly changing around them. This can only be accomplished by going back to their roots, their origins, or their foundings to discover what is truly singular or essential about them. Bringing this essential core forward in order to express it as new capacity and relevance is another way to describe the activity of regeneration. In other words, regeneration is the means by which enlightened, disruptive innovation happens.”

That’s gibberish. Feel free to introduce fancy concepts like “regeneration”, but please have somewhere in the beginning of your book a chapter that starts with “My idea is about…”, followed by a clear and succinct definition.

After reading the entire book, it seems like a regenerative business is one that develops its people and culture to bring about the highest standards of innovation and customer centricity. Sanford offers a method to design work in a way that complies with these principles.

Managers regard employees no longer as lazy and stubborn beings who need constant supervision and incentivisation, but as a creative, entrepreneurial force, with capabilities to foster and develop. This shift of paradigm does not come naturally to most companies, but is born from necessity: the demographic development begins to favor employees, because there are less and less of them.

Disruption and innovation are words that usually go along with “digitalisation”, often in a context of a company’s future development. There are many reasons why legacy firms struggle with innovation (you can read about them here), but “bad corporate culture” sums up most of them. Modern, seminal companies aspire to actively enable innovation, which requires not only excellent people, but also processes that foster risk-taking and personal accountability.

Following from here, The Regenerative Business throws around a lot of concepts and philosophies, so I tried to graphically arrange everything Sanford talks about.

The Regenerative Business complete illustrative figures

See, that’s what I talked about earlier. People need  things like nonattached integrity and nodal realization, and processes should have nestedness and wholeness and so on. If this looks like a riot of posh words in complex hierarchical relations, don’t worry, it is. The concepts and principles that make up The Regenerative Business seem consciously chosen for obscurity. To be fair, Sanford explains every expression in detail. However, this should not even be necessary, as the concepts themselves are not exactly rocket science.

The middle part of The Regenerative Business introduces 30 toxic business practices (sorted into four “paradigms”) to avoid. This should be a nice and hands.on not-to-do list, but isn’t. Sanford mentions nearly ubiquitous business practices like incentives, market research and standard procedures, and dismisses them as outright harmful, often without a satisfactory explanation or suggesting alternatives. Reading this chapter gave me the uneasy notion of somebody shouting “You’re doing it wrong!”.


How does my business become a Regenerative Business (and would I want that)?

The Regenerative Business details the five phases of transition, but does not give a general how-to instruction. The examples illustrating each step are disjunct and insular, and do not give an impression of the underlying transformation process. In the end, many questions remain unanswered:

Sanford puts major emphasis on customer centricity, but how would you engage workers without customer contact? There are jobs in financial accounting, regulatory, or similar back office positions, how are those supposed to “improve customers’ lives”? How will you solve conflicting goals of back office and customer-facing departments within a company?

Where’s the regulation and security? This seems like a petty and bourgeois question, but without job descriptions and agreed goals and deliverables, how can you stop the work creeping up on you? When constant engagement and identification with work blurs the line between private life and job, is this really a healthy state? And how are employees supposed to be self-reliant and accountable while simultaneously seeking company-wide agreement? Committees tend to produce bland designs.

The ultimate indicator for resilience and robustness of a business is its ability to create profit in the long term. Sanford brings examples from the Google Food Lab and Seventh Generation. The question is: can you become a regenerative business on a shoestring budget? Can you become regenerative when you carry a load of legacy systems and processes, or when you are in a highly regulated business area? Many examples and suggestions for regeneratie transformation revolve around forming project teams, internal and customer meetings, and building communities. How are people supposed to do any of that on top of their regular work?


The very motiational conclusion

Companies need to change the way they treat employees and customers. That is a fact. Demographics and digitalisation are going to change the dynamics a lot. Consultants, speakers and authors on employee or customer engagement, company culture improvement or innovative work design prosper. Often, however, common motivational tropes have an unspoken part:

“Think like you own the company!” (While getting paid like a serf)

“The customer comes first!” (But sell our products if you want to keep your job)

“Google’s allows engineers spend 20% of their time on their own projects!” (This arrangement may not exist or refer to Google allowing the engineers to spend 20% on top of a full work week)

So who is this book for? The Regenerative Business is more of a manifesto than a blueprint, and cannot really be adapted to actually transform your business. It does, however, dangle the carrot of more efficient, innovative, and disruptive processes before you, and you can get it if you get help from a work design consultant. Hm…


Key points:

  • Develop your people.
  • Design work processes to foster innovation culture.


Author affiliations:

Carol Sanford is an author, speaker, educator and consultant specialized on work design and company culture with her own website and her own institute. She also uses words like “ideation” unironically and attributes quotes to herself in her own books.


Review copy:

copy provided by promotion agency
ISBN-13: 978-1-47366-967-3
Nicholas Brealey Publishing, October 10, 2017

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The Regenerative Business Book Cover The Regenerative Business
Carol Sanford
Business & Economics
Nicholas Brealey
October 10, 2017

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