By: Jennekin Dicks
FEELING EMPTIED OUT AND BRITTLE?
Apartheid South Africa, late 1970’s. I woke up to a muted ruckus in our house. Turns out our live-in housekeeper, Marie, had had a traumatising experience that night and my mum was consoling her in our kitchen. I watched quietly from the passage doorway, too young to understand the conversation. Then, as Mum left to go get tissues or something, I went up to the still sobbing Marie, laid my hand on her arm and said, “Don’t worry Marie. Jesus will make it all better.”
That’s when gentle, kind Marie, whom I loved like a second mum, turned on me with her tear-streaked face and viciously snarled the darnedest thing at me. She said, “You white people! You’re not even real Christians!”
What was she talking about? We were THE Christians! Jesus being white and all that. Us being the ones who went out there and told people about The Good Lord. The ones who sat in the biggest churches on Sundays. The ones who knew better and lived in the nicest houses, and therefore were in charge of all the important things...
Thankfully the penny started dropping soon after that (thanks in no small part to my parents who always saw our country’s wrongs for what they were). But that moment with Marie may very well have been my first systems awakening. In racism and beyond, it was the beginnings of a realisation that people are constantly being taught ‘truths’ in the system that they're in. And if they're not looking broadly enough beyond their own protection, momentum and gain, they may well be fooled into believing it is a real truth that must be maintained – even as it becomes obvious that their supposed gain, built on that ‘truth’, is depleting others and likely even themselves.
Ultimately, that’s not really how systems generate strength in the long run. If there is consistent disproportionate gain in one part of the system which causes harm in another part, the system is most assuredly built on extraction, or siphoning principles. In other words, it is drawing out resources to where the siphoning system is designed to take them, whether those resources are truly needed there or not.
There is an inherent momentum created in this process, continually drawing out what is available for as long as it is available, but ultimately creating depletion in parts and therefore potential fragility and instability within the larger system.
I guess that’s why nature never did establish itself as a siphoning system. In other words, it doesn’t draw as much as possible of its resources to certain parts and then try to hold it there indefinitely. Rather, it works as a networked distributary system. And within that it creates all manner of cyclical flows – always cycling through give and take, in a way that generates health and abundance in the process. An abundance that includes both bounty and rest. And yes, in amongst that romanticised view, also disruption and strife, but then always an opportunity to return to a cycle of bounty and rest again.
Nature has certainly had a long time to get it right too, and then an even longer time to prove the sense in that regenerative function.
And yet, even with the best teacher and all its evidence all around us, how often have we not been fooled into organising ourselves into extraction systems? As if we can go against the laws of nature (and our own nature) and win in the long run.
It’s easy to think about depletion in big systems in the most obvious physical sense. For instance, how we use earth’s resources, like overfishing our oceans or destroying an eyewatering percentage of our rainforests. Of course, those and many other extracted resources are then converted into financial flows that are drawn upwards in the siphoning system, with just enough shared out along the way to both validate and maintain the extraction process. Take, take, take... Give a little.... Take, take, take.... You get the picture.
Yet at some point we recognise the zero-sum game, right? We see the knock-on effect of that selective depletion in parts of the system for the risk that it is to all parts of the system.
And it's not just to do with planetary systems. The same can be said in our more immediate systems - the detail of which we create and participate in as we live and work in our day to day.
In our work environments for instance, we also make the choice, right in the thick of our daily actions, to either support (mostly) a flow in extraction, or (mostly) a flow in regeneration. These are systemic choices. It requires the principles and mechanics in place to create one or the other flow. And if you are experiencing or seeing people burning out or regularly feeling like they're getting close to burning out, it should be pretty obvious what kind of flow has been set up in that environment. It points to an extraction of human effort, without the proper cyclical regeneration embedded in the system.
I say this entirely without judgment (in most cases), because I know that most leaders want to create businesses that are built on regenerative principles, so it doesn't cause harm. Nobody wants to face a year of Mondays leading into yet another week of depletion.
And yet so many maintain the mechanisms that strain their interactions... perpetuating the stress that is eroding their health and relationships... And they conform for the sake of certainty in a larger system, with their most treasured dreams often ignored and lost too - another form of depletion.
Of course it is at this point where many leaders will cry out, "But what else are we supposed to do? We're just trying to survive here!" And a few might even mutter a line about woo-woo woke nonsense or something to that effect as they fear disruption to what they hope will be their path of gain.
Mindblowingly, to move from extraction to regeneration in a business system is not a total overhaul and some huge sacrifice of momentum. It is a gentle redirection of momentum so it becomes networked and supportive, rather than largely one-directional. It's a series of tweaks. Finely-tuned ones, but tweaks nonetheless.which most people would naturally respond to positively. Why? Because we are of nature, and we seek regenerative systems at the core of our being. Not extraction.
A practical take
The ultimate trick in creating a regenerative system, is to set up networked flows.
I'll explain with one of my favourite examples: how individual performance is systemically managed in a business.
Over the past decades, as we have seen humanity's extraction systems go from strength to strength, our organisations have generally followed suit with performance management systems focused on the quality of what the individual gives into the system. Sure, there are rewards, but how much are you giving in order to earn it? And are you in fact outgiving the equally hardworking soul next to you, in order to win it? Because obviously, not everyone can have the additional rewards, so you need to compete for it. Give, give, give... Someone gets to take a little more. Give, give, give... You get the picture.
What is the alternative to performance management? I like referring to it as engagement management. A two-way conversation that is also about the context the person is working in and what it makes possible for them in their contribution and achievement. Is there more the person can respond to with what is already around them? Or is what they're surrounded with in need of adjustment to better engage and enable them? It's a genuine sensemaking process aimed at finding real connection and flow for the larger win, as opposed to impression management aimed at winning the 'race' to gain the personal reward.
Why would we do this? Because we move in larger patterns and therefore assumptions of 'how work should work', and then our systems and processes evolve accordingly. If the larger system is already one of extraction, the smaller ones within it will follow suit by default unless deliberately created to be something different.
And this is where we find ourselves now. At the point where the depletion has become so obvious we are looking for alternatives and clear answers.
I have studied both (unintentional) extraction systems and (intentional) regenerative systems in small to medium sized businesses, and I have continually tested my findings against the insights of those who study larger organisations. The set of underlying principles in each type is always the same.
At the core of it, these are the principles of a system that creates depletion:
- Relative positioning (internal and external competitiveness).
- Narrow-focused goals as milestones in the race.
- The instrinsic value of people corresponds with their positioning.
In other words, a narrow race track, where anything beyond it is either insignificant or a distraction, and where the closer you are to the front of the race, the more you matter.
PART 2: FLOW IN OPERATIONS
3 minute video
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