7 Principles of Regenerative Learning & Development

The term “regenerative” has become somewhat of a buzzword. As such, it is often thrown around by people who don’t understand it very well. I first encountered it in 2010, when I was exploring a principled approach to designing sustainable systems known as permaculture. I’ve been actively exploring this concept ever since, and I can tell you that even with a good deal of time and effort, the concept of regeneration continues to reveal new layers of meaning. 
One definition I’ve come to appreciate comes from the book Regenerative Development and Design by Ben Haggard and Pamela Mang of the Regenesis Group:
“Regenerative development describes an approach that is about enhancing the ability of living being to co-evolve, so that our planet continues to express its potential for diversity, complexity, and creativity.” 
How might such an approach be applied in the field of L&D? We’ll explore this question here through the lens of our 7  Principles of Regenerative L&D. Giving credit where it is due, these are inspired by my work with a true pioneer in this space, Carol Sanford (I do not claim to represent her work or thinking directly here). 

Principle 1: Development Over Control

Despite much of the rhetoric, there is still an overwhelming attempt to control behavior and performance in the modern workplace. This tendency plays out from the very subtle to the very gross. For example, I’ve seen many organizations which espouse a learner-centered approach to L&D. Yet in practice, their work is largely centered around making the process of being controlled and conditioned more engaging and personalized. The approach typically focuses on a combination of transferring knowledge in the form of clear best practices—experts telling non-experts exactly what they need to do, and manipulating behavior through rewards and punishments. 

There are several major problems with L&D focused on this level today. First and foremost, it is best suited to what Dave Snowden calls an ordered system—a system that is stable, predictable, and can be understood through expert analysis. Today, we are dealing with high degrees of complexity. This calls for a fundamentally different approach, where we recognize the limits of in-depth analysis aimed at predicting and controlling behavior. 

Secondly, such an approach hinders the development of the capabilities and cultures needed to thrive in our complex and unpredictable environment. Today, we need to be able to think critically, strategically, and creatively. We need to be able to question accepted norms and reflect on our own thinking and behavior. We can’t wait around for someone else to figure out how we need to change, build a training program, then deliver us an updated set of best practices on a silver platter.

Many organizations are still largely stuck in this pattern. I will make the case that this represents an existential risk. Our organizations will not be able to manage the unprecedented rate of change that’s coming without transforming this pattern and developing new capabilities and cultures. 

Thirdly, surviving and thriving through the coming age will require new levels of engagement and will. Much of what we continue to do is out of alignment with leading research on human motivation. Instead of supporting a sense of autonomy, for example, we create dependence. Instead of supporting a sense of relatedness, we create fragmentation. Instead of supporting a sense of competence in a changing environment, we’re creating dependence that keeps people two steps behind today and three tomorrow. 

Parenting has taught me a lot about this principle. When I am parenting developmentally, I am getting my kids to think and reflect and come to their own conclusions. They wake up. Almost always, it results in a more positive and productive experience for both of us. The problem is, of course, it takes time and patience. It’s easy to convince ourselves that we don’t have it—that right now we just need them to listen and obey. I’m as guilty of this as the next parent (I’m working on it, not easy). 

The same thing happens in the workplace. We feel the lack of time or energy and our first instinct is to try to control the situation and the people around us. The problem, of course, is that people are not easy to control and in general do not like to be controlled. They may do what we say, but there is likely to be some internal resistance. Their sense of autonomy and competence is challenged. Their motivation is low-grade. They may begin to resent us, or they slip into a mechanical order-taking state that cuts off access to the parts of themselves that are capable of making the most valuable contributions. 

To be clear: I’m not suggesting that there is no place for giving clear directives (either at home or in the workplace). I am suggesting that we very often default to giving such directives without considering the full picture and the consequences. This includes the opportunity cost of developing the foundational thinking capabilities that both our kids and our team members need more and more each passing day. Where can we slow down to engage more developmentally? Where are we unconsciously slipping into order-giver/order-taker mode? What are the potential consequences of getting stuck there? 

Principle 2: Coevolutionary Capacity

As pointed to in the quote at the beginning of this article, a regenerative approach focuses on building what we’ll call here coevolutionary capacity. Here we go beyond a focus on developing performance, to building the capacity of individuals, teams, organizations, industries, markets, communities, and ecosystems to continuously coevolve together. 

The foundation of coevolutionary capacity is a coevolutionary mindset

Most readers will be familiar with Carol Dweck’s concept of Fixed vs Growth mindset. With a Fixed mindset, we see ourselves as mostly who we’re always going to be. We don’t believe we can change much, so we avoid taking on difficult challenges or investing much in our own learning and development. When we do, it’s more about incremental functional improvement than about significant transformation.  With a Growth mindset, we recognize our potential for continuously learning and changing throughout life. We take on new challenges that push us to grow in meaningful–and sometimes big–ways. 

A Coevolutionary mindset takes this a step further, connecting our own growth to that of the various systems we are a part of.  Learning and development becomes more strategic and systemic. 

We can see that in most cases, this requires a refreshed view of the learning process itself. Learning and Development, at its core, is not merely a set of activities to be performed. Rather, it is a fundamental characteristic of all living systems. From this view, living and working and learning become essentially one in the same thing. 

The challenge we face today, however, is that this natural state has been long since suppressed in our modern culture. It has been buried under generations of programming which has treated us as machines to be controlled, or mindless animals to be manipulated. We can see that much of the critical work that needs to be done in L&D  is less about piling on more, and more about supporting the letting go. It’s as much learning to unlearn and remember ourselves as anything else.

Principle 3: Nested Wholes

Most of us have inherited a worldview that is fragmented. We come from a tradition of sense-making that is reductionist—creating knowledge through the process of breaking things down and analyzing individual parts. This has, of course, led to a lot of technological advancement. Our lives have become longer, more comfortable, and more convenient. 

Yet all of this comes at a cost. While we may be more comfortable in our high-tech modern lives, many of us also feel isolated and disconnected here. We lack a sense of being whole and being part of something larger than ourselves. 

Of course, this is a matter of perception. The principle of Nested Wholes helps us to perceive the world in a different way. It gives us a lens that is built on a fundamental pattern of all living systems, from individual organisms to communities to societies to planetary ecosystems and everything in between. The pattern is somewhat paradoxical: on every level, we are both whole as well as a part of a larger system. Living systems are nested within one another.

How do we relate to the systems we are nested within as individuals, teams, organizations, communities, industries, and ecosystems? How do we interact with these systems? How do we think about them?  Do we feel connected to them in a meaningful way? How strategically are we working to create value and develop them? 

We’ve inherited a tendency to see the world around us as a giant machine that can be understood analytically. By assigning names to all the parts and producing descriptions of their individual functions, we believe (on some level at least) we understand this world. Our relationship with it becomes a superficial one, where we become trapped by our own cognitive biases which work as mental shortcuts to save us time and energy. As a result, we become blind to our own lack of understanding. Our curiosity is suffocated. 

A fundamental task for learning leaders is to revive this sense of curiosity in both self and stakeholders. How might we do this? What’s clear is that we must disrupt the old pattern—the clinging to false senses of certainty.  On a basic level, we can see that the old mechanistic view is built on a fundamental misunderstanding of how living systems operate. As our understanding of this grows, so does our curiosity about the life that surrounds us. 

We’ll briefly highlight a couple of basic characteristics of life here for our continued reflection as we move forward:

The first is that life is complex. It cannot be understood analytically or through a reductionist approach.  To gain a true understanding of something that is alive we have to experience it. We have to engage and interact with it. It is through this relational experience that we begin to know it. My understanding of it is always partial and incomplete. There is always more to the story that has yet to be uncovered. 

The second is that life is self-organizing. This is captured in the concept of autopoiesis, coined by the influential Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Verela. On a practical level and from an L&D perspective, we can say that understanding this basic characteristic of life helps us to see the world and others in it as inherently self-directed and continuously evolving. Individuals and larger living systems cannot be controlled externally as a machine can, despite our best efforts. Attempting to impose this control produces conflict and tension. 

From a regenerative perspective, we can look to develop this natural capacity for self-organization and self-directed development with an understanding that it has likely been eroded by a lifetime (or more accurately, generations) of mechanistic programming. We can likewise help our stakeholders develop a perspective that supports them to let go of their own tendencies to impose control—engaging with their stakeholders in a way that leads to greater mutual understanding and strategic growth. 

Principle 4: Potential Over Problems or Ideals

As L&D leaders, we have a tendency to get stuck in problem-solving mode. We spend our energy putting out fires (or trying to prevent them). As a result, we may feel depleted, exhausted, and on the path to burnout. 

Often our aim becomes something approximating “keeping the machine running.” This way of thinking and seeing the world is fundamentally extractive in that it requires constant input and maintenance to keep a machine running. It eats up our resources and leaves us in a state of perpetual stress and anxiety with the knowledge that our resources are limited (even those of us who benefit most from its production). 

Even if we manage to break free of this reactive mode (at least temporarily), we typically shift focus to moving toward some ideal state. Such preconceived notions often narrow our views in such a way that we miss opportunities and cause unintended consequences in our single-track pursuit. Rather than beginning with a question about what is possible, with ideals we are starting with a solution. We need _____.

What tends to happen is that we become narrowly focused on implementing these solutions and we get wrapped up in a battle of good vs evil. We create divisions. We experience frustration or even resentment at the forces pushing back against our ideals. Eventually, we create cultures where such pushback is forbidden and those who question our solutions are banished. Perhaps worst of all, we become blind to the systemic effects of our attempts to impose our ideals on others. 

But wait: isn’t this whole idea of Regenerative L&D an ideal? It’s a fair question. I’ll make a case that it’s fundamentally different. At the same time, I’ll need to be careful about slipping into my own idealistic tendencies as we explore here. The main reason it is fundamentally different, I’ll argue, is that it is not a proposed solution. It is an invitation to see through a specific lens. Let’s both keep that in mind as we move forward. I’m not asking you to take anything at face value—rather, I’m encouraging you to ask yourself certain questions that may challenge how you currently think about and see the world. You are meant to come to your own conclusions. 

What I’ve found personally in being supported to explore potential in this way is, first and foremost, it’s a dependable source of new energy and inspiration. As my ability to do this increases, so does the quality of the energy it generates. This is one reason it is regenerative: it continuously generates what we need most: energy, motivation, connection, agency, capability, etc.  

To better understand what we mean by potential here, however, we’ll need to consider the full set of principles. 

Principle 5: Revealing Essence

We all have a tendency to shortcut our understanding of a person or a system through abstraction. This can be useful of course. We label and categorize to help us make sense of the world around us and help us make efficient decisions. 

This tendency, however, often works against us in ways we’re not fully aware of. It leads to prejudice and stereotyping. It creates artificial barriers that prevent us from really getting to know one another. It suffocates our curiosity. 

The principle of Revealing Essence is based on the belief that every individual and every living system is fundamentally unique— that each possesses a core pattern which we will refer to as their essence. This pattern can be thought of as a core process, or a foundational way of expressing oneself in the world. Baked into this core process are one’s core values and purpose. 

Doing the work of revealing our own essence to ourselves is an invaluable experience. It helps us understand who we are at our core. It also helps us begin to understand others around us on a more authentic and personal level. It allows us to cut through the superficial stories we tell ourselves—and tell each other—to reveal who we really are and what we are being called to do. 

Before we engage in this work, however, it’s important to understand a couple of things. First, we have to understand that we are addressing something that is unique. There is no category that will capture it. There is no typology assessment. We can use language to explore it, but we have to keep in mind that the words we choose point to something beyond abstraction—a concrete pattern that is our unique and authentic self. 

Another useful distinction has to do with the difference between essence and personality. The philosopher G.I. Gurjieff describes this difference in In Search of Being: 

“Every human being consists of two parts: essence and personality. A person’s essence is what is their own. Their personality is what is ‘not their own,’ that is, what ‘does not really belong to them’ because they have acquired it from outside. This includes all knowledge acquired from learning or reflection, all traces of exterior impressions in the memory, words and movements that have been learned, feelings created by imitation. All this, which does not really belong to them, is ‘not their own.’ All this is personality.”

This may land as an unsettling idea for some readers. It challenges the “blank slate hypothesis,” which states that human beings are born as blank slates, that we are nothing more than the accumulation of our experiences and sense impressions. This view, for example, was championed by B.F. Skinner and the behaviorists. On the other hand, it creates a useful distinction that helps us embrace the nuance of what is considered generally as “personality.” Modern science points to the idea that we are both born with certain inherent characteristics, but we also have a remarkable ability to adapt and change throughout our lives.

When we lean too far toward seeing ourselves and others as blank slates, as the behaviorists arguably do, we begin to treat each other like soulless machines or mindless brutes. We focus on fighting for power, control, and influence. On the other hand, when we lean too far toward seeing each other as fixed by birth, we stifle development and feed prejudice. 

By separating essence from personality we honor both our inherent gifts as well as our abilities that are acquired through experience and learning. We give ourselves a simple framework for navigating the nuances between the two. At the same time, we recognize that the foundation of developmental work is learning to understand the uniqueness of the individuals and the systems we are working within. We become curious to understand each other on a more authentic and fundamental level. 

This applies not just to individuals, but to teams, organizations, communities, and ecosystems as wholes. From this view, each possesses a unique essence and a core process for interacting with the world. The potential of the system, as we’re using the term here, has to do with expressing this essence more fully in a value-adding process.

Realizing this potential is a primary aim of regenerative L&D. 

Principle 6: Vitalizing Fields

“We, along with everything that we experience, are all expressions arising out of a unified energetic field, which means that we simultaneously shape and are shaped by it. It also means that we can have an influence on things without directly touching them, a fact reflected in the idea of the ripple effect. Consciousness, if we are willing to develop it, enables us to engage in this field, influencing it in an intentional way in order to create more whole and life-affirming patterns.”

– Carol Sanford, Indirect Work: A Regenerative Change Theory for Businesses, Communities, Institutions and Humans

One clear tendency in L&D is to affect change via direct means. Sanford refers to this as the “billiard ball theory of change.” We look to push people in the direction we decide they need to go, usually through programming them with best practices. Even when we know exactly where they need to go and what they need to do, which is less and less the case, this approach produces low levels of engagement, motivation, and capability. It also produces toxic cultures that repel talented individuals who are driven to contribute in meaningful ways. 

A vitalizing field is an environment that wakes us up and energizes us. When our focus shifts from controlling behavior to creating such a field, we set ourselves on the path to building collective intelligence within our teams and organizations. We learn to trust the process and let go of the need to predict and control. In this case, the process is life itself—we create fields that give life, that make us feel alive and awake, and we trust that in this state we can be more self-directed in our work and learning. 

Some leaders struggle with this principle. It may come off as a little bit “woo-woo-ey” for those of us that prefer the practical and measurable. If this is you, I’d suggest simply thinking about it as managing the energy in the room (or virtual space). We can all relate to an experience where the energy is productive and motivating vs where it is stifling or toxic. As leaders, we can see the ability to generate a productive and vitalizing energetic field as an important developmental goal for both ourselves and our teams. This approach is regenerative as it builds the capability to continuously generate fields which in turn generate energy, insight, and new capability.

Fields and cultures may not be exactly synonymous, but they are closely related. We might say they also shape one another. As we develop the ability to generate vitalizing fields, we begin to shape the culture around us. 

Both fields and cultures, when healthy, serve to make coherent wholes. They do so through a process of connecting, or healing fragmented states. The physicist David Bohm explores this idea in-depth in his book Wholeness and the Implicate Order. He writes:

“It is especially important to consider this question today, for fragmentation is now very widespread, not only throughout society, but also in each individual; and this is leading to a kind of general confusion of the mind, which creates an endless series of problems and interferes with our clarity of perception so seriously as to prevent us from being able to solve most of them.”

Building on this line of thinking, we can see that a unifying and vitalizing field which works against fragmentation, also works against the confusion which fragmentation brings. In other words, it facilitates effective sense-making where the mechanistic, reductionist approach focused on solving problems (and unintentionally creating new ones due to a lack of understanding of wholes) fails us. It is essential for achieving the “clarity of perception” we need to understand ourselves and our environment, making wiser decisions that lead to better outcomes in both the shorter and longer terms.

Principle 7: Nodal Intervention

A very common and seldom examined goal in both learning and development as well as the broader business world is to build scalable solutions. Carol Sanford also writes in Indirect Work: 

“Scalability has to do with imposing an imported idea of what’s right and good, a so-called best practice, rather than starting from the essence and wholeness of distinctive living entities.”

When our focus is on scalable solutions, we end up with generic offerings that fail to engage learners in the unique contexts of their work. We see this in L&D, for example, with libraries of off-the-shelf courses. While some of these may have decent information, they rarely add much value. Today more than ever, we are not lacking information. What we are lacking is engagement, energy, purpose, will, collective intelligence, and developmental capability. These are not built through generic, off-the-shelf courses. 

The question, of course, remains: then how do we support a larger audience as an L&D team? We don’t have the resources to develop custom solutions for every need across our stakeholder systems. Here is where we look to make an important shift, from centralized scalability to a decentralized strategy that focuses on developing nodes. 

Sanford compares a node to an acupuncture point in the human body. It is a place within a living system where a small intervention unlocks large amounts of energy and potential. 

The term node, as we’re using it here, differs from how it is used in more mechanistic approaches to systems analysis. There, a node is simply a point with a large degree of connectivity. It can be identified through analysis and mapping connections across the system. This is not to say there is no value in such an exercise, but what’s generally missing from these maps is the quality of the connections. This quality is relational and energetic—we cannot understand it through formal analysis. 

As with the previous principle of vitalizing fields, this requires us to engage with the system on an energetic level. Part of generating such a field involves sensing how energy is flowing as well as where it is being blocked. Nodal interventions are strategic actions that remove such blockages, which we can also think of as places of accumulated potential energy. In freeing up this energy to flow, we can direct it toward developmental work. 

Many L&D leaders today are turning toward more decentralized strategies. We are learning the limits of a centralized learning function that provides generic, scalable solutions. One emerging interest for many is building communities of practice, or capability academies, or whatever you may choose to call them.  We can see that many leaders struggle with implementing such a strategy. Arguably, the reason has to do with trying to force a new pattern onto the system without understanding the underlying dynamic patterns already in motion. We get stuck on the formal organizational structure and remain blind to what’s going on underneath the surface. 

Physicist and living systems scholar Fritjof Capra writes of this challenge in The Systems View of Life: 

“From our perspective of the systems view of life, it seems that, in order to resolve the problem of organizational change, we first need to understand the natural change processes that are embedded in all living systems. Once we have that understanding, we can begin to design processes of organizational change accordingly and to create human organizations that mirror life’s adaptability, diversity, and creativity.

”…In order to maximize a company’s creative potential and learning capabilities, it is crucial for managers and business leaders to understand the interplay between the organization’s formal, designed structures and its informal, self-generating networks.”

How we can develop the ability to perceive these “informal, self-generating networks?” How can we intervene to maximize return on our investment, creating more strategic value?


You more than likely have more questions than answers at this point. If so, mission accomplished. Don’t expect a list of clear best practices for Regenerative L&D. 

If we are to successfully build the capabilities and cultures we need to manage new and increasing levels of complexity and change, breaking free from our attachment to best practices is a good place to start. Here, questions become more important than answers: both those we ask ourselves and those we ask our stakeholders. 

I hope these 7 principles give you some fuel for reflection and insight in your own L&D practice. 

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Tom Palmer