Carol Sanford on Living Systems Thinking and Permaculture (E19)

The creation of this episode was an incredible experience. Carol is shockingly sharp, disruptive beyond belief, and an absolute thrill to be in a conversation with. This episode is dripping with rich insights into regenerative and living systems thinking and how we can apply it to permaculture. I know you’re going to love it.

Here’s the conversation as a video:

Here is Carol’s personal website.

Here is an article Carol wrote about potential that has informed the future direction of Making Permaculture Stronger.

Here is a link to a page with info about Carol’s books. Her latest book is called The Regenerative Human and will be released March 2020. She asked me to mention that she is still looking for people to be involved in the action-learning project she discussed in our chat. See the details of being involved in this here.

Here’s is Carol’s podcast Business Second Opinion. This episode goes through Seven Principles of Regeneration and is is well worth a listen.

Here are the Deep Pacific online workshops. Carol asked me to “Let your listeners know they are welcome. All recorded. No beginning or end. You begin when you Step on the Mat, like I learned in Aikido, and practice with all levels of experience.” I (Dan) am signing up so maybe I’ll see you there.

Here is Regenesis Group that was mentioned. For the interest of folk in the vicinity of Victoria, Australia, Regenesis member Joel Glanzberg will be running a one-day workshop on Regenerative Design in Melbourne July 2019.

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  1. Regarding environmental phenomenology and perception, why not interview professor David Seamon? He’s remarkable on Bortoft as well as many other authors as Christopher Alexander, etc. Would love to hear his words on biomimicry’s approach to design [Even if we can not actually mimic other living beings, why not learn from them for design?] as well as to understand what contribute discussing design could take from the Environmental Phenomenology. What does he think of Living Systems Theory?

    NCT (Niche Construction Theory) might also have much of value for this conversation regarding what is our role in ecosystems, but regarding that theme I have no clue about who to suggest 🙂 even though I quoted some of those issues for my master thesis dissertation, I haven’t kept up with the subject thus far.
    Been planning on writing to you for a while, but I have been busy such as yourself 🙂 meanwhile, I’ll just keep tracking where this is going, but I strongly believe you guys are right – matters of culture are matters of perception and knowing our role/purpose (someone will hate me, but you know what I mean haha) as/in Nature is very important as a whole and it is the philosophical core of most of these ideologies… someone would say it is not merely an intellectual act of awareness, but a spiritual transformation what is taking place. But let’s not go there without David Seamon 🙂

    Congratulations to you and all participants

  2. That was a great interview, Dan. Lots to think about!

    I do find it hard to reconcile Sanford’s insights with my distaste for the whole mega-corp world (her clients include Google, Nike, Proctor & Gamble etc.) and the business self-help vibe of her website, which seems very focused on revenue growth. Given the terrible practices of many of these organisations, and the intrinsically harmful side-effects of a massive profit-extraction machine, it’s hard to understand how a concept of ‘regeneration’ is relevant.

    Not that I’m judging Sanford for working with these organisations – I work in the corporate IT industry myself – I just struggle to understand the apparent disconnect.

    However, the ideas from the interview did really speak to me; so I’ve just started reading “No More Feedback”. Don’t want to judge the book by its cover, so to speak.

    1. I’m with you Fraser. I quickly lost interest in Carol’s website due to the corporate vibe but I am fascinated by her thinking. Would be keen to hear your thoughts once you’re finished reading ‘No More Feedback’.

      1. Hi Peter,

        Having just finished the book, I’ve come back to your comment with a lengthy review!

        I think it’s well worth reading if you’re involved in any kind of employer:employee or mentor:mentee relationship. I’d definitely like to try applying some of the ideas to how I work with my manager.

        The basic gist of the book, as I recall it, is that all people naturally have some potential to become self-determining, autonomous, and to take responsibility for the development of their own potential, as it relates to their own life satisfaction and their contribution to the greater good (whether that’s an organisation, a society, or an ecosystem).

        In business, and many other contexts, “feedback” has become the most popular concept in managing people. It is somewhat effective, but has a bunch of negative effects that lead Sanford to consider it a ‘toxic’ practice. Some of these include:
        – It’s a mechanistic concept that doesn’t translate well to the complexity of human development as part of a “living system”.
        – Being authoritarian, it damages people’s ability to self-reflect, use their intuition, and take responsibility for themselves.
        – Despite the appearance of objectivity, it’s actually wildly subjective in practice.

        The alternative that Sanford offers is a “developmental” approach, in which the organisation has a high-level framework of values and goals, and the workers are supported to become self-reflective. Instead of providing feedback, she advises managers and others to become good at using the Socratic method to ask questions that help workers to come to their own insights about their current work and future aims.

        She doesn’t quite flesh out how to put this process in place; I guess it’s covered in her other books and courses.

        One thing I’m not entirely clear on is how broad Sanford’s definition of ‘feedback’is. The book focuses on feedback as a mechanism for staff performance reviews (and similar scenarios); I’d like to understand whether she thinks it’s also applicable to, say, offering and seeking advice more generally. I think Dan asked the same question in the podcast but I don’t think I quite understood the answer.

        Reading the examples in the book did help me understand why Sanford works with the organisations that I called “massive profit-extraction machine(s)”. They’re made up of people, and when people embrace a developmental/regenerative view of career development, it sets them up for looking at how to apply the same thinking in a wider context. There are a few examples in the book of people and companies using Sanford’s developmental approach in a way that countered societal problems. However, what I’d really be keen to see is some examples of people using the approach to tackle what I think of as the *inherent* negative effects of a mega-company like Google or Proctor and Gamble. I’m thinking of stuff like environmental damage, consumerism, forced obsolescence, political interference, exploitative third-world labour practices and so on.

        1. Thanks for that great review Fraser. I’ve really enjoyed the recent series of conversations Dan has had with Carol, Joel, and then Bill. For me Carol has been the hardest of the three to get a handle on. I may have to read some of her books to try and properly understand her thinking. It seems that being clear on definitions of terms is key. I remember Dan grappling with her meaning of feedback, just as you did, but I think there was ultimately agreement and a happy ending. I think I’ll have to go back and listen again to her conversation with Dan. There’s been so much to absorb in the recent podcasts and I missed a lot of ideas because I was still mulling over previous points as the conversation continued.

  3. Possibly of interest: I put a lot more systems thinking into the current PDC than most people would. Feedback from students on the thing they most valued about the course? Systems thinking!! Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets. To change the outcome we must change the system and that cannot be done from a reductionist perspective. We must understand the whole of the system.

  4. Mycellium! It’s the master pattern for everything I do!

    Networks. Nodes. Connections. Soft systems keep evolving.

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