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Growth, Transformation & Progress

October 21, 2013

There is much talk these days about growth, transformation and progress; three key qualities of life yet so often misunderstood.


Many of us have been taught – directly or indirectly through cultural assumptions – that transformation follows a progressive, linear trajectory.  We many have been taught that transformative growth in the natural world follows four stages: open landscape or bare ground exploited by pioneering species such as ‘weeds’ and grasses, transforming into scrub land with small bushes, then trees start to take over and in time the ecosystem matures into a forest. The mature forest is often viewed as a ‘steady-state’ ecosystem. Ditto for our business systems, we often assume that entrepreneurial pioneers innovate, venture out through prototyping, then experience growth of their products and services, and then the market position is protected and conserved where possible. Ditto for our economic paradigm, new markets are exploited for growth; then tending towards steady-state maturity. In this view of life, success comes with progression through these stages.  The goal tends towards an ultimate ‘holding-on’ to conserve the dominant position; the ‘Top Dog’ steady-state.

This view of life is, alas, over-simplistic; life is far more dynamic and spiralling in nature than this. To view life as innovation à growth à conservation is at best half-cut, as it misses out half of the picture. In attending to life in a half-cut way, we run the risk of becoming out-of-kilter with the way life really is and so finding ourselves operating in inherently unsustainable ways.

In reality, to understand life in full colour, depth and flow is to recognise and embrace death and rebirth as fundamental life’s continual transformation. Holding on to any stage of development in order to conserve the status quo unnecessarily saps our creativity, diminishing our learning experiences and holding us back from realising our full potential.


A more balanced way to understand the nature of transformation in Business and Nature is to recognise – as Indigenous Peoples have for millennia – the ever-spiralling transformative process inherent within reality. With the caveat that any rational definition (which our left-brained ego-consciousness craves for) is always bound to be an incomplete explanation of reality, we can delve deeper into the nature of transformational systems by exploring what is called the ‘adaptive cycle’, sometimes referred to as the ‘lazy eight’.

progression7As you can see from the image of the adaptive cycle, there are indeed stages of adaptation that can be represented by innovation, growth and conservation.  Yet what we so often do in our current paradigmic way of thinking is overlook or blinker ourselves from seeing the most fundamental. Perhaps because it is deemed socially uncomfortable, we skip over creative destruction and reconfiguration process of death and rebirth so key to any natural ecosystem – whether business, social or ecological. The so called steady state scenario is not what actually occurs in reality, as life is always changing. Rather than trying to shun creative destruction by holding on for fear of the unknown, we would do well to embrace it. Breakdown is what leads to breakthrough.  Letting go of old ways is what opens the way for radical innovation.  Systemic redesign is what brings long term resilience.progression10

Otto Scharmer, Peter Senge and others from MIT and The Presencing Institute have explored this letting go process at the leadership dimension in business (personal, stakeholder group and organisational).  It is this letting go that is vital for real transformation to take place and so for a redesigning for resilience to happen amidst these volatile times.

John O’Donohue in his wonderful book Anam Cara beautifully describes the cyclic nature of the seasonal year and its relation to our stages of transformation, learning, growth and development as we progress through life.  This progression relates at many levels: an individual level, organisational level and socio-economic level, for instance.progression13

Spring is a youthful season, full of hope, promise and possibility.  It is a time to embark on new adventure as we open up to new possibilities. Innovations abound. It is a busy, yet energising time when new projects are embarked upon.

Summertime is where we find ourselves in full stride.  It’s a time for nurturing and growth, and we take risks while adventuring into new horizons.

Autumn is the time when the seeds sown in spring and nurtured during summer are now coming to fruition. The experiences of the past months are now yielding fruit and it is time for us to harvest the learning of our experiences.


Winter is so often viewed as the end. It is a time of rest, recuperation, winding down and hibernation. Yet it is also a time for reflection and reconfiguration along with inner review of our learnt experiences. Without this inner review and reflection, our preparations for springtime can lack the foundational wisdom needed for transformative change to take root.  This time of self-retraction and turning inwards can be viewed as bleak in many ways, yet death is vital for any transformation and rebirth. In this way, aging and inner-contemplation can be seen for what they are: times of great poise and wisdom. It is from this wintertime that new life can take root within our soul and within the soul earth of Nature.progression14

Often in today’s consumerist society of short-lived superficial satisfaction, we wish to skip over the deeper more profound parts of our own self, organisational and societal transformative learning. We wish for a perpetual summer and autumnal harvest festival, cherry picking the perceived ‘highlights’ without recognising that these are part of a spiralling cycle of life, death and rebirth. As any wise person knows there are no short cuts, only false illusory gains which come back to haunt later.

Any truly sustainable transformation at a personal, organisational and socio-economic level requires a conscious embracement of all the seasons and all the spiralling stages of transformation. Half-cuts just won’t do. Propping up our current half-cut way of attending to life by inflating consumption patterns (whether through quantitative easing, easy credit or stimulation of the housing market) largely skips over the inevitable deeper learning and transformation that has to happen if we are to grow up. Our current socio-economic situation is analogous to us busying ourselves by propping up a gigantic hot-air blower trying to keep the cold of winter out. If only we can hang-on for just a bit longer (at least until the next general elections) then perhaps all will be well, we naively hope. We skip the deep learning because we have numbed ourselves to reality through the soul-destroying way of living. In the words of Pink Floyd, ‘We have become comfortably numb’.progression3

This comfortable numbness happens all too often in organisations too.  We may embark on efficiency and cost-reduction programs, yet so often shy away from a deep reconfiguration of our business model. The cost cutting is merely a way of holding on to the conservation of our steady state, hoping that consumption will return and so the wheels can keep on turning. No deep learning and inner review of the organisation is properly embraced.  Yet in these transformational times, organisations and their leaders need to embrace transformational change: death/rebirth, breakdown/breakthrough.  In the words of Dawn Vance, Global Head of Logistics for Nike:

‘Organisations have three options:

1)      Hit the wall;

2)      Optimise and delay hitting the wall;

3)      Redesign for resilience.’

Many organisations today – for profit and non-profit – busy themselves with optimising the existing business model which is only delaying the inevitable car crash.

At a personal level, we so often find it preferable to hold on to our current way of attending to life in challenging times, hoping the tough times will pass, rather than to deeply reflect, let go of old habits and transform to new ways of living and being. In the hectic business of our daily schedules we find it difficult to take time out to reflect on where we are at, let alone take a deep look at how we need to transform our lives. Such deep reflection can stir up deep seated fears of failure and open up old partially healed wounds. Saying goodbye to the autumnal harvests in order to embark on the darker, inward stillness of winter is not for the faint hearted, yet the only real path ahead for real transformation. progression11

At any time there is a dominant season present in our personal, organisational and socio-economic cycles. Sensing and then responding to where one is in that cycle is the first step to becoming aware of our transformational progression.

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