Continuous Regeneration Problem Resolution
Most environmental actions today are incremental. We keep doing what we do, or aspire to do, but disturb nature a tad less while doing it, like switching to environmentally benign cleaning agents. Given our huge range of environmental messes, that’s not enough.
A few initiatives are regenerative. An obvious example is Genesis Farm in New Jersey, a working farm that also teaches permaculture and care for nature. It co-exists with a thriving local ecosystem. Something like a Genesis Farm in more urban settings is possible, but not obvious. Ecosystems are unique and local. Restoring one to a prior state of nature is impossible, but an ecosystem can be nursed into biological viability.
But how can humans enjoy quality of life while nurturing nature? Without changing values, we can’t. Rationalists utterly divorced from nature can’t imagine an ethos that smacks of tree hugging. To them, any concept of success not centered on humans seems irrational. But co-existing with nature requires a guiding ethos that is less me-centered or company centered. It simplifies logically threading through a welter of detail on how to live differently, and how to transition into a very different economy.
One name for this ethos is “Deep Ecology.” Another is “Earth Literacy.” Ceremonial nature worship turns off action-oriented rationalists, even if blended into a familiar religion like Christianity. However, the dispassionate rationalists among us can just adopt a different guiding star, a “truer North.”
Although wrapped in convoluted finance, our core economic thinking is efficiency, getting more from less – or in any case getting more – growth. Efficiency’s guiding faith is productivity, gaining ever more output per hour of human effort. By extension, that presumes that quality of life equates to consumption, more consumption being better than less, prizing quantity over quality. Here quality includes regeneration of both nature and “human culture.” However, changing any deep belief is “hard stuff.”
Effectiveness is doing better using much less, while regenerating both human systems and ecological ones to assure that they mutually live in perpetuity. To do that, quality of life can’t center on perpetually increasing consumption. Everybody needs food, but not vehicles, closets full of throwaway clothes, and monstrous dwellings. Effectiveness recognizes that any technology on a large scale has downsides as well as upsides. Our problem solving should question new technology’s effect on regeneration.
Therefore in Continuous Regeneration, heading for a new True North, problem solving may be more like problem resolution. Discard assumptions common to problem solving today. One is that we can always solve complex problems piecemeal; then put the pieces together. A related assumption is that conditions stay constant; a problem once solved, stays solved. Doesn’t happen, not if familiar patterns fade quickly – for individuals, companies, communities, or ecologies.
Another assumption is that we can precisely predict the future, a fallacy underpinning many organizations’ annual budget planning exercise. When forecasts on which budgets are based go astray, they are useless, but rationalist managers loathe giving up illusions of certainty if their control systems are based on them. “Beyond Budgeting” dispels some of this illusory fog, but it does not make the uncertainty go away.
And of course, question our criteria for success: not more territory, more market, more revenue, more profit, more customers served, or more hits on the web site. Instead go for better balance and quality: better balance in our lives, products that endure through many cradle-to-cradle life cycles, better balance with nature – in all senses – and perhaps even personal enjoyment of effective, vigorous problem solving.
Few of us change our values through reflective meditation. Most of us learn to think differently by learning to do differently. However, we are far from a regenerative world in which to practice new thinking. Instead can we promote our transition into systems more robust to uncertainty by learning to resolve our problems differently?
Many organizations now use variations of the scientific method for problem solving, like Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA from W. Edwards Deming). They mostly apply to tame problems, like correcting a flaw in paint processes in a factory. Such a problem may be vexing because it has an interlocking tangle of potential causes, but it has an answer, a fix that stays fixed – until another flaw appears – and people don’t disagree about the objective of the problem solving.
Wisely used, PDSA burrows deep with endless why questions, spinning the PDSA wheel over and over. By mulling evidence and mentally testing the effects of countermeasures for messy problems, problem solvers may rethink their problem definitions many times. These problem solvers are edging toward an approach needed for wicked problems, Continuous Regeneration Problem Solving.
A truly wicked problem may involve all the following: Conflicts in understanding the problem; win-lose consequences ensue from any decision. Systems are constantly changing and impossible to comprehensively understand (like an ecosystem). Factors like weather are outside human control. No outcome may be ideal, or optimal. Some people may insist that no problem exists (and they might be right). And any concepts of future post-problem states may not be sharply focused.
For example, such a problem is figuring out how a community can migrate toward quality of life while using few resources and maintaining a healthy local ecosystem. A key question is what would success look like? Without a lot of learning, even a foggy future vision is unlikely, and working toward something that we can’t envision at all is group grope. We won’t do it.
When all the world is a muddle, the sketch at the top of this article roughly diagrams how group problem solving (or problem resolution) can proceed. This is a more holistic approach to intervening in complex systems, never stopping after a countermeasure, assuming that other system variables are static. It continuously monitors and continuously rethinks the situation, now and how it might unfold over a foreseeable future.
Intervening in messy systems is beyond one person, no matter how insightful, if for no other reason than that many people are part of the system. Continuous Regeneration Problem Resolution diagrams a group problem resolution loop. For anything to actually happen, multiple people must understand and participate both in making decisions and in executing them. That is, we need Vigorous Learning Organizations, capable of group learning using dialog, and adept in resolving both tame and wicked problems.