Upstreaming our thinking as a regenerative practice

For at least the last 2 years I’ve been grappling with one regenerative practice framework that seems simple at first glance, but is such a mind bender, for me anyway. I’m still finding my way with this framework and by no means have I got it mastered (is that even possible or desirable?). It’s called the Levels of Work (developed by Carol Sanford, building on the work of Charles Krone) and it’s become a frame for me to try and understand not only what kind of work I’m undertaking, but what level it’s pitched at. Let me attempt an explanation. And please, take this with a pinch of salt. It’s an ongoing musing, not a fixed conclusion. I’m going to build on a story I once heard from one of the Regenesis faculty. 

I imagine myself in a car or vehicle of some kind. It’s pretty run down and it really doesn’t drive well at all. It’s consistently breaking down and it’s dangerous too. There feels like this pressing need to stabilise things and at least make it safe so I’m not putting myself and other people at risk. 

While safety is essential, can you imagine a world where all of our work projects stopped at this level of thinking? Where all of our efforts were merely to stabilise dangerous situations. A world where we do the bare minimum to make sure things aren’t falling apart. I can’t really imagine that supporting the development of a healthy relationship, or a family or a company. 

So, the next level up feels to me like… make it work properly. Check the oil regularly, change the tyres before the tread wears out, try and keep it operating well. This starts to have ripple effects on the safety right. Taking care of the operations of the car means it’s less likely to get to a point where it gets dangerous and needs to be stabilised. 

But again, if we all stopped there we would have a world where everyone has cars that operate beautifully, but as soon as they get onto the roads there are all sorts of conflicts and collisions because we haven’t actually learned how to drive well with others. We haven’t learned how to pay attention to the changing pace of the cars around us and adjust our speed accordingly, we haven’t learned how to see the weather deteriorating and turn our lights on.

Having all the cars operating well does not necessarily imply that the traffic is flowing well. There is a need to maintain our effectiveness on the roads, just like a business works to maintain its position in an industry or market. It’s not just focused on internal operations, it’s also looking outwards to see what other businesses are doing and making sure it adapts to maintain its competitive edge. Important if you actually want to stay in business, or in the case of the car analogy, stay on the road. 

Ok, so the car is stabilised, it operates well, and now it can travel effectively on the road in relation to other drivers and changing road conditions. Good. All very important things. 

When I move a little further upstream in my thinking I try to generate a mental picture of the whole roading system; the patterns and flows of traffic across a city. I start to think about those amazing mathematicians who developed algorithms for assessing traffic flows and therefor adjusting in real time the duration that red and green traffic lights stay on. I start to think of engineers who design intersections to create a more easeful flow of vehicles.

At this level of thinking pattern-mind kicks in. For me it feels like floating above the car and even above the traffic and actually seeing the whole road map of Auckland city (where I live) in my mind, alive with movement just like a circulatory system in a body. From this birds eye view it’s easy to see the obvious points where things are getting stuck, to see the times of day when things get most congested and to start to come up with ideas of how to improve this pattern, this flow.

But again, is this enough? If we all stopped here in upstreaming our thinking, what kind of impact would our work have in the world, now and into the future? Likely there’d be fantastic roading systems, but what about all the other systems? 

Imagine leaving that birds eye view and coming back down into the level of the traffic, then the level of the car, and then imagine yourself pulling over, getting out and stepping off the asphalt and onto the grass verge beside the road. Where are you? What place are you in? 

The road is a thin track of material laid across a landscape. And not any landscape. One that is totally unique and exists nowhere else in the world. This landscape has a water system, there are springs, streams and rivers that flow down towards the ocean. These naturally interact with the roading system we’ve been exploring. I remember meeting a woman a few years ago as I was walked a lagoon track in Northcote, a suburb of Auckland. She told me about the 100 year flood that happens in this area, and recalls a time, many years ago, when she saw a whole section of the motorway submerged. 

Can you imagine all the other interconnected systems alive in this place, having an impact on, or being impacting by this roading system? I sometimes wonder, do the people who work with the water systems talk to the people who work with the roading systems? And to the people who work with the business ecosystem of that area? And the people who steward the history and cultural knowledge of that place? And those who work with the people of that place? And the ecologists who work with the plant and animal species who also have their own roads and highways as they move throughout this region? 

Who actually is this place? And more importantly, who is this place trying to become? How can my roading project develop in a way that supports this place as a whole to become more alive, healthier, more vital, and ultimately to regenerate? Is my project actually the right project for here and now? Does my project need to evolve in terms of it’s focus, scope and timeframe, in order to align with what’s needed to truly regenerate this place as a whole? 

This is not about making a roading system more “green”. It’s about upgrading a roading system in a way that integrates it with all the other place-based upgrading efforts and natural forces currently active or on their way. Starting not from the projects on the table, but from the ground beneath the room that our table stands in, the place itself. 

From everything I’ve seen and learned in the practice of regenerative development here in Aotearoa / New Zealand, it’s impossible to shove everyone in a room and say, “Ok, go, integrate all your projects.” When I’ve witnessed truly meaningful integration, it hasn’t started with… “Hi, this is me and my car, this is how I want to drive on the roads and how the roads should change… now tell me about your projects”, it’s started with… 

Who is the place we’re all in service too? It’s unique, all it’s systems are interconnected and it’s evolving, or in other words, it’s alive and whole. Let’s start by meeting it. Seeing the potential of what this specific place, as a whole living system, could become. 

But of course, what I’m speaking to here is nothing new. Indigenous peoples have seen their places as alive, as whole, as weavings of evolving interconnected systems for thousands of years. 

And so here it is, the Levels of Work framework I’ve been trying to tease out in this story… 

Regenerating

Improving

Maintaining Effectiveness 

Operating

Stabilising

It’s one of the many frameworks used by Regenesis, Carol Sanford and other practitioners globally who practice going upstream in their thinking in order to enable regenerative effects further downstream, in their actions. 

I’ll leave you with this quote from a fascinating conversation I had with Petazae Thoms (Rainbow youth advocate) about mental health in New Zealand. He told me… 

“If we are always focusing on the mental health crisis [eg. stabilise level thinking], we will always be in crisis.”

You can read more about the Levels of Work framework here – 

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