Introducing Carol Sanford


I don’t believe in destiny but I do believe there is something about us that finds something we want to do and then if we have the will and we build the capability, we can develop an enormous amount of skill and ability to do things. – Carol Sanford.

Towards the end of law school I was introduced to the concept of frameworks and taxonomy. In a class run by a wise ex-judge, we explored ‘The Conceptual Framework of the Common Law’. Through that mind bending expedition, I became aware of one of the fundamental thought processes a human being can engage with – that of really examining the origin of their thoughts and thinking process, and seeing them in relationship to each other.

It has the sensation of you zooming out from whatever you were doing, and realising that you’ve been focused quite narrowly. That what you thought was the horizon, was the end of the bathtub. Your mind goes from Google street view to Google Maps, and you realise your perspective and understanding of your field, was partial and fragmented.

Carol Sanford, business educator and next level thinker, is a master of this process. She has spent her life integrating and making sense of those nagging aspects of incompleteness. Over the past 42 years, she has worked with small businesses to multinationals like Google, Dupont, Colgate, and Palmolive. Carol has developed a comprehensive understanding of how organisations, people and systems work, and what it takes to evolve them. She now writes about regenerative business design – that is the conscious design of businesses, organisational structures and cultures that enable people, society and natural systems to thrive.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Carol on her 75th birthday, in the comfort of a small boutique hotel lobby only a bike ride away from the Kaospilot school in Aarhus. We had a broad ranging discussion covering the history of Carol’s unique work, her approach to educating organisations, and advice for young people in being more critical and finding meaningful work. In this article, first in a series, we find out how Carol started identifying paradigms as a way to transform thinking.

When I asked Carol what first motivated her to choose her way, she replied;

I don’t know one ever chooses something way back, it’s more like an evolution that happens. I was very interested in urban planning, business and also how information moved around. I noticed that each of these felt really incomplete.

As a young faculty member and part of a six person interdisciplinary program at San Jose University (Carol has an undergraduate business degree in economics, a master’s degree in urban planning and had done doctorate work in psychology), she felt the coming together and cross-referencing of different disciplinary worlds.

She says ‘Along the way, I found living systems theory which was not something I had grown up with or studied and I had never even reached that ability to see the links, connections, the aliveness, the movement of something.’ At the time, she was working with a man who had founded a lot of the systems in Procter & Gamble, who introduced the concept of different levels of work.

‘The highest level of work you could do was regeneration. So when I saw that I thought, oh that pulls together everything I’ve been building, that it builds from the essence of a company and all the people in it, each of their essences, and it matches customers, consumers, communities, with their essence, and then you constantly get closer and closer and closer, that you reinvent, regenerate, evolve it. So, it was kind of an evolutionary set of steps.’

I don’t believe in destiny but I do believe there is something about us that finds something we want to do and then if we have the will and we build the capability, we can develop an enormous amount of skill and ability to do things. I think that’s what I did.

When I asked Carol if she was destined to make some of these connections, she replied that destiny implied predetermination, and that she worked like hell to figure it out. Part of this was spurred by her annoyance at inconsistencies.

‘By inconsistencies, I mean what people would say about people whose skin had color in it. I grew up in a very white world. People would say they weren’t racist but I would see their behaviour and I couldn’t make sense of things. I’d see the same thing in how communities worked, who they took care of and who they didn’t. Eventually as I was in education, I would see faculty members talk about one thing and do something else. And I called people out on it all the time, I was always in trouble.’

I was impressed by Carol’s ability to channel her observations constructively, and this she tracks back to developing compassion for people. As she describes,

I began to see it in myself. That I was saying something and not completely living up to it. And once you can actually have an opportunity to do that in yourself, you become much more compassionate. I think that is something that we don’t build in this culture, compassion for what other people are seeing and not seeing.

This had wide implications for her work, she explains, ‘What I slowly figured out was these inconsistencies came from people’s inability to see themselves. To see the effects they produced from what they did, to see how much their own world view was shaping things. I started trying to understand paradigms, and what I saw was that people have a different way of viewing things. There was inconsistency because of my interpretation – they were inconsistent with the paradigm I was viewing from.’

Carol began reading and understanding paradigms, and developing her ability to see from the perspective of others. ‘I started reading everybody who had ever written on them, starting with Thomas Kuhn (took his philosophy of science class at UC Berkeley), who had articulated that paradigms are so invisible, they’re like fish in water that don’t know what water is. And the more I studied, the more I would find myself playing with things. I would listen to someone and I would say, ‘if I were looking at this mechanistically, or from a more whole paradigm, how could I understand how they got to that point?’

I found myself fascinated by how much more I could see if I just switched the world view I saw it through and didn’t make others wrong, but made myself understand how they got to that view. I began to name paradigms and tried to get others to do what I had discovered. It helped me to become less judgmental and more able to help people.

This changed her approach from consulting, to business education.

‘I had been doing what I called consulting, all kinds of programs and even ways to get rid of hierarchies. Suddenly I realized that if I gave people programs, unless they were coming from the world view that they were, or the paradigm they were seeing it from, that they were going to fight it. They may not say it out loud but something in them might fight it. Then also if it was inconsistent with their essence and their ability to express this, they would fight it and undermine change programs. So I changed to purely education mode – just giving the kind of frameworks that worked for me in my head, and asking them to just look at them and decide where they were in relation to those frameworks. And it was so fast for people to be able to suddenly say, wow, I can see how I’m holding this in from that world view and I never said I wanted to do that.’

Carol has named four main paradigms, in order of evolution of thinking; ‘extract value’, ‘arrest disorder’, ‘do good’ and ‘evolve capacity’. This offers a way to order and evaluate organisational practices. As she describes them, ‘The four paradigms I’m playing with right now are ‘extract value,’ which is; ‘that’s the world, the whole cosmology of the world, and I’ve gotta get mine’. ‘Arresting disorder;’ which is the people who are trying to keep us from making a mess of the earth and society and social justice. Up to the next one which is ‘do good’ where we try and get beyond just doing less bad to understanding what it would be like if something were working.’

Carol explained how the next paradigm came with the tendency to judgmentalness; ‘‘Do good’ also came with me imposing my ideas. It was easy when doing good to have an ideology and a list of things. I became more judgmental again. In the moment, I would step into that paradigm and think, ‘well I know what they should be doing.’ I realised that what I was trying to do good with good intentions was actually apostatizing or colonizing of other people’s minds.’ Finally I would step in and look from this idea of living systems or the paradigm I call ‘evolve capacity;’ to give others the capacity to do what they are seeking to do whatever their aspiration is.

She continues, ‘So, I started teaching people how to see those kinds of things. I started studying business practices since I’ve been working in big corporations globally for many, many years now. When I did research to show CEOs and regional managers what I was seeing, like; ‘here are a bunch of practices you have and here are five kinds of eras in the history of work design, where do you see these falling?’ They would see pretty quickly what I did. So from seeing inconsistencies, being able to be constructive in this context was giving people the capacity to see what they were doing and the effects of it rather than me saying it.’

Throughout our interactions, I’ve been truly impressed by Carol’s ability to take a clear eyed approach to evolving capacity. In the next article in this series, we explore the question, how do you be more discerning? You can find out more about Carol’s work at:

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