Unprecedented” must be the most over-used word in the English language right now. I’m tired of it. Especially because it’s used so often without thought.

Unprecedented means never done or known before; never having happened or existed in the past. True, the specific COVID variation of the coronavirus is new (hence the name novel coronavirus). But If we’re talking about pandemics, there’s nothing new there. Humans have experienced them throughout recorded history.

MPH Online is an independent online resource for public health students. In 10 of the Worst Pandemics in History, they say…

Scientists and medical researchers for years have differed over the exact definition of a pandemic (is it a pandemic, or an epidemic), but one thing everyone agrees on is that the word describes the widespread occurrence of disease, in excess of what might normally be expected in a geographical region.

Cholera, bubonic plague, smallpox, and influenza are some of the most brutal killers in human history. And outbreaks of these diseases across international borders are properly defined as pandemic, especially smallpox, which, throughout history, has killed between 300-500 million people in its 12,000 year existence.

It’s hard to get a sense of the relative magnitude of these diseases over the past 2,000 years. Here’s the best thing I found to give some perspective. Click on the image below to see the full pandemic timeline right up to COVID-19…

History of Pandemics

To bring this closer to home, here’s a photo of my maternal grandmother, who was born at the beginning of the twentieth century and lived until 1979. Click on her photo, taken in 1904, to see what she lived through…

My Grandma in 1904

And so…

If we still want to convey that we’re having an experience that has never occurred before, here are some synonyms to at least make our language more interesting and possibly more accurate. Take your pick…

What word best describes it for me? 

How about for you?

The making of an agile corporation…

This is the story of what it took for one huge company to transform its leadership and ways of working.

Why is this of interest to me?

It’s another of the “imaginal cells” that are emerging in this time when we see ever-more clearly that old systems are no longer working. As I mentioned in my post on Metamorphosis, I’ve been on the lookout for examples of different ways of thinking and the experiments that are testing these new paradigms.

The first was Doughnut Economics. In that post, we heard economist Kate Raworth describe her vision for an economic model that ensures sufficiency for all without exceeding the limits of what earth can provide. In April 2020, Amsterdam became a Doughnut City. I’ve just received further information about the application of this model for our post-pandemic future…

 In June, the city council of Copenhagen committed to turning  into a Doughnut City—a good life for all within planetary boundaries. Dozens of other cities and towns worldwide have been in touch with Kate Raworth, economist and author of Doughnut Economics, to indicate they are also interested. These commitments demonstrate very exciting and bold examples of leadership in how we can transform the crisis of the pandemic into an opportunity for human renewal.

Leading for agility…

Today’s imaginal cell story is about a huge corporation and its whole-system transformation. I learned about it through an interview on the coaching summit I mentioned last week.

I almost didn’t watch this session, though. The title was Scaling Leadership, Agility and Vertical Development Inside an Organization, and the organization is Hoffmann-La Roche (Roche), a global healthcare company with about 94,000 employees in more than 100 countries.

I’m a fan of localized business and the small is beautiful philosophy, so I was sceptical that I would find anything of interest in this conversation. But they used words such as whole-system, transformation, emergent, and sustaining. It seemed they were speaking my language.

…we will explore lessons learned and emerging insights from Roche’s whole-system transformation of leadership and ways of working. As one of the highest profile (and most currently relevant) organizational transformations taking place, Roche’s unique integration of agility, vertical development, and emergent change has resulted in significant impact across all areas of the business. They will also explore how Roche is sustaining transformation in today’s disruptive environment…

It was inspiring!

So I listened…and was inspired. I’d like to let you hear for yourselves but unfortunately the video isn’t available for sharing. So here are some of my impressions…

  • What Roche wanted was greater agility, which they define as speed and flexibility with stability.

  • Changing “how” starts with mindset, and requires self-transformation of company leaders.
  • The old leadership approach was reactive, trying to keep everything under control and putting out fires as they flared up. Leaders expected that there were right answers in any situation and they were the source of those answers.
  • It had become apparent that the level of complexity they were dealing with very quickly outmatched those traditional strategies.
  • The experiential program that Roche implemented was to shift leaders from the reactive mindset to a creative mindset, one in which they would proactively shape processes and structure to fulfill the company’s purpose and vision.
  • Leaders were coached to notice their reactive patterns, recognize their creative capacities, reconnect with purpose, and remember the key principles of the company.
  • The main competency they were aiming for was the ability to act in the face of limited data, ambiguity, and complexity where there is a high likelihood of not being correct, at least not entirely—and to still do it. In other words, they needed to find their confidence and inner knowing to navigate the predicaments that arise in this complex world we live in.
  • The courage of these leaders was acknowledged—courage to be vulnerable, to go into uncharted waters, to risk taking the next step when there was no clear path or right answer.
  • The benefit to leaders was a huge release of stress when they came from this entirely different place while carrying out their duties.

The language of agility is important…

Here were a few distinctions that were made:

  • invite (to encourage self-authority) …instead of… order or direct (which makes the person subject to someone else)
  • mapping (to see interconnections) …instead of… choosing (A or B)
  • value creation (when we can create value, it is unlimited ) …instead of… value capture (resources are limited and we have to compete for our share)

Summing up this approach…

  • People are invited to choose somethig new. A different way. A more empowered way. A more purposeful way. A less-frightened, more courageous way.
  • According to Tammy Lowry from Roche, “It isn’t about processes or practices, it’s a fundamental change in the way our organization works together. It’s a revolution.”
  • People are invited to courageously step into it and be prepared to do their own inner work.
  • If you’d like more details about what this deep-dive experience looks like, check out this article.

What makes this inspiring for me…

  • The program quickly moved through the company because the leaders who participated were so enthusiastic.
  • There have been measurable results in terms of company performance in relation to its purpose.
  • They are bringing leaders together to have connecting conversation in which they can benefit from learnings across all divisions of the company.
  • The initiators see this approach as translatable into society. It starts with shifting the mindset and creating an opportunity for reimagining how that might work. That is what excites me most!

The fact that this is happening in a huge company—the fact that almost prevented me from listening—turns out to be the convincing aspect. If this new mindset can permeate a large corporate culture, where else might it percolate? I wonder…

Reality check…

The first step in recovery from anything is facing the facts, recognizing the reality of the situation we are in, acknowledging where we’ve arrived in life.

Here’s where we—the humans of the world—find ourselves in this summer of 2020. We are in a…

  • plight = a condition, state, or situation, especially an unfavourable or unfortunate one
  • quandary = a state of perplexity or uncertainty, especially as to what to do
  • dilemma = a situation requiring a choice between equally undesirable  alternatives
  • imbroglio = an intricate and perplexing state of affairs; a complicated or difficult situation; a confused heap
  • quagmire = a situation from which extraction is difficult

It’s no coincidence that these are unfamiliar words. They’ve fallen out of use because so far we haven’t experienced life events this way. We’ve been used to identifying problems and coming up with solutions when something isn’t working the way we think it should. Not always easy but pretty straightforward.

This problem-solving strategy has been serving us well for many years..until suddenly it isn’t.

The big shift of this time…

We’ve transitioned to an era when problem-solving is not able to help us.

Look back at the meanings of plight, quandary, dilemma, imbroglio, and quagmire, which are all synonyms of predicament. They describe a state of affairs that is much more far-reaching than any one problem. We are in a predicament, and the challenge of this time is to figure out how we can navigate our way through it.

Navigating is not the same as problem-solving. To sailors, wind is not a problem. It’s a fact of the environment they are moving through, and they have to figure out how to work with it to get where they want to go. This involves harnessing the wind’s energy and avoiding missteps that capsize the boat or otherwise get them into trouble or take them off course.

I started my reality check after I’d been feeling cranky about the pandemic and social unrest for a couple weeks. I didn’t know why I felt that way or what to do about it. I just knew I didn’t like feeling that way.

Then I came across a Carolyn Myss video in which she brought up the idea that this is more than a problem to be solved, and she identified our current situation as a predicament. That rang bells for me and I wanted to get a clearer distinction between problems and predicaments—which is what got me looking up the synonyms. It shifted me out of the crankiness to have that understanding, but left me wondering…what can we do about it?

A couple weeks later, I found insight in an interview on an online coaching summit about leadership in times of uncertainty. The speaker was leadership coach Steve March on the topic of Adapting and Thriving in Times of Uncertainty. Although he was speaking to people who coach business leaders, the information applies to all contexts in life. His approach filled in the missing piece about what is the way, if not problem solving will no longer work. And it clicked together pieces of living systems theory that I’d studied with Fritjof Capra at Schumacher College in 1994.

And so…

What can we do to find our way through this predicament, this unpleasant, confusing situation that is difficult to get out of? First, we need to accept the realities of our predicament. Here’s the way I see it.

  • We are in the midst of a quantum leap of consciousness.
  • Our old systems of operating don’t fit with where we’re going.
  • We are in a situation that is messy and complex, and problem-solving can’t help us because problem-solving takes only a narrow view of what is possible.

Complexity is not bad…

In systems theory, complexity is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s how all natural systems work. And, as you’ll see from the following distinctions, a complex  system is actually the one where  the most possibilities exist.

A Simple system is one that has a single path to a single answer. If you want to get to the solution, there is one, and only one, way to do it.

A Complicated system is one that has multiple paths to a single answer. To get to the answer, you have multiple different choices you can make. However, there is only one correct solution.

A Complex system is one that has multiple paths to multiple answers. When you toss in the word “adaptive”, you end up with a system that changes based on the choices that you make, and as a result of these choices, the answers change.

If that sounds discouraging…

Multiple paths and multiple answers that change depending on our choices. My grandma would have said, “That’s a fine kettle of fish!”

Take heart. As Steve March explained in the interview I listened to, there is a means of dealing with change that goes beyond problem-solving. It harnesses the principles of living systems theory and allows solutions to emerge and unfold in a natural way.

This way of engaging with life does require some things of us.

  • We need to reorient ourselves and our understanding of how life on this planet works, to understand that we, like every other living thing on this planet, are governed by certain principles of nature. And that these are not impediments to our growth and progress. In fact, they are the way through.
  • We need to bring internal awareness to the situation rather than being totally focused on external events. Our inner deeper knowing is the compass that will  help us navigate through what we face in the world outside us.
  • Internal awareness requires us to dial back our busy-ness to a level where we can feel and hear our deep inner being and act from the human virtues that live there: trust, love, value, strength, compassion, will, joy, passion, stillness.

In fact, it’s quite simple. It just won’t be easy.

And in case you’ve forgotten where those words come from

Courage over Comfort

Brené Brown researches courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. The about page on her website says, in part:

The bottom line: I believe that you have to walk through vulnerability to get to courage, therefore . . . embrace the suck. I try to be grateful every day and my motto right now is “Courage over comfort.” I do NOT believe that cussing and praying are mutually exclusive. And, I absolutely believe that the passing lane is for passing only.

You might enjoy this article: 5 Ways to Be Brave According To Brené Brown’s Netflix Special “The Call To Courage”

We are going to transform. Period.

I haven’t written about death since the coronavirus descended upon us. Yet death is relevant in several ways right now. Not just that death is the possible outcome for a few of the people who contract COVID-19. Not just that death hovers closer in our awareness than ever before. But also because death is part of transformation. Think back to the caterpillar—it must completely disintegrate in order to provide the necessary material for a butterfly to come to life.

In the past 24 hours, I’ve heard two interviews which reminded me that death is an integral part of transformation. Sarah Kerr is a death doula whose work speaks to me. In this podcast, she’s in converstion with author and coach Michael Bungay Stanier. On his podcast, We Will Get Through This, he asks the very best in the world how to stay resilient. Facing death is part of that.

Listen here. Click button “Listen on Apple Podcasts” and scroll down to #29.

Zach Bush is a medical doctor with a unique combination of interests, including topics such as the role of soil and water ecosystems in human genomics, immunity, and gut/brain health. He is also a hospice doctor. His passion, as stated on his website, is “applying the rigor of science, strength of humanity, and the intelligence of nature to transform health and our world.” This video is the last few minutes of a longer interview about what we are doing to the environment.But that’s not what it’s about…

If the video does not show up, you can see it here.

Dr. Bush’s description of the Intensive Care Unit reminds me of the question of ventilators and COVID-19. As it happens, also in the past 24 hours, I sent my sons a message—an addition to my personal directive—letting them know that I do not want to be put on a ventilator. I did a lot of reading about it, and my reasons are summarized in this New York Times article by a medical doctor and this article from ABC News, also written by a doctor describing a better alternative. If you have not yet thought about this and made your wishes known, now is the time.

And so…

We are going to transform, one way or another. Are you going to go kicking and screaming, whimpering and complaining, or with grace and ease? And, I wonder, what would grace and ease look like?

Your thoughts?

There’s got to be a better way.

As I described last week, a butterfly forms from a caterpillar because the caterpillar contains imaginal discs that are the blueprint for the new form. I also indicated that there are forward-thinking citizens who have developed models and projects that are the imaginal discs for society as we move forward from the intense disruption we’ve experienced.

Today I’m introducing one of those imaginal discs, but first let me summarize why we need to imagine a better way.

The topic is our economic system…

If you don’t need this background information, scroll directly to the video. It’s not to be missed.

An economic system is the method used by society to organize the production and distribution of goods and services for its citizens. In Medieval Europe it was feudalism, a system in which each feudal domain was self-sufficient. It was a barter economy, in which lords owned the land and serfs (peasants) worked in exchange for a place to live and a bit of land to grow their own food. The lord got everything he needed from his serfs—labour, agricultural products, and finished goods such as yarn, cloth and clothing. Wealth was mainly land and agriculture, with money only used for paying taxes to the king.

By the 15th century, feudalism was on its way out as a result of several sociopolitical factors. With the rise of towns, cities and then nations, a merchant class evolved and money became the medium of exchange in the daily life of citizens. In this way, feudalism was gradually replaced by a system of mercantilism. Cottage industries arose to provide the goods needed. And before long, the Industrial Revolution was under way. Large factories were built in the cities and people moved from rural areas to work in them. The system was then based on wage labour rather than obligation, as had been the case in feudalism.

In the latter half of the 18th century, a Scottish professor of moral philosophy became interested in the workings of the mercantile system. According to Investopedia, Adam Smith “noticed that mercantilism was not a force of development and change, but a regressive system that was creating trade imbalances between nations and keeping them from advancing.”

In 1776, Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, proposing an alternate economic system. It was based on the idea of free enterprise, in which the marketplace itself was left to determine the price of goods through the action of supply and demand, without interference from authorities. He also introduced the concept of the invisible hand, suggesting that individuals, all working in their own best interests, would collectively do what was best for society. Therefore, he believed, the market did not require regulation or interference.

Adam Smith’s ideas for a free market opened the world to capitalism“The term ‘capitalism’—originating from the Latin word ‘capitalis,’ which means ‘head of cattle’—was first used by French socialist Louis Blanc in 1850, to signify a system of exclusive ownership of industrial means of production by private individuals rather than shared ownership.” (Investopedia)

Changing times…

The world has changed a lot since 1776, and the workings of capitalism have been tweaked along the way. Search for types of capitalism and you’ll find a long list that includes free enterprise capitalism, industrial capitalism, digital capitalism, crony capitalism, democratic capitalism, finance capitalism, laissez-faire capitalism, state capitalism, corporate capitalism, entrepreneurial capitalism, welfare capitalism, turbo capitalism, responsible capitalism, advanced capitalism, and vulture capitalism. They vary in degree of market freedom, public ownership, and social policies.

However, all capitalist systems share certain common characteristics ncluding economic freedom, private ownership of property, voluntary participation, capital accumulation (profit motive) and competition. These and a few more are described here.

There are distinct theories within the field of traditional economics, Philosophical biases divide economists into two main camps—the Keynesians and the laissez-faire (free market) economists.

Keynesians believe that the best way to stimulate the economy is to increase government spending and cut taxes, putting more money in the hands of people and driving higher consumer spending. Advocates of the opposing theory, laissez-faire economics, believe that the economy works best when supply and demand operate in a free market without government intervention. For more, go to Why Can’t Economists Agree?

What’s wrong with this picture?

Despite all the tweaking, we have not yet evolved capitalism into a fully sustainable and equitable system. We managed. We coped. We hoped.

And then…

A few months ago, the economy ground to a halt during the pandemic and ensuing lockdown. For the first time, we could see clearly that our economic system—which evolved from the need to move away from feudalism—is not workable any more.

Emphasis on growth has led to rampant consumerism. Priorities, spending, and expectations are way out of balance. High levels of debt keep individuals beholden to their employers—not so different from the serfs of old, when you think about it.

The environment can no longer comfortably provide what we are demanding and absorb the waste we create. It could in the beginning—when our needs were modest, population was small, and technology had not yet arrived. But now, we have exceeded the limits by putting our focus on profit rather than balance.

Competition for profit has caused companies to push farther and farther out of their locale to obtain raw materials, workers who are cheap enough, and new people to buy the ever-increasing output. This has brought us to our current state of mega-corporations and globalization. We thought this was our strength. COVID-19 showed us the extreme vulnerability and lack of resilience that had crept up on us.

And many of us are now thinking, there has to be another way. The problem is, most of us don’t know what a better way would be, especially when we’re talking about something as all-encompassing and inscrutable as the economic system.

Meet Kate Raworth…

Oxford economist Kate Raworth has a vision, an imaginal disc ready to come into being as we move forward in the post-pandemic era. This is the first TEDtalk I’ve seen where the speaker got a standing ovation…

Here’s a one-minute recap of the doughnut model of economics…

There are  six more of these animated short videos, based on Kate Raworth’s book, Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st-Century Economist.

Application of the doughnut model…

Kate Raworth says:

Since the first iteration of the Doughnut was published as a discussion paper by Oxfam, it has had traction in very diverse places – from the UN General Assembly and the Global Green Growth Forum, to Occupy London.  Why such interest?

I think it is because the doughnut is based on the powerful framework of planetary boundaries but adds to it the demands of social justice – and so brings social and environmental concerns together in one single image and approach.

It also sets a vision for an equitable and sustainable future, but is silent on the possible pathways for getting there, and so the doughnut acts as a convening space for debating alternative pathways forward.

April 8, 2020 was the launch of the Amsterdam City Doughnut. Before that…

Doughnut was first published in 2012, proposing a social foundation and ecological ceiling for the whole world. Ever since then people have asked: can we downscale the Doughnut so that we can apply it here – in our town, our country, our region? Over the past eight years there have been many innovative initiatives exploring different approaches to doing just that – including for the Lake Erhai catchment in China, for the nations of South Africa, Wales and the UK, and for a comparison of 150 countries.

Kate Raworth’s concluding thought: “As we all start thinking about how we will emerge from this crisis, let us seek to be holistic in how we reimagine and recreate the local-to-global futures of the places we live. I believe this newly downscaled Doughnut tool has a great deal to offer and I look forward to seeing it turned into transformative action, in Amsterdam and far beyond.”

Other economic visionaries…

She’s not the only one imagining a better way. You might also like to check the websites of…

  • Mark Anielski  An Economy of Well-being: Common Sense Tools for Building Genuine Wealth and Happiness
  • David Korten  Change the Story, Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth
  • Herman Daly  From Uneconomic Growth to a Steady-State Economy


In school, I learned a simplistic version of how a caterpillar becomes a butterfly—it hangs from a branch, spins a cocoon, and then a butterfly comes out after a process called metamorphosis. I took this description at face value and didn’t think much more about it until I became interested in transformation.


It’s actually much more magical than I was told…

Inside the chrysalis is where the magic happens. The caterpillar disintegrates, except for a few key cells—the imaginal cells. They are the essence of the completely new form that is about to emerge. How a caterpillar totally rearranges itself into a butterfly is described in this passage from Scientific American.

First, the caterpillar digests itself, releasing enzymes to dissolve all of its tissues. If you were to cut open a cocoon or chrysalis at just the right time, caterpillar soup would ooze out.

But the contents of the pupa are not entirely an amorphous mess.

Certain highly organized groups of cells known as imaginal discs survive the digestive process. Before hatching, when a caterpillar is still developing inside its egg, it grows an imaginal disc for each of the adult body parts it will need as a mature butterfly or moth—discs for its eyes, for its wings, its legs and so on.

…Once a caterpillar has disintegrated all of its tissues except for the imaginal discs, those discs use the protein-rich soup all around them to fuel the rapid cell division required to form the wings, antennae, legs, eyes, genitals and all the other features of an adult butterfly or moth. …One study even suggests that moths remember what they learned in later stages of their lives as caterpillars.

Don’t I have more important things to think about right now?

After all, our economy is being decimated by a pandemic of epic proportions, and long-standing injustices have come to a head, catalyzing violent societal upheaval.

From my viewpoint, metamorphosis is highly relevant at a time like this. Humanity is in the midst of transformation—experiencing disintegration of the systems that created the structure of who we thought we were.

We’re in the soup…

Beliefs we held dear, things we were sure were true, our unconscious biases—these are being challenged and, in the process, losing their power to hold our societal structure in place. At the moment, it all seems like an amorphous mess.

The good news is, our society is sprinkled with citizens who have been inspired to see a more beautiful world and develop their ideas into the beginnings of better systems that are waiting to grow out of this mess, to form something completely different. These are the imaginal discs of human society.

Butterfly or dead caterpillar?

By the way, most caterpillars successfully transform themselves into beautiful new creatures, but not all. Those that don’t…they become dead caterpillars.

We are at a choice point in our transformation. We can try to go back and seek comfort in what was familiar but not serving us well. The consequence will be similar to that of the unsuccessful caterpillars.

OR we can each do our part to help the imaginal cells flourish. This time in history is calling on us to become more conscious…

  • to become better humans by examining our behaviours and the unconsious beliefs that are driving them, and
  • to believe that constructive change is possible. The power of thought is stronger than most of us are willing to acknowledge because we don’t want to take responsibility for what we create. But whether or not we admit it, our thoughts give energy to what happens around us.

What do you want your thoughts to energize?

Over the next few weeks, I’ll share some of what is in the chrysalis and ready to emerge.

Beautiful & Hopeful

The unrelenting upheaval around us has finally got to me. I am aching for something, anything, that is beautiful and hopeful. And I’m guessing I’m not the only one feeling this way.

Two images stay with me…

Two images have been with me since 1994 on my first trip outside North America. I landed in England, made my way south to the city of Exeter, and took a walk to orient myself.

Before long, I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of a plant growing where none should be able to, in a very small crack between the pavement and adjoining stone wall. And not only growing—it was flourishing—a 2-foot-high ball of beautiful pink flowers. It seemed almost magical. It makes me feel hopeful.

Further along the street, I saw this walkway.

It intrigued me because the angle at the end creates a sense of mystery. What is there? Unknown. Can’t know until you get there. And yet, it feels friendly, not ominous. It gives me a sense of possibility and hope.

Where do you find possibility and hope?