Group Reflections on the Work and Teachings of Antony Upward: a Collective Narrative
Updated: May 27
Produced by Tatiana Vekovishcheva
On Wednesday, May 5, 2021, a group of participants from Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Germany, Greece, Mauritius, Morocco, South Africa, Sweden, Uganda, and the United States gathered for the fourth virtual peer learning session of the Thought Leadership for Systems Transformation program to discuss their reflections on the work and teachings of Antony Upward.
ABOUT ANTONY UPWARD (full bio)
Antony is the originator of several management innovations, including a business model design tool, the Flourishing Business Canvas. His Flourishing Enterprise Innovation Toolkit is currently being brought to market by a community of over 240 ‘first explorers’ around the world. Antony is also a member of the Evolutionary Leadership Community. The Institute for Evolutionary Leadership is a 'first explorer' of the Flourishing Enterprise Innovation Toolkit since 2018.
PROCESS & CONTRIBUTORS
Antony was among 11 guest teachers confirmed based on the preferences and financial contributions of 40 registered participants of the Thought Leadership for Systems Transformation program. Participants had one week to study Antony's materials (these videos plus academic articles shared with the group) on their own before gathering for a peer learning session. The peer learning session provided an opportunity to share individual reflections, identify emerging patterns, and craft a collective message to Antony to help him prepare for a live session with the group. Here is the recording of the live session based on this narrative:
Participants’ reflections were recorded and used to produce a collective narrative according to the Collective Narrative Methodology. Christiana Gardikioti, Cleofash Alinaitwe, Devapragassen Armoogum, Dounia Saeme, Flora Moon, Frank Noz, Fyodor Ovchinnikov, Gabrielle Cook Jonker, Kennan Salinero, Juan Sebastian Cardenas Salas, Manuel Manga, Manuela Bosch, Michael Sillion, Rafael Calcada, Ray Guyot, Robert Lindstrom, and Zen Benefiel participated in the session and contributed to this narrative.
What echoed across some of the conversations that we had is that the reading was dense and academic, but yet there was something pertinent in it, something—probably language—that catches the attention, something that we wanted to practice. Some of us also talked about the excitement of being part of something at such an early stage, as it still feels like this work is part of something that is emerging. While some of us were only able to read one of the suggested papers, others shared their extensive experience applying the canvas as ‘first explorers’. Many of us found the videos extremely useful. The series of 16 videos walked us through the boxes of the Flourishing Business Canvas inviting us to play and those of us who watched the videos really felt curious to understand what it would take to facilitate the experience of going through the canvas.
Appreciating the Power of the Flourishing Business Canvas
The Flourishing Business Canvas is a wonderful, well-developed model that aims to encourage the design of regenerative businesses as a form of human presence on Earth and it is based on the understanding that the biosphere is at the center of our human priorities. It is a tool, a framework that connects to our ‘known knowns’ such as the term ‘business model’, while at the same time it includes dimensions that bring in the environment, the people, and the values which allow us to see a new world order. This canvas stands in the middle of two worlds, the current system and the new, emerging system, which is both its great value and a source of great tensions. It feels like it has a lot more potential than traditional frameworks and it is extremely powerful.
Exploring Benefits & Limitations of Using Familiar Language to Introduce New Ways of Thinking
The positive side of using the language of business models and the canvas structure is that it makes more people feel at home with that language and the format which compels them to respond to the invitation to explore the model. The downside of connecting with the old language to invite people in is that such language becomes limiting because people are tempted to use it in a descriptive rather than a generative way. Doing so makes people get stuck in the old thinking which is at odds with one of the most important properties of the canvas as a model—the ability to help us grasp and understand new narratives.
One of us used their life changing experience of looking at a drop of seawater through a microscope and noticing that it was full of life as a metaphor to illustrate the idea that the canvas is a tool that provides a whole new opportunity to look at things differently. At the same time, when we introduce a new language, a new way of looking at something, not only do we introduce new ways of seeing and understanding, but we also introduce new ways of obscuring and limit the understanding in some places because of the words and the imagery that we choose.
It would be very interesting to know if Antony sees that as an issue with his work and what old terms like ‘framework’, ‘canvas’, ‘buckets’, and ‘boxes’ might obscure or limit? How could we evolve the model to shift from thinking in buckets to representing ideas in a circular way? Some of us think that if we can improve that, it would encourage conversations that foster a more accurate storytelling.
For example, some of us talked about the need for new rituals or rites as transitional ways for our cultures to move forward and do sensemaking as a collective (and we did not even use the word ‘processes’ to discuss that), so it would be interesting to hear whether Antony sees processes and organizational change methods in terms of ritual and rites, as well as in terms of truly changing our mental models, our worldviews, our way of seeing things? Overall, we wonder how the model can leverage fresh language, new narratives, the type of storytelling that is already fostering our perception outside of the business as usual for more disruptive, creatively transgressive ways to co-inspire and co-create meaningful conversations.
Looking for Design Processes that Match the Promise of the Flourishing Business Canvas
Besides reflecting on the use of language in the model itself, what came up for some of us after watching the videos and reading the papers was the topic of facilitation, especially the forms of facilitation that engage stakeholders not merely as collaborators but generative co-designers. How do we use the canvas to design beyond our Cartesian paradigm and create conditions for designs that follow the patterns of nature that are fractal and do not necessarily include profit in the traditional business sense? How can these patterns of nature be reflected in the way the canvas is shared with different stakeholders? How do we invite and facilitate playfulness and how do we embody, exemplify the shift that we want to see?
We talked about the value of conversations that can happen around the canvas. Familiar language is indeed a nice way to attract attention and if we frame and facilitate our conversations in a way that emphasizes possibilities through how we use words and images, we can open up to the unknown. Some of us suggested shifting from boxes to a more circular model using this different visual as a powerful metaphor that can help communicate the message.
We talked about the relevance and importance of bringing the multiplicity of voices, of finding each other and hearing everyone’s voice. Especially if everyone affected is at the table, we can get really interesting conversations around finding resonance and generate resonance out of cacophony. When we discussed where we should start our inquiry, the first question that came up was about the meaning of success: “What is sufficiency?”, “What is success?”. Some of us consider it very important to hear everyone’s perspective on that. In this context, we talked about the importance of the process of inquiry, of asking the questions and not necessarily having answers. We were enthusiastic about unleashing the human spirit and about the process of appreciative inquiry.
We also discussed the idea of creating processes for people to drop language for a moment and dive deeper into embodied practices like, for example, the Social Presencing Theatre, so that they could then come back to the canvas, generate new language based on this embodied experience, and fill the canvas with that new language.
Identifying Pitfalls and Articulating Strategies for Large-Scale Transformation
Some of us looked at the canvas as a playboard, a Gameboy which is wonderful, but we are also wondering how many iterations it takes to get to some practical next steps into that unknown, into building that flourishing future that we want to see. We wonder how and with which organizations Antony sees his canvas being used to make a transformation. How does he see inviting those organizations or people into conversations about their role in the Great Transition? Where did he introduce the canvas? Are there some soils that are not ready to receive the seeds: environments that are closed to the creativity and playfulness that the canvas invites? We wonder what some of the pitfalls are: for example, are there any common roadblocks that people run into while trying to use the canvas?
We also talked about flourishing and what it really means. Some of us suggested that flourishing is a golden standard because it is about the possibility rather than answers, it is about the process which is very difficult for the current order, where certainty is something that we hold on to. This leads to the question of how prepared we are for the transition from the idea of ‘sustainable development’ to this new thinking of ‘flourishing future’. What is the definition of flourishing that would be attractive for a wide range of stakeholders so that organizations from different sectors and people with different life experiences would sign up for it and say “Yes, that's the vision I want to be part of!”?
Getting More Clarity about Applying the Flourishing Business Canvas in Specific Contexts
Some permaculturists among us who promote the principles of self-sustaining systems are particularly interested in how Antony’s thinking and his model can be incorporated into the permaculture practices that we are promoting in our communities. What does Antony think about using the Flourishing Business Canvas in societies where people’s thinking is so much dominated by their own interests that they prioritize money generation instead of focusing on the ecological and social parts of their business models? Is he prepared to push his work into communities and change people’s mindsets, does he expect communities and organizations to seek the canvas on their own, or is there another way?
Those of us who work with established organizations, noted that modern companies need to consider their entire supply chain if they truly care about sustainability. This means that companies would need to make sure that not just them, but also all other organizations in their supply chain look at their business models through the lens of the Flourishing Business Canvas. Another topic related to established businesses is the question of how we can use value creation chains and stakeholder mapping with the canvas more extensively to truly make companies understand the value they are co-creating and co-destroying.
Embracing Necessary Discomfort
Some ‘first explorers’ noted that entrepreneurs, investors, and other actors who are deeply rooted in the current system and are familiar with the traditional Business Model Canvas and conventional ways of talking about business models often have a very hard time trying to figure out why they have to think about all the extra questions, especially if the practical activities that they are trying to engage in are not necessarily directly involved with some of the larger systems included in the Flourishing Business Canvas.
In that context, we discussed the idea that the Flourishing Business Canvas is about designing a new system, a new type of organizations that create conditions for life, for flourishing. If we are going to design those organizations, we do not need a framework that just invites us to fit what we already know into that framework—this would just make us do more of the same again. It is actually inevitable that a truly novel framework would invite us to get out of our comfort zone and think about things we have not considered before. That is exactly what the Flourishing Business Canvas does. This needs to be very clear in the invitation that people have to go beyond what they traditionally consider, that they should trust the framework and whoever is facilitating that conversation to guide them through this process of inquiry.
Learning about the Edge of Antony’s Work
Finally, we trust that Antony knows what he is doing but we would be curious to know what his edge is. Is it related to looking deeper into the definition of flourishing, evolving his model, articulating his theory of change, or something else? What are some of the questions that he is asking himself? What is he trying to figure out?