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Imaginal Progression

The art of finding and keeping what you and your organization need and how to let go of everything else.

When a caterpillar makes a chrysalis, most of its cells lose shape and become part of a soup, a caterpillar soup. The chubby legs of a caterpillar will not stretch into the stylized, segmented legs of the butterfly, nor will it’s leaf munching jaws unfold into the long curly proboscis that allows the butterfly to obtain nectar from the flower. Almost every cell becomes undifferentiated, like a blank slate, except for the cells in the imaginal discs, small clusters of cells that hold the blueprint of each of the insect’s stages. To be clear, the insect is not using the same caterpillar leg and refurbishing it to now serve a very light flying butterfly, it is completely unmaking that leg and using cells from the chrysalis soup to build a completely new and specialized leg, a leg made for a butterfly.

There are parts that are needed as a caterpillar, but as it metamorphoses, grows, and develops into a butterfly, many of those parts become unnecessary. It does not need to keep this leg, it needs the cells that make legs, because this leg, the caterpillar leg, as it is, will be a hindrance to a butterfly. As long as it can identify, protect, and nurture its core cells, it can become anything, a caterpillar, a butterfly, or maybe even some sort of creature that we have not even dreamt of yet.

In our work with environmental and conservation organizations, we see an extreme urgency to adapt and change, and we also see a great fear of letting go. Organizations want to be necessary now. Relevant now. They want to be the organization that can address the unique challenges we are facing at this time, they want to move their mission into the future in the best way possible. At the same time, letting go of the things that got us here is painful, it is like letting go of a part of ourselves. The change, the soup, the melting, the unknowing, are frightening. In many cases people were hired to work on the specific things that we are now trying to let go of, that deer restoration project, that magazine that is now going into a digital format, that policy