Two weeks ago I traveled up to Cambridge to talk about Generative Business Practices with the folks of Harvard Business School’s Digital Initiative.

Screenshot 2014-11-19 13.08.58

So much happened, and so many ideas were shared, that I can’t summarize them in one blog post — not even a super-long one. Instead, I’m going to take pieces at a time and see if I can blog these ideas together.

Until I get there, you might enjoy the live blog of the talk that David Weinberger created.

I’ve never been liveblogged before, and it’s a wonderful gift to have someone respond to your talk in real time, in a way that captures the spirit of what you wanted to share. Here’s David’s post.   david weinberger live blog

Next, perhaps my smallest reflection on the seminar:

Giving a Seminar Is A Generative Practice

An academic seminar– especially one open to the community– is set up to be a generative event. Idea sharing, after all.

Sometimes the norms of the seminars emphasize ‘performing’ and ‘dazzling’ and ‘proving’, which dampen the generative capacity of the event as well as the individuals participating.  Luckily, the expectations of the HBS Digital Initiative are much more welcoming.


What you (or I) bring into a seminar as a presenter makes a difference in what kind of spirit unfolds.

With this seminar, my own focus was on sharing and learning. So–I made sure that:

  • My slides were on the ‘pretty’ side of professional,
  • The story I aimed to tell shared some of my own curiosity and excitement and frustration, and
  • I was ready for any questions any time after the third slide. (You’ve got to get through the basic definitions first.)

There were two other tweaks that I made to increase the generative potential of the seminar.

Taking Names

As usual, I tried to meet most of the folks personally when they came into the room– but at some point fear of a/v failure diverted my attention.

My small innovation was that, as each person introduced her/himself, I wrote down their first names on a little seating chart.  I was then able to respond to people and refer back to points they’d made using their names.  You’d be amazed at how much warmer a seminar is when you can address someone by name, and one of the participants thanked me for this.

Taking “Notes”

The other tweak was that, at the end of the presentation and the general Q & A, I asked each of the participants to ‘give me notes’ about how I might continue to pursue the topic.

I’d put index cards around the table before folks came in, and at the end of the conversation I asked people to use the cards to write down any question they had, connections they made, ideas they thought I might pursue, or whatever they wanted to say.

I got such great comments — including a few that I’d never expected.

For example, one participant told me that he was such an introvert he never spoke in seminars. And, even though he intended to email people afterwards with questions, he seldom did. Having a card to write questions and ideas on made it easy for him to feel like he had contributed. Indeed, he gave me two cards, filled up on both sides.hbs digital initiative

This little business with the cards turned out to be a mutually-useful action.

Here I thought I’d get all sorts of ideas (and I did) while the participants thought that I’d done it to help them (which it had).

I’ve written up many of the questions (forthcoming), and I’ll aim to answer the in a series of upcoming and smaller blog posts. I’m going to take the advice of Gina Trapani, via David Weinberger, and invite myself to write some short posts (short for me being, under 750 words. heehee).

Interestingly, neither of these two tweaks took much effort on my part.

Yet, they made the seminar feel significantly different — not just for me, but also for the participants.

Are these sorts of tweaks rare? Why don’t we do things like this more often?



I’m experimenting with shifting from generativity to generosity to describe what’s unique about the business processes I’ve been studying, trying to distill these ideas into a form that’s simple and easy to convey. Can the term generosity carry these ideas well?

At the very core of generativity is the concept of generosity.

coffee overflowIt’s not for nothing that the words share the same Latin root, gener, meaning ‘to beget’ or ‘to birth’.

Generosity is about giving, and generativity is about having the ability to originate or produce new things.

The ideas are connected because being able to produce new things requires that we give some kind of energy or resource to this new thing. Never does anything arrive from nothing.

I’d initially shied away from using the term generosity, because it’s so broad and loose.

Generosity— especially when applied to business behaviors— brings to mind practices like philanthropy, volunteering, and social responsibility. These are all important initiatives that fix specific, focused problems, but they’re a bit old school.  Philanthropy, volunteering and social responsibility aren’t aimed at transforming the economy or the very ways we think about business.

At the same time, though, we all think that we know what it means to be generous. Unlike when I use the word generativity, people at least have a starting point when I say I’m studying ‘business to business generosity’.

Maybe it’s easier/better to start with a concept people think they know and then make it more specific? Might this be more effective than opening with a word people aren’t familiar with and having to sustain their curiosity until I can build a picture of what it is?

[Of course, the problem could be that I don’t explain generativity well. That’s a hypothesis that would use some testing too. For now, I’ll stick with this experiment about ‘generosity’.]

What’s the simplest way to define business-to-business generosity?

It’s still “growing your business while creating opportunities for other businesses to grow, by making small, generous tweaks to how you conduct your business”.

Business-to-business generosity shows up when companies go about their own business in ways that are intended to somehow help out other businesses.

Looking at the assortment of specific examples of business-to-business generosity that I’ve identified in the field, is there a simplest-thing-that-works to organize them, or to explain what’s at their root?  I’ve grouped these practices into five general ways that businesses can be generous with each other.

1. Co-Creating Products 

Partnerships, alliances, brandscaping, innovation platforms, hackathons are all strategies for co-creating products in ways that contribute to each others’ success.  This is probably the most common form of generosity, although we tend to emphasize ‘what’s in it for me’ than what our business is giving generously to another.

It requires generosity (and not stinginess or self-focused competitiveness) to work together with another company or companies to create something that each of you have to share in. But this kind of generosity contributes to your business growth in spades, because it lets you create things you can’t create alone, to participate in different markets, to connect with a new set of customers, and even to learn new kinds of skills.

Dropbox offers its API to any company that wants to put cloud-based file saving functionality into their own product. Because some of these products that Dropbox participates in creating might eventually bring new customers back to them, Dropbox doesn’t charge companies for embedding Dropbox file saving into their apps. But also, Dropbox doesn’t obsess about their return-on-API. They are more interested in getting people comfortable with using the cloud- whether as Dropbox customers or as customers of these other products.

2. Being Transparent

Transparency, sharing what you know and what you do in your business in a way that’s forthcoming, easily understood, and easy for others to use, is a great way to be generous with expertise.

Transparency is a quality of information that makes any information you share easy for others to turn into knowledge or even wisdom.

Transparency is a great way to be generous because the work that it takes to be transparent contributes to your own business’s self-understanding. Although we want to be careful with exactly what knowledge we give away to others, it rarely costs our business much of anything to be generous with our information and expertise by being transparent.

WorkingOutLoud in public is the most common way I see companies being transparent and generous with each other. Airbnb’s engineering blog, and Buffer’s Public Revenue Dashboard a great examples of companies being generous by being forthcoming with easy to understand information about what they do, how they do it, and why.

3. Being Open

Openness is a quality of participation. Companies are open when they offer opportunities for other companies and people to participate in what they are doing. Being open to the participation of others includes everything from inviting them to learn alongside us, to interacting to learn with us, or even to being willing to accept their advice and support.

One of my favorite examples of generous, b2b openness is demonstrated by Etsy’s CodeAsCraft program. Their combination of events, presentations, blog posts, code sharing, and more has set a standard of openness that other engineering departments envy. And aim to imitate.

4. Nurturing a Community (or network, or ecosystem)

Some organizations demonstrate generosity when they find ways to contribute directly to the group as a group.  This might be sponsoring an industry meet up, organizing a conference where everyone can learn about a shared topic of interest, developing protocols or a platform to bring many businesses together in a user community, or demonstrating ‘thought leadership’ around ideas that the group wants to advance.

Etsy’s support of the Maker Movement and micro-entrepreneurship,  GrowthHacker’s sharing platform, and MLNP’s emphasis on social change are examples of companies being generous by creating something that serves the larger community.

5. Affirming and Amplifying Contributions of Others  

We can inspire other people and businesses to be generous and do good things when we’re able to share stories of successful businesses who are already demonstrating these qualities in action.

Whether it’s promoting their success in a case study on your company’s blog, using their story as an example in your own promotions, recommending their products, or simply encouraging your network to follow a business on twitter, using your spotlight to highlight the good ideas or generosity of others is a contribution to them and to your own network. It also contributes back to your own organization, because it serves as a positive reminder of who you want to be and of what is possible.

I like seeing what HubSpot, Moz, and Shopify share on their company blogs. Sometimes they share stories about themselves and their customers, and other times they highlight the work of companies they admire. Always, though, they share examples of companies that are doing things well, with generosity and with vision.


I’m not sure that these basic actions capture everything. They are a good start, but they feel a little simplistic. Could being generous with other businesses be this simple? Could it be this easy?

None of these 5 ways of acting takes much particular skill. They don’t take fancy tools, and they require much of a financial investment. Being generous in *any* of these 5 ways seems rather ordinary. (Is that a good thing, or a does it make this all somewhat banal?)

It may be that, using these categories to hunt for generosity, we’ll discover that generosity is not rare, and not confined to new and/or digital businesses. Instead, we might realize just how widely generosity is practiced.


Image: Coffee overflowing, by Surat Lozowick on Flickr


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