Businesses need to be both transparent and open to create opportunities for themselves and their entire network.  

open vs. transparentYet even though we know that  qualities like “open” and “transparent” are preconditions for innovation, we often aren’t clear about what these terms actually mean. Sometimes people even use the terms interchangeably, as though what’s transparent and what’s open are the same thing. They are not.

‘Open’ is a quality of participation.  ‘Transparent’ is a quality of information.

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We need to make distinctions between these qualities, so that we have the specific combination of participation and information that makes it possible to be generative.

 What it means to be Open

Open is a quality of participation. Something is open when other people besides the owner or initiator can participate in it. People can participate by watching (yes, lurkers participate), by taking it off for their own use (aka ‘forking it’), by interacting about it with others, or by contributing to it themselves.

The opposite of open is closed. A dance rehearsal is closed, while a dance party is open.

 What it means to be Transparent

Transparent is a quality of information. Something is transparent when it is easy to understand.

When a process, situation or action is transparent, you can identify:

  • What is being done,
  • To what degree,
  • By whom and to whom,
  • When it will transpire, and
  • Why it works the ways it does.

Transparency is ‘the ease with which a practice can be identified and understood’.

Because transparency is streamlined causal reasoning, understanding why something is being done becomes especially critical. Transparent is the opposite of opaque.  When a process is opaque, you can’t figure out why what’s happening is happening.

Last weekend I saw my godson in a musical performance of Gertrude Stein poems, that pretty much defined the experience of opacity.   I could see what was going on, who was doing what, that the performers were talented, that the dances were fluid, but I didn’t know why one thing followed after another. The activity onstage was easy to enjoy, but difficult to understand.  

Transparency and Openness are two different dimensions of a situation.  

open whiteboardWe can imagine information and participation in a 2×2, creating four different combinations. Only one of these quadrants creates the conditions of possibility (generativity) for an organization and its stakeholders.

 Q2 is Transparent and Closed. Sadly, this is a state that many great organizations shoot for. They might make sure that everyone inside the organization understands what’s happening and why, yet they don’t want stakeholders outside the organization to be able to participate.

 A dance rehearsal can be transparent and closed. To the dancers involved, the activity is completely understood.  The dancers can create a better dance, which delivers a better performance to an audience.  We the audience don’t get to participate in closed rehearsal though. We miss out on the chance to help create the better dance,  to lear to dance ourselves, or even to get exercise.

Q4 is Opaque and Open. Sure, anyone can participate, but what are we actually doing?

Imaging finding yourself in the middle of a flash mob. It’s technically possible for you to participate in it.  You could just run into the crowd and start dancing too. But, without knowing what the steps were, what time it was happening, and why it was happening ( A marriage proposal? A social protest?), you’d find it difficult to join in effectively. The process would not be transparent enough that you could understand how to contribute.

 Q3 is Opaque and Closed. No one inside or outside the organization actually understands what’s going on, and no one can take any sensible action.

This is the natural state of an overbred bureaucracy. This is also how most people experience the insides of an iPhone.

Q1 is Open And Transparent. Here’s where the opportunity lies for your organization and your network.

Generative Practices need to be Open and Transparent

To create more than what we can do on our own and to set the stage for opportunities to emerge, generative businesses have to open up their processes so that others can participate with them.

When stakeholders are “free to use or copy” they can create value for themselves. When they are free to join in, they can contribute and interact with us to co-create shared value.

To create things that are better and to build capacity for repeating these activities elsewhere (in the future, or with other partners), generative businesses have to make their processes transparent.

We’d never just invite people to a hackathon without also helping them form teams, set goals, learn to test ideas, or understand what it will take to create an effective tool.  People have to have some idea of what’s going on, what they can do, and why it matters, before they can shape their energy to participate and contribute meaningfully.

 It’s not enough to be open if stakeholders can’t understand what could be done.
It’s not enough to be transparent if stakeholders can’t contribute. 

To extend an honest invitation to a stakeholder and to really offer them an opportunity, your practices need to be both open and transparent.

When we know how and are able to participate, we’ve taken the first step towards boosting each other.


Images: Windows7 AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike by viking_79, and my whiteboard.


Some businesses aim to make money. Some businesses aim to disrupt their industries. The very best businesses aim even higher — to generate new opportunity for each and every stakeholder.


It was Friday afternoon clean-up-my-office time. That ‘end of the year, has it come down to this?’-moment of reckoning.

Maybe while I sort out piles and piles of student reports and teaching materials I should listen to an inspiring video? I’d signed up to attend Cindy Gallop’s recent talk at the Creative Mornings series, but I’d given away my ticket when a last minute work thing came up. Why not listen in and hear what I’d missed, while I tuck away a semester’s worth of paper trails?

Catching Up With MakeLoveNotPorn

Having heard Cindy speak before, I know she has a stock of topics, subtopics, examples, stories, and bold statements that she repeats from one talk to the next, always honing her core messages linking entrepreneurship, sex, and disruption.

And I also know that in each new talk, Cindy experiments with her next idea. Over time you can hear her messages moving from what she’s figured out to what looks like the next big breakthrough.

“What’s Cindy doing with MLNP now?”, I wonder.  I cue up Cindy’s talk, and face my file drawers.

Cindy’s talk, Changing The World Through Sex, is about disrupting the porn industry.

Disruption” is everybody’s favorite buzz word, and it’s usually applied incorrectly. People talk about digital businesses as being ‘disruptive’ when really all they’re doing is using online channels to distribute product or collect revenue.

Obviously, MLNP’s digital platform creates a new way to produce and distribute #RealWorldSex video. But unlike most online upstarts, MLNP actually has the potential to disrupt its industry.


They have designed their business model to transform relationships between product, customers, makers, revenue, community and society — and that’s how you make a business disruptive. But most business people can’t see past the ‘porn’ part to recognize the real disruptive potential of MLNP.

Twenty minutes in, as Cindy’s dismissing the conformity of the so-called competitive dynamics of the adult entertainment industry,  I’m thinking “I really wish people would grok just how transformational MLNP really could be.”

Then I hear Cindy ask:

CV, are you in the audience? ” [30:30]

“What?” A stack of Lean Startup Canvases slide from my lap to the floor. “You talkin’ to me, Cindy?”

No lie, she is. Cindy Gallop is talking about my blog post about her business, from the stage at Creative Mornings.   Well that explains the spike in traffic to my blog post.

sells social change

Cindy puts up a slide with a quote from the post:

It dawns on me that Cindy’s using my post to anchor and elaborate a point that too many people keep missing.

It’s the business model, not the sex, that makes MLNP so radical and so exciting.

And within 90 seconds, Cindy has acknowledged, affirmed and amplified the point I was trying so hard to make in my own post:

MLNP might not just disrupt its industry. MLNP might also disrupt what we think a business should contribute.

Disruptive Business Models Don’t Go Far Enough

Cindy and the startup/tech world call MLNP a ‘disruptive’ business model, but this label really undersells what MLNP does. Disruptive business models do things differently to satisfy customers, gain market share, and ultimately ‘change how things are done’ in an industry. But MLNPs disruptive potential goes far beyond the adult entertainment industry.

What makes MLNP’s business model special is that every single thing about the business – from its influence on individuals to its influence on its industry to its influence on financial services to its influence on how our culture addresses sex — not only challenges the status quo but also offers us something qualitatively different.

The design of MLNP offers each stakeholder a chance to grow and become healthier, more positive, more equitable, more affirmative, and more generative.

cm mlnp 2

MakeLoveNotPorn is disrupting its industry, yes. And it is also disrupting and re-creating what we think businesses can do.

Acknowledging, Affirming and Amplifying

Cindy and her team are taking advantage of the adult entertainment industry to be not just disruptive but also generative.  They could challenge themselves to shift from a good business model to a great one, creating a site that is fast, efficient, reliable, searchable, popular and profitable. But no, they want to blow their industry up, along with our assumptions about what a business can be.

So pick up that pile of Lean Canvases. Look again at the business model you’re designing.  Listen to Cindy’s advice, and then ask your team–

Do you want to be a disruptive business? Or do you want to be even more?

Take another look at MLNP. This time,

Let the business pique your curiosity, and let the business model inspire your imagination.



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Tweet What’s the absolutely easiest way to contribute ideas to a community while boosting someone else’s business at the same time? Use your platform to Acknowledge, Affirm, and Amplify the work of companies and individuals that you value. You’d be surprised to realize just how often you’ll find yourself in a position to use your […]

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The Simple Hack Every Tech Firm Should Be Using To Increase Diversity

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Are All Generative Businesses a Little Naughty? The case of MakeLoveNotPorn

April 3, 2014

Tweet No startup challenges our norms about ‘appropriate business’ more than MakeLoveNotPorn. MakeLoveNotPorn (MLNP) is a user-generated crowdsourced video platform that celebrates “real world sex”. MLNP is a legal, lucrative, and liberatory disruptor of the adult entertainment industry. It’s also a profoundly generative business. MLNP is generative not because it’s naughty, but because of how it’s […]

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Generativity, in General

March 28, 2014

Tweet The word ‘generative’ may be unfamiliar to many business people, but the quality of generativity is something we’ve sought in our companies and our work practices for a long time.   Something is generative when it’s able to create something new, something original, or something alive. A generative idea produces new ideas, a generative process […]

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Three Design Principles for Generative Business

March 20, 2014

Tweet As I was being nudged to consider whether the term “boost” really captured the central dynamic of generative businesses, I realized that it actually only represented the very first element of what it takes to be generative. Note: Since this is more like an essay than a post, I’ve added some jumps so that […]

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What Makes Digital Tech Companies Models of Generativity?

March 13, 2014

Tweet Buffer, WordPress, AirBnB, Waze, LoveWithFood, ModCloth, Etsy— so many of the organizations I’m using as examples of generative businesses share a similar profile: They are relatively small, young, organized around a core software process or product, filled with coders and developers, and part of a specific tech community. Why is generativity such a defining […]

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Hacking the Code of Misogynist Media: #HackItBack

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Tweet I love it when worlds elide, and you find yourself in a space that contains your hopes and dreams. I had a little bit of that yesterday, when I got to participate in the #HackItBack event – the brainchild of artist/advocate Patricia Zablah– at the LowerEastSide Girls Club. #HackItBack Patricia and her team created #HackItBack, a workshop […]

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