What’s a Generative Organization?

by cv harquail on December 11, 2013

What word captures the central quality of a Boost organization? 

What word seems weird to a whole lot of business people?

Funny how that works.  Now, what to do about it?

I had a very smart friend read over my book proposal, and he said that the word ‘generative’, along with the corresponding word ‘generous’, didn’t seem very business-y.

 It’s a little woo-woo, don’t you think? A little crunchy. And who knows what generative actually means?

3201892961_356b11f519But how else to describe actions, ways of doing, and ways of thinking, that don’t execute a plan but instead create unpredictable opportunities for everyone?

What does it mean to be ‘generative’?

The word ‘generative’ may be unfamiliar to many managers, but the quality of generativity is something we’ve sought in our work practices and systems for a long time.

Something is “generative” when it’s able to originate or produce something, or to give rise to new possibilities.

  • Generative ideas produce new ideas,
  • Generative process produces new ways of doing things or new outcomes,
  • Generative learning enhances our ability to create,
  • Generative relationships build new capabilities in both partners, and
  • Generative leadership helps others see opportunity in their actions.

Generative practices are important because they make new things possible. They have the capacity for ‘more’ built right in.

Generative practices make new opportunities possible, but not inevitable. We don’t know and can’t predict specifically what a generative behavior will trigger. We can only expect these practices to create openings and invite new outcomes to emerge.

We also can’t control what others do with the generativity that we put into our behavior towards them. Just as when we invite people to a party and we can’t control if or how they’ll rsvp, we can’t control what people or organizations do with the generative behaviors we extend.

We can also understand generativity by considering its opposites:

  • Generativity is the opposite of entropy; it reverses the process of decay.
  • Generative is the opposite of extractive; generative practices support, nourish and add to the organization rather than only use its resources.

Generative activity yields a greater range and volume of resources than it consumes — it creates thick value.

Generative Organizations

Generative organizations are built on generative practices, and filled with generous people.  The generative practices create the energy, the ‘randomality’, the serendipity, the enthusiasm that invite and propel individuals to grow, and through our growth, create more together.

Generative organizations have the capacity to enrich collective strengths, virtues, and capabilities. By “collective” capabilities, I mean not just the capabilities of the organization, but of the individuals within it, the organization’s partners, the organization’s community, and the organization’s economy.

Generative organizations focus on creating creating the networks, systems, principles and practices that allow individuals, other organizations, communities, and networks to flourish. As Grant and Notter describe it, generative organizations produce and create value for themselves and the whole system as they grow.

Which sounds an awful lot like being boosty.

What next steps, dear friends?

Business people may be unfamiliar with the term ‘generative’, but they are longing to find, join and invest in organizations that are generative.

So should I add the word ‘generative’ into my definition of Boosting? Or simply toss out the word and hope that it piques people’s interest?


See also:

Humanize: How people-centric organizations succeed in a social world, by Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant
Being a social organization means being generative, by Maddie Grant
Defining Thick Value in a Boost Economy
5 Ways to Expand How We Think About Value in a Boost Economy
Are Your Social Business Systems Designed for Extraction or Contribution?

Image: Technicolor Polygons (from generative design code) AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by Paulo Colacino


Jeremy Lewis December 12, 2013 at 4:52 am

It’s been a while since I left a comment CV, hope you are well. I have been following your posts on the Boost Economy and I think you’re right on the money with the term ‘generative’. The opposite of entropy, I like that. There is so much corporate decay and yet those with generosity can somehow transcend that world and be creative. Creative in terms of coming together to generate more value for society.

cv harquail December 12, 2013 at 11:36 am

Jeremy, I love that you picked up on the idea of decay… which I kindof tossed in there rather offhandedly. Usually I think of the life of an organization being sucked dry by productivity demands, but the idea of decay is important too. Decay comes from a lack of care and a lack of attention — and I guess too a lack of opportunity to be renewed. I’m not sure yet how the various practices I’m thinking of address decay but I must have some idea back there or it wouldn’t have come up. Hmmm.
Thanks also for continuing to read the boost stuff. I means a lot to me to know you’re out there. 😉

Michelle Holliday December 12, 2013 at 9:10 am

Fantastic, CV. I also use the word “generative” as part of the definition of a “thrivable” organization. Your article adds important clarity and impetus. Thank you.

Michelle Holliday December 12, 2013 at 11:07 am

I shared a link to this article on Facebook, and someone asked what’s the difference between generativity and productivity. I’d love to know your response, CV.

cv harquail December 12, 2013 at 11:31 am

Hi Michelle and Jeremy-

I’m so relieved to know that you think generative ‘works’ (and so does Tim Kastelle), though it makes sense that people who think about complexity, innovation and living systems would be completely familiar with the term and why it’s so relevant.

Thrivability is key to being able to be generative, and to boost others. I’m using boost to orient the conversation towards the organization’s outside and having a positive influence there, in a large part because there is already so much good work underway about the organization’s internal aliveness (like your work Michelle, and the work of the POS group).

I do make a distinction between being generative and being productive. Systems are ‘productive’ when they make what we designed them to make, and make it reliably-ish over and over. I think of productive like ‘production line’ — the outcomes we expect to get (these are not ’emergent’ outcomes.) Productivity is also (for me) still stuck in the older paradigm of ‘machine world’– but that might be my manufacturing experience filtering my thinking.

There is also this weird sense with the word ‘productive’ that the outcomes are finished products– they’re ‘done’. In contrast, generative processes give rise to outcomes that could be finished & complete OR that could still be potentials that someone (the org or another) has to activate further. In the sense that an opportunity isn’t complete, but still must be pursued.

Generative for me means creating new openings, creating new ‘things’ or outcomes, emergent ones that can’t be predicted, as well as potential ones that someone/some other organization has to take on to activate.

Does this jive with what you’ve been thinking?

Rachel Maxwell December 12, 2013 at 1:00 pm

Thank you for this post CV and your leadership in this important conversation. I first heard “generative” used in terms of our economy and businesses when listening to Marjorie Kelly, (author of Owning Our Future) and immediately resonated with the concept. Generativity is intimately tied to originality and production, both highly valued in our world. If we look for generativity, we will find the best of the boost economy.

I want a world that is generative, including a business world, for if it is not generative, then we are living in a dead world. Let’s embrace words as tied to scientific and biological concepts such as “generative.” We are part of living systems. I understand where your smart friend is coming from and I question how such important terms and concepts became “Woo woo.”

Comments on this entry are closed.

{ 4 trackbacks }