Generativity, in General

by cv harquail on March 28, 2014

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 produces new outcomes, a generative relationship builds new capabilities in both partners, and a generative leadership style helps others see opportunity in their actions.

A generative organization? That’s an organization that is consistently creating opportunities for itself, its members, its stakeholders and its community. And finally, a generative business is one that creates and even invents opportunities for others while it creates value for itself.

What does ‘generativity’ mean?

You’ve got to imagine that a concept so critical to life and flourishing was captured with a name eons ago. We could go back to the Book of Genesis, or even to the word’s Latin root, to get a sense of the kind of creative power the word aims to capture.

Generativity is the power to create, to put a beginning on life itself. 

Interesting, then, that it wasn’t until 1950 that generativity became a scientific term.

Generativity in Human Development


Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson used generativity to describe an important stage in human development when adults choose to demonstrate “a concern for establishing and guiding the next generation.” Erikson identified generativity as the “struggle against stagnation” that leads us to behavior in ways intended to enrich ourselves and others.

When adults choose to enter a generative stage of life, we focus on teaching, guiding, sharing, role modeling, encouraging, inspiring, supporting, and finding the necessary resources for the growth of the next generation. Generative adults raise children who are strong and grounded, and who are capable of creating in the own lives whatever they need to support, develop, and express themselves.

Generativity Helps Us and Them

The point of generative behavior is to support our own growth by supporting the growth of others, helping them progress towards their own adulthood. Generativity seeks to instill in others their own ability to create, generate or produce what is important to them. It is explicitly about building the capacity of others to do what they need and what they desire. By design, then, generativity can’t be about controlling what those who come after you do with the opportunities you might open up for them. Instead, generativity is about creating an opportunity space that they can step into and shape as they desire. Generativity is about us sharing what we have to support them in developing their own successful agency.

Generativity Influences Today and Tomorrow

Because generativity is focused on growth, generativity tends to look towards the future. That future can be broadly defined; it can mean contributing to the next generation, the next step in the process, or the next business in the network. Yet even while generative behavior emphasizes creating opportunity for the future, it also creates something good right now. Whenever we act with generative concern, we ourselves feel energetic and alive. Generativity creates an active sense of expansiveness and hope, because it lets us experience ourselves as having a positive, enduring impact today and tomorrow.

Generativity is self-sustaining

While being generative requires us to send positive energy out, it also leads to positive energy coming back in, ultimately renewing the cycle. Rather than extracting our energy from us and using up our resources, generativity supports, nourishes and adds to our resources. In this way, real generativity is actually ‘re’-generativity, a cyclical process.

There is no defined mark on the path, telling us where to line up to begin or letting us know when we’re finished. And there are other people, other organizations, and other relationships that are involved in the larger generative cycle. I’m focusing on being generative ourselves and our organizations, because that’s the one part of the cycle that we’re in charge of — which means that it’s a place we can influence the system. We can choose to be generative, and choose to focus on becoming more generative. The rest of the generative cycle is unpredictable.

Generativity is positively unpredictable

13416353754_beb7e395b5_mWe know the outcome of generative behavior is going to be positive, but we can’t know exactly when, where, how, or in what particular ways this positivity will emerge.

The effects of our generativity are unpredictable, in part, because we can’t control what others do with the opportunities our generative behavior offers them. Just as we can’t control whether people rsvp to our party invitations or control how much they enjoy the party itself, we can’t control what anyone ultimately does with the generative behaviors we extend towards them. The outcomes of generativity are also unpredictable because we can’t anticipate what emerges as different stakeholders in our network influence each other when they take advantage of opportunities we help to create.

Generative practices make new opportunities possible, but generativity can’t make specific outcomes inevitable.

We don’t know and can’t predict specifically what our generative behavior will trigger for others. We can only be hopeful and optimistic as we make space for opportunity and invite positive outcomes to emerge.

You can gather just from this description why generativity isn’t a concept that’s been discussed much in business.  Generativity takes energy but has an uncontrollable, unpredictable return, it’s concerned as much for others as for ourselves, and it’s focused on the longer term rather than the next 13 weeks.  Businesses and business people have been taught, instead, to build systems that are predictable, to invest only where we can measure return, to focus on our own bottom line often at the expense of others’, and to think about share price and not lasting positive impact. Only a few companies are set up to focus on generativity.

But even so, I don’t think that generativity is too much to ask of us. It’s actually something we long for.

Our search for generativity is at the root of our conversations about innovation, employee engagementmeaning at work, the purpose economy, the sharing economy, the future of work, sustainability, social entrepreneurship, and social business.


Images by Tanakawho, from Flickr