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Introducing Generative Practice
These three blog posts offer a quick introduction to the concept of
generativity, help describe the conditions that are required to support
generativity (with examples), and provide a more detailed discussion of a
single generative practice. These were written for a practitioner audience
and were published on
Generativity, in General
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
We 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 engagement, meaning at work, the purpose economy,
the sharing economy, the future of work, sustainability, social
entrepreneurship, and social business.
Three Design Principles for Generative Business March 20, 2014
To be fully generative as part of growing your own business, your company
won’t want to stop at ‘creating space for opportunities’ for others. You’ll
want to protect the opportunities you’re creating and keep them open, by
aligning your other systems and stakeholders so that everyone interacts in a
positive, mutually-reinforcing way. And, to broaden the degree of
opportunities while sharing the value they generate, you’ll want to create
ways to trigger, gather and circulate thick, non-financial value.
To become more generative as they build their own businesses,
companies can:
1. Create opportunity space for others,
2. Align systems and stakeholders for mutual, positive interaction,
3. Create a system to circulate diverse, “thick value”.
1. Create opportunity space for others.
Generative businesses take an active role in creating opportunities for
others. The very first step to becoming more generative is to make a simple
tweak to any practice you’re already using to build your business.
This simple tweak is to ask the question: “How can we do this so
that someone else can build on it, if they want to?”
This first step asks you to look past the “what’s in it for me” orientation
that’s been drummed into business since the dawn of competitive capitalism,
to open the frame around your decisions so that you can include in your
thinking how your action might affect others. While we’ve been told to think
about not harming others (e.g., not polluting, not making a situation
unsafe), this step is not about reducing negatives (although, that might be a
good idea) but about deliberately making positive effects more likely.
Your aim is to give them something that they can turn into something
bigger, while you do what works for you. What’s generative about this step
is that your business is using what you control to create an opportunity for
someone else that otherwise wouldn’t be possible. This is what folks call a
Creating opportunities for others might sound like a lot of extra
work, but it’s actually so easy your business is probably already
doing it.
Opportunity Through Product.
Creating opportunities for others is something that every profitable business
already does, at least to some extent, through their products. Successful
products always satisfy (or are a solution to) some user or customer’s need.
This need can be for something they don’t have, or for something they have
to be improved. When your company sells a product that satisfies a
customer’s need, your product (and by extension, your company) frees up
energy for that customer. The customer can then devote this freed-up
energy to something else, something higher up on their ladder of priorities.
Community Sourced Capitol (CSC) is a generative organization that
creates opportunities for other businesses through its main product: small
business loans. CSC bundles and manages loans for local businesses who
find it difficult if not impossible to get affordable funding through commercial
banks. CSC provided a $19,000 loan to The Adrift Hotel in Long Beach,
Washington, filling in the gap between the smaller sums that The Adrift’s
owners could raise on their own, and a larger loan from a bank that would
have been too expensive for the business’s needs.
With CSC’s loan, The Adrift Hotel was able to purchase a solar water heater,
helping them reduce their carbon footprint. And, they were freed up to
embark on their next project, creating a rainwater catchment system that
would move them even closer to their goal of being a truly sustainable hotel.
CSC sold a loan, helping to build its own business. And because CSC chose
to sell a certain type of loan, they created an immediate and longer term
opportunities for their customer that The Adrift Hotel might not have been
able to pursue without their help.
Opportunity Through Business Process
While every business can create opportunities directly through their
products, you can also create opportunities through other parts of your
business, even something as internal and distant from customers as your
At AirBnB, their software engineers created opportunities for other
businesses by tweaking how they managed their internal software
development process. AirBnB’s engineers wrote a software program to install
on their site to speed up the search function. Working out loud, they wrote
about this process on their engineering blog. Once they deployed the code to
their own site and saw how well it worked for them, they made it available
for free, to other companies, by sharing it on Github (a site for storing and
sharing software).
Other businesses who wanted to speed up their own site’s search function
were able to copy AirBnB’s code, modify for their own site, and quickly put it
to use. Because these other engineers didn’t have to d.i.y. or duplicate
something already built by AirBnB, their time was freed up for other
projects. These could have been writing other software, upgrading their site
to make it more user-friendly, or working with the customer help desk to
understand how they could make their products work more easily for
customers. Regardless of where these engineers invested their free time,
their company was helped by AirBnB having shared their software fix with
Why did AirBnB decide to share their learning process publicly? For
the simple reason that someone early on had asked “How can we manage
our learning so that others can build in it, if they want to?” Because they
knew that it could be easy to share their learning at virtually no additional
cost, they did. Whether through the product they sell or the processes they
share, businesses can take the first step towards generativity by creating
opportunities for others. That’s the impulse that creates a “boost”.
2. Align systems and stakeholders for mutual, positive interaction
Once a business established a business practice that creates opportunities of
others, they’ll want to protect these opportunities so that the company
doesn’t countermand, contradict or erode them inadvertently through one of
their other business practices. There’s no sense in creating opportunities
with one hand, only to swat them down with the other. The left hand and
the right hand need to coordinate. That’s why a second step in becoming
more generative is to align systems and stakeholders for mutual, positive
interaction. Put more simply, a generative business coordinates its efforts for
a “Three Way Win”.
Defining the “Three-Way Win”. A Three-Way Win is a business process
that answers “Yes” to these three questions: (1) Does it help ‘them’?, (2)
Does it help us?, and (3) Does it help the larger community? The goal of the
Three-Way Win is to create not zero-sum value, but net additional value.
A generative business designs its processes to generate outcomes that
benefit themselves (of course) and create opportunities for their partners. To
some, just considering the full impact and benefit of an action on a partner’s
prospects for success seems revolutionary— since it asks them to go beyond
‘what’s in it for me?’. Generative businesses design their processes so that
they also benefit the larger system that they and their partners participate
Designing for the Three-Way Win asks you to organize your relationships
with stakeholders so that what you do with one stakeholder contributes to
what you do with others, so that the entire network protects the opportunity
space that your first action opened up. For this step, businesses need to
expand their focus even further, and step back to look at the “big picture” of
the network of relationships.
Stakeholder vs. Stakeholder. When a conventional business steps
back to look at the larger system, they often discover that they’ve designed
their business practices so that they make money by pitting stakeholders or
customer groups against each other. For example, getting your suppliers to
compete with each other on the price they offer you can end up increasing
your own profit.
A recent example of this kind of stakeholder vs. stakeholder competition
was offered by GrubHub, an online restaurant ordering and delivery
business. GrubHub‘s site seemed to list all of its client restaurants by
neighborhood and by the type of food they serve. But in reality, GrubHub
was also putting right at the top of the listings any restaurant willing to pay
a heftier listing fee. GrubHub was not making this pay-for-placement listing
scheme transparent to their customers.
It’s one thing to list restaurants according to a scheme related to their
product (e.g., positive customer feedback, estimated delivery time), because
these ordering schemes allow restaurants to ‘earn’ their placements by
criteria relevant to the customer’s interests. If restaurants were listed by
customers’ satisfaction ratings, they could all compete with each other to
improve their listing placement by providing better service to their
customers, a scheme that would benefit restaurants, customers, and
But GrubHub’s pay-for-placement scheme meant that restaurants who
are GrubHub customers but who aren’t able to pay a higher listing are
penalized— even if their product or service is markedly better and brings
more value to their customers. Setting different groups of customers in
competition with each other for your service calls into question whether your
business practice actually creates net opportunity.
This step is generative because it works to insure that nothing hardwired into the system is working against the good that you or other
members are trying to create. No one else is closing off the opportunity that
you are trying to create, and no one is working at cross-purposes. This
orientation towards the benefit to the whole system stands in contrast to a
business relationship that might help both partners but simultaneously
damage other partners or the shared system in which they work.
A Three-Way Win also asks a business to make sure that the relationship
between them and their stakeholders isn’t extractive. The system doesn’t
win when businesses suck out all the resources without contributing at least
as much value back in. It’s only when your business and your partners
return as much as you take that a business can meet the minimum criterion
of creating net opportunity.
ModCloth, an online fashion retailer specializing in vintage-inspired
design, created a Be the Buyer program to invite potential customers to
vote on which designs ModCloth should put into production and sell on their
Be The Buyer is a win for ModCloth, because products chosen through
the program sell at twice the volume of other products on the site. Modcloth
community members also win because they are able to influence what items
are made available to them. A third, system level win is that Modcloth
shares the feedback with both outside designers and Modcloth’s own internal
buying team, allowing them to tailor their designs to fit what what they
know (not guess) are customer preferences. This leads to better designs,
more accurate inventory management, and more satisfied customers overall.
3. Create a system to circulate diverse, thick value
A generative organization promotes and supports what we call ‘thick value’,
the non-financial qualities and experiences that exist outside of monetary
Generative businesses make these values part of their own success criteria.
They tweak their business practices to include, highlight and sustain these
values, weaving them into what the business provides to its stakeholders
and into what the business asks from its relationships. By including these
kinds of value in what is captured and circulated through their relationships
with other businesses, generative companies expand and enhance the range
of opportunities available to stakeholders, and magnify the overall value that
their practices create.
Mailchimp, the email newsletter service, builds values of empathy and
humor into its products. Atop the web page that customers use to compose
their newsletters is an image of their mascot, Freddie, making some kind of
funny commentary. With each refresh of the page, Freddie makes a new
joke, so that as the customer edits her newsletters, the repeated joking can
make her laugh out loud. Although Mailchimp’s corporate style guide
explains, “Freddie’s jokes aren’t intended to be useful or educational—
they’re simply a layer of humor!”, this humor can be quite valuable.
It’s likely that not all customers choose Mailchimp to get Freddie’s corny
jokes; there are plenty of other ‘hard’ criteria such as pricing that help
customers make their choices. But, the chimp’s jokes are not only funny,
they also hit the right motivational note for the task at hand, ultimately
uplifting the user. Who knows what she’ll do better or how she’ll interact
more positively with her own customers, now that she’s in a happier mood?
We’ve been taught to think that features like humor are valuable because
they eventually translate into revenue. For example, the return on
Mailchimp’s ‘investment’ in humor can be demonstrated by purchases from
repeat customers. But when we consider the non-financial value of the
humor— at the time it’s read by the customer, or written by the
programmer, or reported by the media site — we see that it adds to
Mailchimp and Mailchimp’s customers’ community in ways that are not only
non-financial, but possibly even unquantifiable. Mailchimp’s process creates
value, like humor, that circulates out into their stakeholder network in one
positive interaction after another.
Capturing and circulating thick value is generative, because we need
to give, receive and circulate value that is not money, because these
values help us be motivated, buoyant, happy, focused, creative, and
generative in our interactions with others.
Your business might need to receive some visible acknowledgment to
recognize that your product is working well. You might need visible
encouragement to keep experimenting with new formats. You may need to
know that other companies admire your business’s sustainability programs,
so that your motivation stays high even when the composting system breaks
down. All of this value, and the positive outcomes it generates, can’t be
purchased with the financial profits your business earns. It needs to come to
you through different value streams, circulating through your businesses
relationships with others.
Three Elements of a Larger System
Generative businesses create space for opportunities, they align their
activities so that stakeholders and systems interact in a mutually supportive
and positive way, and they gather and circulate not just financial value but
also non-monetary ‘thick value’ that is so critical to a business’s ability to
These three elements don’t have to all be addressed for a business to be
somewhat generative. Just one of these elements can make a positive
contribution to the health and growth of your own company. But, if your
business wants to maximize its own capacity and contribute to the grown of
your network, you’ll want to consider how to create all three elements in
your business practice.
Working Out Loud In Public: A Generative Practice Nov 20,
One of the easiest ways for your organization to be generous and
create opportunities for others is to share your learning.
Keeping all your learning inside your own organization is a stingy behavior.
It’s the organization’s form of knowledge hiding or knowledge hoarding.
Sure, keeping your knowledge inside your own business’s walls keeps other
organizations from catching up to yours in a particular area, but it also
prevents your organization from amplifying your own learning by seeing how
others might use the same ideas a little differently.
Boost Companies have a practice for sharing their learning that is
relatively easy to do, and has a really high payoff for the work that it
might take.
That practice is Working Out Loud in Public.
Working Out Loud in Public
Boost Companies work out loud by talking about what they’re doing while
they’re doing it. Talking and writing about what you are doing “externalizes”
the ideas and insights. It gets them out of your head and onto a place where
you and others can more easily see what you’re doing and find ways to
Some companies already work out loud inside their company walls,
sharing their learning but keeping it all private.
Boost Companies
deliberately choose social, network tools like blogs to work out loud
in public- where anyone can see.
With these tools, boost companies create a window into their company’s
learning process. That means that people outside the company, like us, can
look through this public window and learn along with them.
(That image is supposed to be a boost company, seen through a window.)
You can see this practice of Working Out Loud In Public in action on any one
of hundreds of software engineering blogs (which I read for fun, because I
don’t know why.)
On engineering blogs, developers write about what they’re doing to build
new software, solve problems, or increase their system’s reliability. Since
they publish this writing publically, they invite other software developers to
learn along with them.
An example that I used in my TEDx talk, which you can check out yourself,
is over at the lodging reservations site, AirBnB.
Working Out Loud In Public at AirBnB
(Summarizing this story for the general reader): Starting in about October
of 2012, the software designers at AirBnB, have been working out loud on a
particular challenge– speeding up their mobile app. They identified the
problem, tried several different combinations of (what non-engineers would
describe as) software revisions, patches, temporary fixes, and new tools.
With each experiment they’ve explained out loud, in public, on their blog,
exactly what they tried, why, what worked and what didn’t.
They even shared and open-sourced the tool they built, to save everyone
else that step.
How many people do you imagine read those AirBnB blog posts?
I guessed that there were maybe a few hundred readers. I was stunned to
learn that they’d had over 80,000 page views.
What does that net out to, in terms of unique visitors? I tweeted a few of
AirBnB’s engineers to ask them, but they weren’t able to give me a firm
number. Considering that some readers come back many times, I suspect
those 80,000 page views net out to 20,000 to 60,000 people.
At either end of that range, that’s an amazing number of people who can
learn from AirBnB’s experience, improve their own developer skills, and
apply AirBnB’s lessons to make their own companies’ sites faster too. All
from a simple act of sharing your process using a public tool.
A caveat
Of course, Boost Companies don’t work out loud in public on everything that
they do. They don’t share the recipe to the “secret sauce” or give away
competitive secrets.
In the case of engineering blogs, they focus on technical or process learning
(versus content, product or market learning) that is generalizable because it
improves a core process that does’t compromise the business’s distinctive
value. Rather, by Working Out Loud In Public, boost companies share
whatever else they can that might help another business get better.
Working out loud in public means that we get the business-building benefit
of reflecting on our own learning and sharing it within our organization.
Working out loud in public means that we share that learning with
whoever can use it, in the hopes that they apply it in their own
business to build capacity and create new opportunity.
Boost Companies believe that — if we make it easy to learn from
each other’s experience — as a group we’ll make fewer mistakes and
— we’ll all grow smarter, faster.
Note: This post covers one of the three practices of generative generosity,
as I describe in my TEDx Hoboken Talk: The Boost Revolution.
See also: How Social Media Reveals Invisible Work
How Social Media Can Help Us Generate Productive Momentum
Check out John Stepper’s blog, where he’s been unpacking the idea of
Working Out Loud.