The Future of Generative Organizations

It’s often said that orga­ni­za­tions of the future will be flat­ter and less hier­ar­chi­cal, orga­nized as net­works and accord­ing to the prin­ci­ples of self-man­age­ment. But that can’t hap­pen with­out a fun­da­men­tal shift in per­spec­tive even more basic — from com­pet­i­tive to gen­er­a­tive orga­ni­za­tions. Com­pet­i­tive orga­ni­za­tions are ones that define their edge strate­gi­cal­ly over oth­er orga­ni­za­tions, com­pet­ing for cus­tomers in the same mar­ket niche and hop­ing to out-maneu­ver if not sim­ply kill off oth­er work­places. Gen­er­a­tive com­pa­nies focus on the val­ue of what they pro­duce far more than sim­ply their com­pet­i­tive advantage. 

You may have seen, for exam­ple, Cleve­land Clin­ic’s beau­ti­ful com­mer­cial using empa­thy as the theme. It’s a work of art.

Yet, there’s an irony here. Empa­thy, as a val­ue, isn’t some­thing that defines a “com­pet­i­tive” edge. Rather, empa­thy defines a com­mu­ni­ty pres­ence, a human con­nec­tion. If the com­mer­cial were pro­duced to sim­ply get more cus­tomers than some oth­er orga­ni­za­tions but the val­ue was­n’t lived, it might rep­re­sent a tem­po­rary pub­lic rela­tions coupe, for sure, but in the end it would like­ly be seen as extreme­ly crass and destruc­tive to the rep­u­ta­tion of the orga­ni­za­tion. In order for the com­mer­cial to work, we have to believe that the Cleve­land Clin­ic isn’t sim­ply com­pet­ing with oth­er like orga­ni­za­tions for clients — it is instead mak­ing a stand about the human val­ue it deliv­ers — empa­thy — regard­less of what any oth­er orga­ni­za­tions might be or do. 


Assum­ing that’s real­ly true, the orga­ni­za­tion is a gen­er­a­tive one, not a com­pet­i­tive one. There are also hints of that gen­er­a­tive impulse in this par­tic­u­lar video as it unfolds, show­ing how the eth­ic of empa­thy also applies to staff. It’s an inside-out­side-in cul­ture that respects the real­i­ties of those who deliv­er the ben­e­fits, not just those who receive them. All of which says, “this isn’t fake.” We did­n’t put this up to win the game. We did it to tell our com­mu­ni­ty who we are and to connect. 

If you take the cyn­i­cal view that this is sim­ply a new com­pet­i­tive field, I cer­tain­ly can­not prove you wrong. But I’d also sug­gest you chal­lenge beliefs that sug­gest we as busi­ness peo­ple can­not work from our best ideals. I sug­gest you espe­cial­ly chal­lenge your­self if you call the prob­lem some kind of fail­ure of human nature. 

Grant­ed we have so much in the cur­rent envi­ron­ment — with our habit­u­al focus on short-term prof­its and mon­ey as the only real bot­tom-line — that would make any argu­ment for the pos­si­bil­i­ty of busi­ness by ideals seem­ing­ly inde­fen­si­ble and naive. Grant­ed, I am almost con­stant­ly run­ning into one cyn­i­cal “real­ist” after the next who is com­plete­ly fed up with Amer­i­can cap­i­tal­ism and what a con it is, how peo­ple indeed have become com­modi­ties, how the few are thieves of the many, how emo­tion­al dis­en­gage­ment is the only log­i­cal reac­tion. Grant­ed, so many peo­ple, in addi­tion, are fed up with the appar­ent com­plic­i­ty of gov­ern­ment and the dirty, polar­ized par­ty pol­i­tics that have become the norm, who sim­ply do not know what to do and so have giv­en up hop­ing for some­one to lead us all out of the mess, includ­ing them­selves. Grant­ed many believe that com­pa­nies now are actu­al­ly far more impor­tant in shap­ing the way we think, feel and live than the set of social prin­ci­ples, lan­guages, and cul­tur­al foun­da­tions we used to call coun­tries — our coun­try, the Unit­ed States, in par­tic­u­lar. For now any­way they may well be right. 

But it is also for exact­ly this rea­son, that so many feel hope­less and cyn­i­cal and total­ly over­worked, that there’s going to be a fight ahead. If not now, then lat­er, and I encour­age and endorse that fight. It’s not a fight about the struc­ture of orga­ni­za­tions or new forms of man­age­ment, per se, but instead proof that in fact gen­er­a­tive orga­ni­za­tions can trans­form busi­ness cul­ture. Proof that this shift is not a game, not a PR ploy, not a pro­gram, but a fun­da­men­tal return to core val­ues that sup­port rather than erode soci­ety, that lit­er­al­ly can save the earth rather than doom us to a more or less apoc­a­lyp­tic view of what hap­pens next for the race, of how our chil­dren will be harmed over time and will suf­fer for our sins.

There’s a fight ahead for the human spir­it, for lib­er­a­tion, and you and I are part of it. What we do is impor­tant. I believe that fight will be as cru­cial and close to the bone as, say, the Civ­il Rights Move­ment of the six­ties and its con­tin­u­ing lega­cies. Maybe the phys­i­cal beat­ings and lynch­ings won’t be as promi­nent as the eco­nom­ic ones, but they will be just as real. I’m not con­vinced we need to total­ly give up on cap­i­tal­ist prin­ci­ples or even hier­ar­chy (as if we could), so much as we need to find and begin to stand up for some­thing like our own truth­ful and gen­er­a­tive lead­er­ship — a lead­er­ship deeply based on:

• Our com­mit­ment to the val­ue of what we do above and beyond sim­ply being bet­ter, rich­er, more pow­er­ful, more suc­cess­ful than some­body else

• Our ideals and visions for what a good and eth­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion real­ly can be

• Our sense of own­er­ship for the future — what we do today even in small ways has enor­mous impacts over time

• Our appli­ca­tion of hero­ic val­ues (the ones we see so clear­ly in the midst of cri­sis) to the cre­ation of tru­ly good companies

• Our will­ing­ness to engage every­one in the open, inclu­sive forums that are able to break down the bar­ri­ers we have his­tor­i­cal­ly erect­ed to pro­tect author­i­ty but which under­mine real, col­lec­tive leadership

• Our will­ing­ness to cre­ate val­ue through part­ner­ship and col­lab­o­ra­tion and true com­mu­ni­ty, not silo­ing peo­ple and pit­ting peo­ple against one another

• Our will­ing­ness to sac­ri­fice — as so many have done in the quest for true equal­i­ty, true oppor­tu­ni­ty, rather than the endorse­ment of a pri­vate, com­pet­i­tive quest for privilege.

To acti­vate this kind of lead­er­ship is going to be our work. It does mean man­ag­ing by truth, by open­ness, by love, by doing the right thing — lead­er­ship as a com­mu­ni­ty, not as a com­mod­i­ty. It will hurt. Peo­ple will like­ly get fired or worse for want­i­ng it or sim­ply for try­ing to achieve it. But it rep­re­sents at its core a kind of human affir­ma­tion that we actu­al­ly know pret­ty well in our own hearts and can­not deny. Not the affir­ma­tion that we’re best, we’re most suc­cess­ful. Most pow­er­ful. Not the affir­ma­tion that our job was to make a lot of mon­ey and we did — yahoo, aren’t we great. Not the affir­ma­tion that “I got mine” because, after­all, I’m bet­ter and the world is going to hell in a hand­bas­ket and I need pro­tec­tion and safe­ty. Not that we won and now we get the spoils of that war, pre­tend­ing that a per­son­al mid­dle class exis­tence is still pos­si­ble. But the affir­ma­tion that we took back the pow­er to actu­al­ly help make the world a bet­ter place for all peo­ple, that we lived the prin­ci­ples upon which a soci­ety, not just a prof­it and pow­er mak­ing machine, is based. That we suf­fered for it, and found it, and we left a legacy.

In this, the urge toward civ­i­liza­tion, self-suf­fi­cien­cy, and gen­uine care for the human race has always been a thor­ough­ly, spir­i­tu­al­ly coura­geous act.


RSS and email sub­scrip­tion, month­ly Unfold­ing Lead­er­ship newslet­ter, search and oth­er func­tions may be found at the “Fur­ther Infor­ma­tion” tab at the bot­tom of this page.

The Arc Workshop

On May 14–15, I will be facil­i­tat­ing The Arc work­shop in Seat­tle — an exam­ple of long-term lead­er­ship self-dis­cov­ery. The cost for this small group work­shop is $500. For more infor­ma­tion please down­load the full brochure by click­ing the image below. If you are inter­est­ed or would just like to talk about the work­shop, please get in touch!


  • Hi, Dan,

    This is a very “meaty” sub­ject, wor­thy of expan­sion into a book, one could argue, as it address­es issues of lead­er­ship, per­son­al respon­si­bil­i­ty, and “right action,” as the Bud­dhists would say. It is my con­sid­ered opin­ion that our vote at the cash reg­is­ter may pos­si­bly exceed our vote for polit­i­cal can­di­dates. There is a ris­ing tide of inter­est among con­sumers to choose prod­ucts, and by exten­sion, “cor­po­ra­tions” that mir­ror our per­son­al val­ues and beliefs…by deliv­er­ing the best prod­ucts and ser­vices for the ben­e­fit of all stakeholders…which I con­sid­er the John Stew­art Mill approach.

    While some folks have char­ac­ter­ized our cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem as head­ing down the road toward Dar­win­ism, this is not, per se, the only path we as a soci­ety can choose, as all of us [as con­sumers] can “vote” for those cor­po­ra­tions (and non-prof­its) that best reflect our per­son­al val­ues. Patag­o­nia is but one exam­ple of a cor­po­ra­tion that appears to have what, aca­d­e­mics view, a sol­id “stake­hold­er” cor­po­rate approach that res­onates with con­sumers in a pos­i­tive way…one that takes to heart the con­cerns of inter­nal and exter­nal con­stituen­cies as explained in this aca­d­e­m­ic paper:

    Indeed, cor­po­ra­tions can uti­lize a “smoke and mir­ror approach” to herald­ing their mis­sion and val­ues, but with the advent of social media, such as Yelp and Ang­ie’s List (among oth­ers), the hype can be dis­missed with sound, empir­i­cal evi­dence that can rein­force or negate cor­po­rate hype. I per­son­al­ly have been giv­ing con­sid­er­able thought to how I can sup­port orga­ni­za­tions and cor­po­ra­tions whose core val­ues ben­e­fit the greater good, and often research prod­ucts and ser­vices before I vote at the cash reg­is­ter, know­ing I am get­ting some­thing that ben­e­fits not just me, but all stakeholders–including I should add, the nat­ur­al envi­ron­ment. After all, Amer­i­cans have always liked vot­ing for “the good guys,” not to be offen­sive in gen­der nomenclature. 

    I think, again Dan, you’ve touched upon a nerve that goes very deep into the Amer­i­can psy­che, and deserves fur­ther reflec­tion as one can read in the URL I cit­ed above (which com­ple­ments what you expressed in your inci­sive essay quite nicely–but as the arti­cle illus­trates, there are inher­ent risks in cor­po­rate mes­sag­ing regard­less of actu­al intentions). 

    Your essay is real­ly quite time­ly, and pro­found­ly thought pro­vok­ing, as it chal­lenges one to not only “think,” but fur­ther­more to “act” as well. I’ve book­marked this essay and will return to it often as I begin to reflect on how we, col­lec­tive­ly, can make our cor­po­rate cul­tures more human­is­tic, and respon­sive to all stake­hold­ers. A tall order, to be sure, but as you wrote, this may be a time that is a “call to action,” much like the Civ­il Rights Move­ment. At the end of the day, orga­ni­za­tions that seek to empow­er inter­nal stake­hold­ers as much as exter­nal stake­hold­ers will poten­tial­ly be reward­ed hand­some­ly, both in terms of enhanced (pos­i­tive) cor­po­rate brand­ing, and enhanced cor­po­rate profits.

  • Dan,

    A well thought out arti­cle on how orga­ni­za­tions can shift to a new par­a­digm. Putting empa­thy, col­lab­o­ra­tion, and part­ner­ship in the mid­dle may lead to a more sus­tain­ing and pur­pose­ful orga­ni­za­tion. It may be the new orga­ni­za­tion of the next decades.

    Get­ting to this mod­el, though, will be chal­leng­ing. It will take a new type of leader and even a new type of organizational/community spir­it to get there. How that tran­si­tion hap­pens will be chal­leng­ing and inter­est­ing. Oth­er than com­plete mind­set shifts, I am unsure how it would unfold. 

    There is a new con­cept call “holoc­ra­cy.” To some degree, this orga­ni­za­tion­al approach gets to some of the points you raise. It does­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly have the empa­thy com­po­nent, but it has some of the oth­er “free­dom” aspects.

    Great arti­cle, as usu­al, Dan! Thanks!


  • Karl

    Thanks for your detailed com­ment, and the link to a very thought-pro­vok­ing arti­cle. Of course, I’m on the side of “involve­ment,” more than sim­ply stake­hold­er mes­sag­ing, and I love the old notion that comes dis­tinct­ly from the inter­net that “a mar­ket is a con­ver­sa­tion.” How and with whom we engage in the con­ver­sa­tion is core.

    I also espe­cial­ly enjoyed your com­men­tary on how peo­ple are vot­ing at the cash reg­is­ter and becom­ing more con­scious about pur­chas­ing in a way that’s con­gru­ent with their own true val­ues. I think that does hold out a lot of hope.

    Under­neath the ques­tions I think I’m rais­ing is one cen­tral one: can we cre­ate large, prof­it-mak­ing orga­ni­za­tions that actu­al­ly fos­ter a good soci­ety, one that is tru­ly for peo­ple and for an enlarged sense of com­mu­ni­ty? Cor­po­rate Social Respon­si­bil­i­ty (CSR) strate­gies often don’t go very far, in my esti­mate, beyond PR ini­tia­tives and, like “ethics train­ing” for employ­ees, are mere­ly a “check the box” kind of action, how­ev­er well intend­ed they might have start­ed out to be. They are fun­da­men­tal­ly about appear­ances and com­pet­i­tive posi­tion­ing — what they want their cus­tomers to think of them. But would they do it if no one else did?

  • In a tweet respond­ing to this post, @BlackhawkCorp asks, “How do we change the com­pa­ny in order to suit this soci­ety and help this nation and it’s peo­ple?” This is an excep­tion­al ques­tion (I’m steal­ing it) — and it is pre­cise­ly the kind of ques­tion that has a unique answer for each orga­ni­za­tion. The ques­tion must become a dia­logue, best host­ed by tru­ly gen­er­a­tive lead­ers in an envi­ron­ment of safe­ty where peo­ple feel free to speak their minds. I’d sug­gest the best exchange will be one that includes peo­ple from with­in and out­side the orga­ni­za­tion, the orga­ni­za­tion’s full range of stake­hold­ers. See this post for more.

    There is no one size fits all kind of answer — there is no “expert view,” which is in fact part of the prob­lem — too many experts, not enough lis­ten­ing actu­al exchange, not enough gen­uine mutu­al influ­ence. The ideals behind such con­ver­sa­tions have to do with being a com­mu­ni­ty and serv­ing com­mu­ni­ty — and not using this con­ver­sa­tion in a super­fi­cial way to com­pete with oth­er orga­ni­za­tions or sim­ply make more mon­ey. If the con­ver­sa­tion is done right, it will yield ideas and deep­er per­spec­tives about the rela­tion­ship of the com­pa­ny to what is hap­pen­ing for its cus­tomers and how the orga­ni­za­tion is tru­ly viewed. It can stim­u­late a more refined def­i­n­i­tion of the iden­ti­ty of the orga­ni­za­tion or the need for whole­sale redefinition.

    Thanks, @BlackhawkCorp for ask­ing — from my stand­point any­way — exact­ly the right kind of ques­tion. (And, respond­ing to a sec­ond tweet about the pow­er of the inter­net, I agree — you are so right, the inter­net has changed so much. And I par­tic­u­lar­ly appre­ci­ate its con­tin­u­ing role in the move from com­pet­i­tive to gen­er­a­tive organizations.

  • Vincenza M wrote:

    Dan — thanks for post­ing the YouTube from Cleve­land Clin­ic. It was very mov­ing and your com­men­tary very thought-provoking. 

    I am remind­ed that the path is not easy and that there will be col­lat­er­al dam­age. But how can we not engage? Some­times the mar­ket­ing gets way ahead of the oper­a­tions. Want­i­ng to be gen­er­a­tive and BEING gen­er­a­tive are two dif­fer­ent things.

  • Jon

    I agree that it will take a shift in mind­set, and that indeed will be dif­fi­cult. What I’m sug­gest­ing isn’t exact­ly the norm, although there are many orga­ni­za­tions exper­i­ment­ing with more gen­er­a­tive approach­es. This arti­cle men­tions a man­ager’s expe­ri­ence of Trad­er Joe’s, for exam­ple. If you fol­low the threads back­wards to Den­ning’s arti­cle and oth­er links, there’s more on “obliq­ui­ty.”

    What I believe is that there are many man­agers who hold gen­er­a­tive instincts in their hearts but do not step in to fight for them. They may feel the risks too great­ly. But tru­ly gen­er­a­tive lead­ers, and I’d say you are one of them, Jon, do find ways to intro­duce change to the mind­sets in ques­tion. I was so impressed in our Newslet­ter inter­view by your point that there are many start­ing points for build­ing com­mu­ni­ty at work — in small, con­nec­tive, per­son to per­son ways. That’s won­der­ful stuff.

    To get to the oth­er side of the swamp, we must have a vision of bet­ter ground. It’s part of my inten­tion here to begin to call out that dry ground to help achieve some kind of col­lec­tive clar­i­ty and direc­tion. Let’s, all of us, work togeth­er on that vision and the ways to proceed.

    Thank you so much for writ­ing and shar­ing your thoughts. Now I’ve go to go look up “holoc­ra­cy!” All the best.

  • Vin­cen­za

    Yes, you point out a major chal­lenge — the notion that if we just want to be gen­er­a­tive (and maybe even make that an “offi­cial,” above the water-line part of cor­po­rate val­ues) that is not the same as BEING gen­er­a­tive. It’s a won­der­ful ques­tion, Vin­cen­za, and I’ll take a hum­ble stab at this, wel­com­ing your ideas and every­body else’s, too.

    The say/do dilem­ma is actu­al­ly part of why I am such a strong advo­cate for the broad­er lead­er­ship con­ver­sa­tions I men­tion in this ear­li­er post. I’m real­ly attempt­ing to chal­lenge peo­ple. Can you do this? If not, you’re in mud­dy water, every one for themselves.

    Ulti­mate­ly — and courage is def­i­nite­ly required — the way for­ward includes hold­ing up to the light the obvi­ous dis­con­nects — such as those between “mar­ket­ing” and “oper­a­tions,” exact­ly what peo­ple may be talk­ing about in the back­ground and the issues that have become undis­cuss­able. With­out this hap­pen­ing, there’s no real chance to learn. 

    Why would these dis­crep­an­cies be so undis­cuss­able any­way? Because the lead­ers can­not actu­al­ly han­dle that feed­back, don’t know what to do with it, may not be open to mutu­al influ­ence, or be will­ing to help them­selves and the work­place learn, grow and change. So some­one or some group inter­est­ed in change could def­i­nite­ly be tak­ing a risk to call atten­tion to the dis­crep­an­cies; espe­cial­ly if they are tru­ly per­sis­tent and there is push-back and defen­sive­ness. I ful­ly under­stand that those who do con­vene might have to stake their employ­ment on call­ing a real dis­cus­sion into the open, the one that involves lead­er­ship. As I say, and you clear­ly under­stand, there may well be casu­al­ties in this fight to change a culture. 

    And that’s why I think is vital first to col­lec­tive­ly define a vision for what the orga­ni­za­tion of the future can be, even if at first that vision is about two groups or a few depart­ments. We are all impli­cat­ed in help­ing find that vision and shar­ing it — it’s not a “com­pet­i­tive edge” — it’s a set of social ideals for what a good orga­ni­za­tion, your good orga­ni­za­tion can be. If peo­ple con­vene and begin talk­ing about what that might be for their work­place, for sure the dis­crep­an­cies will come up. Find the col­lec­tive vision first; then talk about the roads for­ward togeth­er, includ­ing look­ing at those uncom­fort­able dis­con­nects. The tone must be open and car­ing and engaged, so that that shift to tru­ly becom­ing more gen­er­a­tive as an orga­ni­za­tion is owned both per­son­al­ly and col­lec­tive­ly. Cyn­i­cism and pas­siv­i­ty must be eschewed, along with the mis­un­der­stand­ing that such jour­neys can ever real­ly be finished.

    And, final­ly, think­ing like Jon Mertz (see the Newslet­ter inter­view linked above the com­ments) we can always begin to make our own small moves to build com­mu­ni­ty and begin to break down the bar­ri­ers to safer, more vul­ner­a­ble, more open and car­ing con­ver­sa­tions. That’s a one-on-one gen­er­a­tive approach — and a very per­son­al way to begin. 

    Best to you, Vin­cen­za! Thank you for ask­ing THE ques­tion, and again I real­ly wel­come your own thoughts and reac­tions (and the thoughts and reac­tions of oth­ers, too!) to con­tin­ue this conversation.

  • There is no such thing as a cook­ie-cut­ter solu­tion. Every prob­lems needs a unique, cus­tom answer.

  • Dear Dan,
    This is a post of incred­i­ble depth. It high­lights an amaz­ing cul­ture at Cleve­land Clinic. 

    Then you raise sev­er­al key thought-pro­vok­ing ques­tions that bring us to one very provoca­tive question:

    **Can and will the world of busi­ness move from a com­pet­i­tive Zeit­geist to a gen­er­a­tive one?

    Much to pon­der. THANK YOU for this post. I will share it on my streams.


  • Her­mes — Thank you, and yes, pre­cise­ly. Hence your ear­li­er ques­tion (@BlackhawkCorp) is so apro­pos. It is very dif­fi­cult to say what any giv­en orga­ni­za­tion what that answer might be and what issues are like­ly to emerge. But the ques­tion itself, and the reminder that the the solu­tion will not be a “cook­ie-cut­ter” one is vital. Thanks again and best to you.

  • Kate

    As always, you sep­a­rate the chaff from the wheat. The change may not hap­pen unless it is viewed as the “right kind of evo­lu­tion” for our coun­try and our time.
    Thank you so much for pass­ing along my arti­cle through your streams! All the best!

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