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.


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  • 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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