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Generative Change

[Adapted from an article by Bill Veltrop published in
The Chaordic Commons Quarterly, Spring 2002]

My passion is to support those organizational change leaders who are committed to the transformation of the organizations they serve. My definition of organizational change leaders includes not only organizational leaders championing change, but also those change agents, change practitioners, and change architects who help catalyze and support organizational change initiatives. In other words, I'm committed to supporting those who have a stake in changing the world of organizations to become more life-affirming and generative.

I'm convinced the limiting nature of our organizations is one of the major reasons for the frightening trajectory of Spaceship Earth. Unless we learn how to transform our organizations we aren't likely to change our trajectory any time soon. To paraphrase Einstein, we can't solve problems at the same level of thinking that produced them.

I'm proposing that there is enormous leverage in focusing on changing how we approach organizational change. This article describes what I call generative change, change that grows an organization's capacity for change — naturally.

To make generative approaches to organizational change more distinct, I contrast them with "mechanistic" approaches. I have made the comparisons somewhat extreme to highlight two poles on a continuum of change approaches. In reality, all change initiatives I've experienced lie at various points along that continuum.

There is nothing inherently wrong or bad with a mechanistic worldview. It's provided us with countless evolutionary breakthroughs in the world of science and engineering. However, the unconscious application of this worldview to those wondrous living organisms we call organizations is proving to be increasing disastrous for current and future life on our planet.

The Differences

What are the differences between mechanistic and generative approaches to organization change?
  • Mechanistic approaches tend to treat human systems as machines, and people as replaceable parts. They tend to be demeaning and de-energizing. Generative approaches enhance, enable, and ennoble the human spirit. They evoke aliveness and creativity. They grow a capacity for growing.
  • Mechanistic approaches tend to focus on overcoming limitations: finding and fixing what's wrong—a problem-solving mind-set. Generative approaches focus on exploring and realizing full potential—an appreciative mind-set.
  • Mechanistic approaches tend to be episodic with tightly focused outcomes. Generative approaches tend to be recursive and designed to achieve multiple and even multiplying benefits.
  • Mechanistic approaches tend to be head-oriented—focused on performance, results, and metrics. Generative approaches also give priority to the heart—to compassion and caring.
  • Mechanistic approaches tend to be imposed from the top down—a pyramid structure. Generative approaches not only tap into the genius of all players in the organization, but also begin to naturally transform the pyramid into many circles.
  • The implementation of mechanistic approaches tends to be disruptive to "real work." Generative learning and change is seen as real work and is woven into the fabric of day-to-day processes and practices.
  • Mechanistic approaches to learning tend to emphasis formal training of individuals. Generative approaches tend to nurture "communities of practice" and other forms of natural knowledge sharing.
Mechanistic approaches to change invariably cost more than expected and rarely deliver the desired benefits. More importantly, the opportunity costs from inept organizational change efforts can be enormous. Not only are direct business benefits at risk, but the erosion of trust, energy, and creativity can become irreversible.
With generative approaches you have to prepare the soil, plant the seeds, provide plenty of light and nutrients, and be patient. However, once you've grown the organization's capacity for generative learning and change, it keeps on growing—gradually becoming self-regulating, self- improving, and self-evolving. The true benefits keep appreciating while the true costs essentially disappear.

Some Examples of Generative Change

The recent re-engineering movement virtually ignored the people side of the equation. The need for re-engineering was usually very real, but because of the mechanistic approach, most of these change initiatives did not come close to realizing expected benefits. Some were disasters.

One of the best examples of generative organization design I've encountered is the Procter and Gamble Paper Products plant in Albany, Georgia. Herb Stokes, the design architect and organization development manager, was my mentor in the early days of my organization change career. He helped craft a design so that the highly diverse technician teams not only managed themselves and their complex papermaking operations, but were also responsible for deciding on work assignments, managing their boundaries with supplier and customer groups, and providing developmental feedback to their members. The plant has been in operation for thirty years, and is still setting performance standards within P&G and the paper products industry.

It's important to underscore the "both/and" nature of generative change. The Albany plant design team did a masterful job of engineering their business processes and came up with a truly generative design for their technician system.

I recently had the opportunity to work with Granite Construction, Inc., with Mike Thomas, Granite's Vice President of Human Resources, as a generative change architect to their Employee Development Initiative. They committed to a bold approach to employee and leadership development as an integral part of their business strategy. Each of their profit centers has invested in a full-time Developmental Leader (DL) role. Valued line engineers/managers with an aptitude for developmental work, these DLs have signed up for a two-year assignment. The DL community comes together routinely for a week at a time to evolve natural approaches to learning and change throughout the organization. Although the initiative is still only in its "seedling" stage, the ripple effect is already apparent and has the potential for exponential growth in its outreach.

Requirements for leading change

Developing leadership commitment to generative change is a big challenge. Perhaps the toughest obstacle to overcome is committing the time and resources required to learn how to grow capacity for learning and change. Seeing this commitment as a core business strategy is the key.

Growing an organization's capacity for generative learning and change requires dedicating and supporting a cadre of committed "developmental leaders" in climbing a steep learning and discovery path to equip them to serve as change architects, practitioners and guides for the rest of the organization. This developmental approach also happens to be an extraordinarily powerful leadership development strategy for those leaders.

It is vital that organizational change leaders become leading learners and learning leaders. As Hewlett-Packard's Vivian Wright so aptly puts it, "You can't enable what you don't embody." When leaders are the change they want to see in the organization, magic happens.

In the early '90s I began to give real priority to my inner journey. Before then I saw the work of organizational change exclusively as an external challenge. I now see that inner and outer work are inseparable. As within, so without.

Growing an organization's capacity of generative learning and change requires courage, wisdom, and patience from its leaders.