Generative Organizing

My close friend and colleague, Jane Dutton, loves to talk about the topic of “generative organizing.”  She speaks of the moments when people become aware of resources that they could not previously imagine or tap.  She argues that these resources are always available and if we employ the positive mental map, we can become skilled in tapping them.  Many people just shake their heads, wondering what she is talking about.

She tells a story that illustrates the process.  One day there was a school-wide faculty meeting.  The topic was very challenging and heavy.  Jane and her colleagues left that meeting on a low note and then went directly to a meeting of the management and organization faculty.  The objective was to consider the next few years and involved a discussion of strengths, weakness, threats and opportunities.  Several new threats were articulated and the discussion seemed to spiral downward.  Again the feeling was heavy.

At that point a question was posed, “In thinking about the next few years, what if we asked a new question – What is the very best thing we could do to serve the students?”

This was a purpose-clarifying question.  What followed was dramatic.  Here is the account  captured in the words of the department chair, Sue Ashford.  She wrote this email shortly after the meeting:

“If you happened to miss the MO area faculty meeting today, whether you are on sabbatical and far away or just had other commitments, I have to say, you missed a great one! We processed inputs about our strengths, weaknesses, threats and opportunities, both from our own listings and based on what we had heard in the preceding faculty meeting and then we turned to vision. And then we decided (yes, decided!) on a vision about which all in the room had a great deal of energy. I wanted to share it and the thinking about it with you and then I will look for ways to share it with the PhD student community down the line.

If you think about our vision generally, we all want to create a vibrant intellectual group that serves our various stakeholders well and makes a difference in the world. That is great at a general level. What we decided on, though, is a next year vision, a vision centered around better understanding what some of our group are calling the “new world of work.” The vision is to talk together about what the new world of work might mean for how we prepare students (teaching), what we study (research), and how we orient our department’s future.

In other words, we committed ourselves to a year of inquiry and exploration about this topic with the aim of thinking through the implications of it for our hiring, teaching, and scholarship.  The end result, we hope, is teaching we are excited about and that is oriented towards this new world of work; and also the ability to package and tell our story better regarding what we do.

We committed to a “one-year listening tour” on this topic. (Here Sue lists many ideas that were generated in the meeting. Most were specific, inspiring and doable. Sue then goes on.)

People were excited –

  • Excited that this perspective gets us out of rigidity in our thinking about things that are inherent in organizations (such as hierarchy) to thinking about what it means to be a member of community and organizations now.
  • Excited that this moves us into a position of proactivity and agency rather than being threatened by some of the challenges we face.
  • Excited that it just seems right – like the right perspective to have now.

The topic is general enough that we all can grab hold of it no matter what our perspective and relevant enough that it has important for a lot of our different activities. This one doesn’t seem like it’s going away (e.g., I don’t think it’s the e-commerce issue of the late 90s) – but rather one where we as a department could organize around and make a difference for.

For those of you were there, thanks for your participation in the discussion and your enthusiasm. For those of you were not there, we hope you will be excited about going through the next year with a vision to learn and develop around this topic. You will be seeing it on future agendas for sure! For all, let me know your thoughts, ways you’d like to participate and aspects you might want to lead. This will only work if we collectively own it!”

So what is “generative organizing?” It is a time when a group begins to function according to the positive mindset. Purpose, trust, energy, optimism, and creativity are usually manifest. People feel like they are part of the vibrant whole. They become more engaged. They offer more resources and the resources become recombined in creative ways. The people begin to “repurpose” current programs and routines in real time.  The more they give to the whole the more they feel rewarded by being part of the whole.


When have I seen a group clarify purpose and become energized?

What do I believe about the concept of generative organizing?

How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


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