[Navigation imagemap]
Home | Search | Map | Books | Knowledge Garden | Calendar | Ordering | Guestbook

A Metaphor for a Worldwide Paradigm Shift
Creating Learning Organizations Through Core Competence in Community Building
Softstuff: Work Teams in Technical Organizations
From Chaos to Community at Work
Discovering a Generative Path to Organizational Change
Dialogue and Organizational Transformation
The Wisdom Council
Rediscovering the Circle: Community in Balance
A Sense of the Whole: The Essence of Community
The Quest for Collective Intelligence
Principles for Sustainability
My Journey Toward Hope

Discovering A Generative Path to Organizational Change

by Bill Veltrop

This document is a revised version of the chapter
"Discovering A Generative Path to Organizational Change"
in the anthology "Community Building: Renewing Spirit and Learning in Business", New Leaders Press, 1995.
Please do not quote without the permission.

Business is in the process of transforming itself. The signs are everywhere. Business organizations are restructuring and re-engineering themselves at ever-increasing rates. Change has become our only constant.

The results have been mixed, at best. Most large-scale change initiatives take longer than expected, cost more than expected, are much more painful than expected, and simply don't deliver the expected benefits. Even when these initiatives are "successful" in re-engineering the infrastructure to eliminate waste the organizations frequently become more machine-like.

Today's change initiatives are primarily based on a problem-solving view of organizations and change. They usually ignore the potential for generative change. Generative change is change designed to be life-giving - an approach to change that builds in the organizational capacity not only to continuously improve what is but also to make evolutionary leaps to what's possible .

I am convinced it is possible not only to achieve a major breakthrough in the effectiveness of organizational change work, but also to do so in a way that helps create a new and more sustainable game of business. I see an incredibly large opportunity gap between what is and what's possible in the domain of organizational change and in the nature of business itself.

This essay is written for a new kind of player in the game of organizational learning and change. These players are convinced that a radical breakthrough in effectiveness of organizational change work is essential and are hungry for ways to facilitate that breakthrough. They include both champions of change within organizations and external providers of organizational learning and change expertise. They are characterized by their level of commitment to consciously evolve themselves, their relationships, and the organizations they serve.

I call these players "Allies". They are individuals who recognize that we are all in this together - who appreciate that re-inventing the game of organizational change demands that we learn to ally ourselves in new and generative ways. Today, these players are like puzzle pieces scattered within and around organizations.

The intent of this essay is threefold:

  1. To sound a note that helps to bring Allies into relationship with each other so that we might explore how to creatively collaborate in this quest
  2. To sketch out an emerging practice - generative learning communities as an organic approach to growing and spreading high leverage organizational learning and change innovations
  3. To highlight co-creative relationships as a prime source of energy and inspiration to support both of the above.


How do we know if we're Allies?

We will know we are Allies by our declarations and by our actions.

For the most part we are players already involved in the work of organizational learning and change. We can be distinguished by the excitement we feel about the challenge of collectively bridging the opportunity gap - of exploring and pioneering new territory together.

Our beliefs are another clue. We believe that business can lead the global transformation that will reverse the non-sustainable path that business and society have been walking for so long. We are also convinced that this transformative change can only be as effective as our own inner work . We've begun to experience the reality of "As within, so without. As without, so within."

On a more personal note, we will know each other by the amazing ways we begin to show up in each other's lives - by the seeming coincidences and synchronicities that bring us together.

Currently, we are mostly working in isolation from each other. This essay is a call for Allies to begin to recognize ourselves and one another, and to begin to connect. We are on the same quest: looking for a path forward that fundamentally shifts the game of business.


Have you mapped such a path?

Not exactly. We're talking radically new territory. I've spent a couple of decades getting clear about the nature of this particular quest and I find it quite humbling. I see an incredibly exciting evolutionary shift in the making. I'm convinced no one has the answer or the map. The path forward will emerge from the collective initiatives and learnings of a large number of Allies who have moved to a new level of collaboration and co-creativity.

Although I don't have a whole map, I do have a number of ideas for evolving and sharing maps as we collectively step forward in search of the new game. Once we've created a network, committed to supporting this evolutionary shift within and across organizations of all kinds, I see incredible potential for dramatic breakthroughs.


What makes you believe that dramatic breakthroughs in organizational change work are possible?

I'm excited by the huge gap I see between the relatively low effectiveness of our current change initiatives and what can be possible if we approach change in ways that are generative - life-giving and self-evolving in nature.

Let me start by focusing on the state of current initiatives.We've had a pretty mediocre track record so far. For instance, an A. D. Little study showed that two-thirds of the Total Quality programs in the US had failed to produce "competitive impact". A Wyatt study revealed that while 75% of the respondents felt that restructuring had improved productivity, fewer than half of them were satisfied with the total results.


Why is the track record so poor?

There are lots of reasons. For example, too often these organization-wide change efforts aren't linked directly and strongly enough to business purpose and measures. Many are programmatic: delivering one type of solution throughout the organization. Others make the mistake of focusing on only one or two of the three primary stakeholder groups (stockholders, customers and members).

Mostly, they've tended to invest in improving the traditional paradigm rather than to set out to create a new one. They usually concentrate on problem-solving methodologies and ignore the potential of discovering and building on the miracles that already exist or that can be co-created.

They frequently proceed in ways that erode rather then build trust. For instance, it's not at all unusual for a management team to go through an exercise of creating an exciting vision and design for the future, and then shoot themselves in their collective foot by how they orchestrate the work of change.

As I see it, how we approach the work of organizational change is all-important. If the work of change embodies the future we want, then we have a good shot of bringing that vision to life. If it doesn't, credibility erodes and negative beliefs are reinforced.

One big reason why the old paradigm is so sticky is our unconscious collusion in defining success almost exclusively in terms of financial wealth. I would invite us to think of true wealth as including all aspects of well-being - physical, mental, spiritual and emotional as well as financial. True wealth is not easy to measure today, but we can develop that capability if we so choose.


Why is thinking in terms of "true wealth" so important?

Organizations exist to serve the needs of stakeholders. Stakeholders include stockholders, customers, members, suppliers, community, government regulators, and even competitors. A larger circle of stakeholders ripples out from this first group and includes families, society and future generations.

Many stakeholders are becoming increasingly conscious of their choices and of the consequences of those choices. In fact, I see stakeholder consciousness as an exponentially increasing and irreversible trend. Consumers are beginning to choose products that are environmentally benign. Employees are beginning to choose companies that are socially responsible. Special investment funds are beginning to cater to the socially and environmentally conscious investor.

This irreversible trend toward increasing stakeholder consciousness will be the primary force in shaping the new game of business. Those enterprises that best appreciate this trend, and are most innovative in maximizing their contribution to the true wealth of all primary stakeholder groups will not only survive -- they will thrive.


How does true wealth relate to achieving dramatic breakthroughs in change effectiveness?

We rarely measure the effectiveness of our organizational change work, and when we do we tend to focus primarily on the near term financials. If we were able to look at change effectiveness in terms of its net contribution to the true wealth of all its stakeholders over time, I believe the picture would be quite sobering.

I find it useful to define change effectiveness in terms of the true leverage of the change initiative, where true leverage is the ratio: true stakeholder benefits divided by true stakeholder costs .

Organizational change work is extraordinarily risky business. The benefit-to-cost ratios can literally fall anywhere between zero and infinity. The figure below illustrates both my sense of where current change initiatives cluster and also what I'm convinced is possible.

Figure of true leverage
Change effectiveness can be defined in terms of true leverage, a benefit-to-cost ratio.
Ratios lower than 1.0 indicate that the true costs exceed the true benefits .


How is it possible to realize the 'ultra-high" levels of change effectiveness you depict in your picture?

Traditional organization designs, measures of success, language, mental models, patterns of behavior, and the like can create a very subtle but highly effective 'psychic prison' for members. This is especially true if fear is present in the system. Such systems seem perfectly designed to stifle innovation, mutual support and a sense of community. And traditional approaches to organizational change too often tend to exacerbate those fears implicit in hierarchical control, to stir up much resistance, and to incur great psychic costs.

We tend to forget that when not in the grips of fear, people love to grow, to develop, to have an identity, to belong, to contribute and to make a lasting difference. We forget that everyone has a special gift and purpose and wants to find a way to realize his or her potential.

Organizational change that honors and respects the individual, gradually tearing down the walls of our 'psychic prisons', will unleash tremendous potential in individuals, teams and the organization as a whole.

This is new territory. We have very little experience in large scale change work that fully supports who we are and who we can be -- individually and collectively. Furthermore, we grossly underestimate how we, the practitioners and champions of change, are ourselves trapped in old paradigm thinking and patterns.

We need to challenge ourselves to move far outside of our boxes by targeting for ultra-high leverage change . We can and must make a shift in the work of organizational learning and change that is as dramatic as that from surface travel to air travel. And, we won't invent the airplane by incrementally improving locomotive design.

Achieving the ultra-high levels of change effectiveness indicated in my picture above may seem as 'impossible' as putting a man on the moon. But I not only believe that we are collectively up to the challenge, I also believe that the time is ripe, and that going for such a goal will sharply accelerate the rate at which we re-invent the game of business.


How will that happen?

Just as a mechanistic approach to change will, at best, give us more efficient organizational machinery, so a more generative approach will invite us to recognize and free up the life-giving forces present in that same organization.

The organization of the future, according to many people's vision, is a learning organization - one that is designed and led in a way that develops its individual and organizational capabilities so that it accomplishes its objectives in a changing environment. Free from unnecessary levels of hierarchy, it is nimble, responsive, and flexible. It supports local responsibility and accountability for results.

We need to go beyond the above vision. If we're going to re-invent the game, let's do it with verve and with heart. Let's create the kind of learning organization that continually re-designs and evolves itself and its stakeholder relationships so that its contribution to the true wealth of those stakeholders keeps increasing as its environment changes.

To re-invent the game of business in ways that are swift and sure, we must re-invent the game of change, aiming for at least a ten-fold improvement (1000%) in change effectiveness. As indicated earlier, the key to achieving the above strategy is to design our change work in a way that embodies the future we envision.


What's the secret of 'embodying the future' in a change initiative?

The first step is to approach the work of organizational learning and change with the same level of talent and expertise we would bring to bear on any other future-creating business strategy. A learning/change initiative that 'embodies the future' can be designed and executed in a way that:

  • Clearly focuses participating players on developing those organizational capabilities that are essential in realizing a compelling shared vision.
  • Builds trust and confidence every step of the way.
  • Is natural and organic in the way it grows and spreads.
  • Intentionally builds an empowering collection of processes, practices, tools and stories.
  • Intentionally builds a sense of community throughout the organization and with its stakeholders
  • Gives high priority to evolving an organizational "nervous system", one designed to support knowledge work in general and this emerging learning/change community in particular.
  • Attracts the change innovators from all parts of the organization and supports them in making outlandish contributions to the initiative.
  • Focuses on accelerated development of change architect, change resource and change leader capabilities within the organization
  • Creates and evolves organizational design elements that are generative or self-evolving in nature, i.e., tending to be self-improving, self-sustaining and self-propagating

It's vital to intentionally set out to melt the iceberg of fear. This requires not only a very special change strategy but also a special change infrastructure. Using existing infrastructure or forming yet another change team just won't cut it.

The concept of growing a generative learning community as both a change strategy and as the primary change infrastructure supporting a learning/change initiative has exciting possibilities.


What's a "generative learning community"?

A generative learning community , or GLC, is a sanctioned "skunkworks" for generating, incubating and spreading highly leveraged learning/change innovations. Its mission is to spawn and support self-evolving practices and processes throughout the formal organization.

The members of a GLC are a purposeful community of learners committed to evolving themselves, their teams and their organization(s) in a way that best serves the common good. They find, attract, aid, and champion those going for breakthroughs in both business results and capability-building.


What might a GLC look like?

That depends on the organization. Let's assume we're talking about a generative learning community formed to accelerate the rate at which it develops key organizational change capabilities - for example, building a Total Quality culture, decreasing product development cycle time and re-engineering key business processes.

Members would select themselves, and could represent all levels and functions. Member selection processes would involve candidates clarifying their offers , identifying what's needed to fulfill these proposed commitments, and securing the support of their personal stakeholders: those who would be affected by their involvement in the GLC. A GLC enrollment team might aid this self-screening process.

All members would have access to a computer-based knowledge system architected to support GLC memory/knowledge management, communication, coordination, and learning. (See George Pór's chapter, A Quest For Collective Intelligence ). Through this medium and others, they would also have access to resource people who bring relevant expertise to the community and who are committed to transferring this expertise to the organization in high-leverage ways.

The GLC could periodically sponsor learning carnivals designed to tell the new story as it is emerging; engaging prospective members in the GLC culture and activities; celebrate breakthroughs in the invention and application of generative designs, processes, tools and theory; and build a true sense of community and mutual support.

The GLC would be known more by the value-adding ripples it makes throughout the organization than by rhetoric about the &quo;community."


How would you go about starting a generative learning community?

The process is a bit like growing a garden or incubating a new life form. This would require special care and attention from the leadership group.

Success is most likely if the leaders of change:

1. Sharply focus on building those key organizational capabilities
most essential to long term business effectiveness.

It's treacherous to settle for anything less than a strong direct linkage between the work of change and what is essential to business sustainability.

2. Plant flowers rather than try to move the mountain.

Everett Rogers' extensive work at Stanford Research Institute on the diffusion of innovation provides us with a powerful new way to look at organizational change work. He found that in any social change there is a normally distributed population in terms of readiness to change. The key to having change flow smoothly, naturally and swiftly is to first work with the natural innovators , those who are already seeking change and turned on about pioneering it. Then support these innovators in enrolling those next most likely to change, the early adopters . The early adopters will naturally attract the interest of the early majority , and so on. Rogers' research has shown that when innovation is adopted by 20% of the population it's virtually unstoppable; it will move naturally through the rest of the population.

One secret to growing a successful GLC is to design it to attract and support the "innovator-bees" and the "early adopter-bees" -- and then to let nature take its course. The nector that attracts these bees is the opportunity for individuals to make a lasting difference while pursuing their particular passion.

Building Synergy

3. Concentrate on ultra-high leverage ideas, tools, distinctions,
theories, designs, and practices that are generative -- that
not only have life in them but also tend to be self-evolving.

For example, traditional goal-setting/feedback loops have been vital processes for supporting organizational planning and control functions. Unfortunately these traditional control loops can tend to stifle the spirit of innovation.

Commitment-learning loops can be designed and implemented in a way that elicit breakthrough commitments and harvest in-depth organizational learnings from the inevitable breakdowns . In addition to being self-evolving themselves, such loops can be used to weave the capacity for self-evolution into all aspects of an organization. They can also stimulate innovation and risk-taking throughout the enterprise.

4. Provide the knowledge infrastructure or "nervous system"
that will support the GLC and the rest of the organization
in becoming a "community that learns" as well as
a "community of learners".;

Implementing a well-architected computer-based nervous system is absolutely essential to such a quantum shift in change effectiveness. A combination of Lotus Notes and World Wide Web seems best equipped to support such a learning-focused nervous system at this time.

5. Provide the time, space, resources, and care to learn
what it takes to incubate a successful learning community.

Many businesses have spirit , a sense of vision - a special energy that helps align and unite the organization. To develop a learning community, especially one that is capable of evolving itself, requires soul as well. Organizational soul has to do with the quality of relationships and the sense of community present. Soul has to do with caring and respect, with mutual support, and nourishment. Soul and trust go hand-in-hand; organizational soul grows cold in a climate of fear. It can become severely chilled when subjected to "flavor of the month" change programs or awkwardly managed "restructurings".

There is a measure of fear and distrust in most organizations in these days of desperate downsizing. If organizational soul is to be revived, a safe space needs to be created.


How do you create safe space?

Here's one possible approach:

Set aside a fixed time and space for learning/change innovators to use for testing proposals, building support, sharing learnings, sponsoring new technologies, and exploring new ways of approaching learning and change. This time and place should be declared as safe space - space to explore what it takes to support generative learning and to begin to build community.

Before any embryonic innovation can fly it needs to be incubated and hatched, then nurtured and fed until it has the strength to test its wings. I believe this to be more true for innovations in organization design and change work than for technological innovation. A safe space enables the incubation and nurturing not only of innovations, but also of a learning community that is generative.

Leaders can use this space to try out their wings as innovators and learners, to begin to create a "new story" through their actions. Potential resource people can be sponsored and introduced to the emerging community, and potential alliances can be explored at relatively low risk. The safe space approach can be introduced and guided in a way that attracts innovators and early adopters and that evolves itself at its own pace.

Incubating a GLC presents both the challenge and the opportunity to identify the generative change architects in your midst. A GLC will represent both a "strange attractor" for such talent and a relatively safe practice field for evolving their capabilities.


You seem passionate about re-inventing the game of business. What fuels your passion?

The stakes are very high. The old game clearly isn't working well and the effects not only reverberate through every aspect of our lives but also ripple out to our children and to their children. Shifting degenerate global trends is absolutely dependent on our transforming the game of business.

The concept of generative learning communities is exciting to me, and I can see it sprouting in a variety of places. We need to creatively ally ourselves so that we build our collective intelligence and wisdom. One of the most powerful ways we can further the transformational shift is to consciously tap into the richness of relationship. Our more highly evolved social forms will be woven from co-creative relationships .


What do you mean by "co-creative relationships"?

Let me get very specific. Allies in my life include a number of the co-authors of this book: Geoffrey Hulin, Darla Chadima, George Pór, and Joel and Michelle Levey. My relationships with these and a number of other players such as Marilyn Sammons, Prasad Kaipa, Donna Clark, Dick Eppel and Brian Yost are bringing form to the concept of co-creative relationship .

Below are some tidbits I've been harvesting from the living laboratory of my relationships:

Focus on unfolding other's unique/unlimited Gift
Limiting View Co-creative View
Focus on overcoming limitations
See a limited being in need of developmentSee Spirit/Soul of other
Problem-solving mindset dominantAppreciative mindset kept foremost
Buy into other's fears/worldviewCreate largest/highest context
Deny shadow (uncomfortable imperfect) sideCan honor and embrace the shadow
Stay in "either/or mindEmbraces polarities/paradox: the "both/and" mind
Role-bound: Parent/Child, Expert/ClientBoth experienced as equals - as Seekers
Force interaction into a method/modelUtilize other's process and self-authority
Stay logicalEvoke intuition
Stay in own headPut self in other's skin; intuit feelings, thoughts
Mirror clouded by own projections/biasesServe as sacred mirror for other
Coincidences ignored or downplayedHonor synchronicities
Breakdowns seen as failures or faultsAll happenings seen as sources of learning
Slip into judgemental selfAble to stay in observer self
Discomfort minimizedDiscomfort embraced as friend and teacher
Constrained by unspoken fearsGrounded in unconditional love

All of this is wondrously exciting to someone who has spent 60 years mastering the role of Lone Ranger!

And this brings us full circle.

In order to serve as leaders and co-creators of a new game of business, we need to master the art of evolving generative relationships within our selves and with each other. Generative relationships can beget generative learning communities and generative learning organizations. Generative learning organizations will by definition stimulate and nurture generative learning communities and generative relationships.

As within, so without. As without, so within.

by Bill Veltrop

The Business Transformation Book Café is a project of Vision Nest Publishing
Last updated by webmaster, April 23, 1997 .