more notes on generativity; and how it relates to design

This week I have the honour of attending and presenting an award at the ceremony of the 60th Australian Good Design Awards. So I have been thinking about design. In particular, how does one apply design principles to our lives?

We criticise developers who rape and pillage spaces around us, ignoring good design in pursuit of a dollar. But my suspicion is that property developers do not appreciate and reject good design, they are simply motivated by something else. Is it not also true of our living? Perhaps it is not that we appreciate the patterns of living that facilitate a good life – and reject them, maybe it is that we have never been given a realistic alternative than the dominant narrative of self serving consumerism; and the drive for power and influence or whatever shapes our discretionary choices and relational patterns.  Developers may trash our cities and towns, but all around us we’re trashing our families and communities by repeating bad patterns of living.

I completed Notes on Generativity a couple of years ago, and while I was happy to crystallise my thinking, my learning continues. The thoughts in this note have been stimulated from reading Christopher Alexander’s A Timeless Way of Building, the companion volume to A Pattern Language from which I have learned so much. If Pattern Language is the expression, A Timeless way of Building is the thinking. It has genuinely stirred my being.

Alexander describes, illustrates, explores, explains a so-called ‘quality that cannot be named’. Sometimes a town, a building, a room, a space has a particular kind of quality for which there is no accurate or precise English word. One might say it is ‘alive’ or ‘whole’ or ‘comfortable’ or ‘free’ or ‘exact’ or ‘eternal’ even … but none of these describe completely what one feels and experiences when in the space. The same can be said for a life. What is that quality? Successful, satisfied, happy? Content, peaceful or purposeful? Or what about the intelligences; emotional, spiritual? As with architecture and design, it is similarly very difficult for a single word to describe that ‘quality’ that characterises some people. In The Freedom Paradox, Clive Hamilton talks about so called ‘avatars of virtue’ … that’s kind of what I’m shooting for. But unlike some ideological or religious gurus, I’m searching for something that is a bit more ordinary and ‘everyday’.

A town or a building can be ‘designed’, but it would be a mistake to think that design is a blueprint; a set of static principles. Rather there are patterns that if understood and facilitated can give rise to ‘that quality’. It only emerges as people engage with the space; it is the way people behave in and with a space that gives it that quality that cannot be named. Think of a well design cafe; it ‘works’ only as people engage with and within.

The way to grow a flower is not to ‘build it’ with tweezers and cells, but to plant the seed in favourable conditions and cultivate the environment. Design is the same. By creating something in a particular way, based on well understood patterns, we invite the possibility of ‘that quality that cannot be named’. Good design should never be an end in itself. Of course at one level beauty is indeed an end. Aesthetic is its own reward. But most designers would admit that unless there is a social (or environmental or other) impact that emerges from the use of the product or service, then they fall short of their aspiration as designers. A beautiful chair is not just for a ‘theoretic sitting’ but a real ‘sit’, one that enhances that moment of living.

This is why I call my manifesto Notes on Generative Living. I became a student of my own life, observing the patterns that, when harmonised, gave that sense of quality of life that is extraordinarily elusive to name. I concluded that for me, there were actually three identifiable patterns that stood out. It is not a set of behaviours or activities. It is not a set of commitments even. It is a set of patterns that, if integrated into routines, generate in my life, that ‘quality that cannot be named’.

They are pleasure, betterness and meaning.

Just like design, they are not part of a blueprint that guarantee anything.

Alexander has identified 253 individual design patterns; an extraordinary achievement in observation and wisdom. There will be many many more ‘life patterns’ beyond the three I have written about. For other people in different contexts with different orientations and experiences of life, there will be others that are more appropriate to be applied to best facilitate that quality of life I describe as ‘generative’. Many years ago I defined something as generative if it is:

  1. Hard coded, non-negotiable but non-prescriptive design elements.
  2. The outward expression is intentionally and continuously evolving creatively.
  3. Positively oriented; it generates positive experiences and cultivates a positive future.

In the years since then, having digested Alexander’s work, I am more inclined to nuance the language a little. Something is generative if:

  1. Based on an established pattern, observed in diverse contexts, which facilitates a high probability of, rather than guarantees a positive outcome.
  2. Experience of it evolves in a creative, dynamic way from considered behaviour.
  3. It facilitates outcomes that are regenerative, reproductive; offering life to the future.

 

antifragility and generativity and why they matter (at least to me)

This is pretty dense with cross references which I want to link for future reference.

back at CityPoint … a familiar view

It’s mid-April in the city. The warm days keep intruding on Autumn but sitting outdoors at a cafe at 9pm in windless, high 20s, taking in the night rhythms of the west end is good fun …
The paradox of having multiple projects on is that I read more … something about needing to feed my brain in order to keep the output energised and fresh.
Anyway, earlier this evening I was grateful to finish reading Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life. I read it knowing I’d find it both good and bad. The good bit is that I enjoy engaging people who operate with unfamiliar mental models.  He is super smart, eccentric even, and I love delving into the minds of radically intelligent thinkers. I do however find myself disagreeing with where he ends up on some topics. But I chose to read him intentionally. I chose to suspend judgement and listen, really listen. Too often we consume intelligence that we already broadly agree with, and so we create in our minds a growing illusion that people who disagree with us must be stupid or wilfully selfish or evil even. So while I disagree with where he ends up sometimes, I certainly do have a greater appreciation for why he and others have such a distain for political correctness. (Jonathon Haidt’s work argues compellingly that we must do this more. see his first TED talk here.)
But my main reason for digesting Peterson was because I had set myself to go deeper into the parallel universe that is Nassim Taleb’s view of the world. And like Taleb, Peterson is concerned with understanding how to live well in the context of chaos. I knew I’d find more of Taleb that was aligned with what I already believed, so wanted to read Peterson as a counter.
I first heard of Taleb’s work via Issue 1 of The Alpine Review. Like a very few other other big ideas I’ve come across, I sensed there was something in this that would be important for me. As I read the other day, mental models are the new alphabet, so I’m thirsty for new ways to see and therefore make sense of this crazy world. Taleb and Peterson certainly both offer different ways of seeing the world.
Taleb has spent his career trying to understand uncertainty and randomness. Both he and Peterson hold the view that chaos and randomness are not bad per se, and are not to be, indeed cannot be avoided. Further, it turns out that most of the really significants things that happen in our lives can be traced to random events. 
But many of the systems which define modern life are fragile. Random and unpredicted events can cripple whole sets of infrastructure. One apparently isolated occurrence has ripple effects across nations and the world. (Just think about the impact of volcanic ash or the 9/11 terrorist attacks on air travel. Or think about how the apparently untouchable Facebook could be out of business in a relatively short period of time when trust is broken.)
Most people, when asked, say that the opposite of fragile is robust (or similar). But Taleb argues this is not the case. If a package is marked fragile, it means that its contents will break if subjected to trauma. The opposite would be if the items got stronger if/when subjected to trauma. So Taleb is in search of those things that are improved by randomness, uncertainty and even trauma. Things that are antifragile. His argument is that we can glimpse the future by taking notice of those things which have antifragile attributes. Or the corollary; we know that if something is fragile, its time of dominance or prominence at least will be limited. 
 I recognised in this reasoning something of what I was grappling for in my manifesto. The idea of generativity comes on the back of this. It’s also a bit akin to Peterson’s idea behind the 12 Rules for Life – what is the smallest number of essential things a person needs to know in order to live well? My thesis is that three drivers (pleasure, betterness and meaning), on two foundations (home and community) and four disciplines offer a generative life – a life that feeds itself with ‘the quality that cannot be named’ (from a masterful chapter in Christopher Alexander’s The Timeless Way of Building. Alexander goes through multiple alternative (English) words that capture elements of that quality that is recognisable in a room or building but for which we don’t have an adequate word. If I was in conversation with him, I’d offer ‘generative’.)
I have recently had an email exchange with Paul Hawken, whose Natural Capitalism gave me great hope when I read it more than a decade ago. For many years now people have been lamenting that the term ‘sustainability’ has lost its meaning as it gets co-opted ubiquitously. But like many others, I have struggled to think of an alternative. Until now.
Paul’s upcoming book will be called Regeneration. It comes from the same thinking as Taleb’s antifragile. We can’t get to a solution to todays problems by using the same thinking that got us where we are. ‘Robust’ is about risk mitigation against fragility – but that’s not enough. Sustainability is about risk mitigation against depleting natural resources – but that is not enough. We need radical new thinking to change the game.
Taleb says, how do we build systems that actually thrive on uncertainty and randomness? Hawken says it’s not about sustainability, it’s about creating a society that engages the natural environment in a way that actually regenerates it. I am interested in the ingredients that facilitate better living when we encounter the normal terrain of contemporary society; those disciplines and mental models that provide generativity amidst normal chaos. 
A bit to think about …

Three pre-conditions for developing a new strategy

shutterstock_51731689

In two weeks I will walk into the offices of an unfamiliar organisation to talk about their desire and need for a new strategy. For reasons known only by my subconscious, I woke up early this morning thinking about the conversation. Or more precisely, I was going through in my mind the requisite conditions that would make the effort worthwhile. And that’s before we even talk about the implementation of said strategy.

So, here are three conditions, without which it is not worth the effort embarking on developing a strategy. If any one of these is missing, don’t waste the time, effort or money.

1. Cohesion in the leadership group

Developing a strategy without leadership cohesion is like pouring water into a colander and expecting it to fill up. The leadership group, (the Executive Team, the Board or whoever is owning the work) is the container in which the research, debate and decision-making will happen. If the group is not aligned and operating with a foundation of trust, the best efforts to develop, let alone implement a strategy will achieve lip service agreement at best and white-anting at worst.

If the strategy development process is designed and facilitated well, it will help with building cohesion, but the foundations of trust must at least provide a basis on which to work together with good will. Functional unity at a minimum.

2. The CEO and effective visionary (if they are not the same) must be fully engaged in the process.

Strategy, if it is to have any traction in affecting the way the organisation operates must be owned by those who are steering, either by positional authority or relational influence. And the only way for genuine buy-in to be achieved is intimate engagement in the nitty gritty of the process.

A strategy cannot be ‘sold’ to a CEO as a package, so if they are not willing or able to commit significant time and energy to the process, do something else but don’t formulate a new strategy.

3. It’s about the strategy not the artefact.

Oh dear. How much do we love process and outputs, especially in large organisations! Unfortunately, it is too easy and too common for the process to end up being all about a good document rather than a good strategy.

At one level this is excusable, because strategy is useless if not communicated. But a strategy exists independently of any attempt to document it. For the sake of absolute clarity, articulating it in words or diagrams is crucial, but they are only a representation of the strategy, they are not the strategy.

The best indication of strategic clarity is that everyone in the organisation, when prompted, will give the same answer when asked about the strategy. Slight variations that account for language preference are good, but the substance will be consistent and succinct.

If the starting point is a template, beware. Be-very-ware.

So where do you start then? I often ask what has prompted the need for a new strategy. The most common answer is, ‘our old one is due to expire.’ Great, but that’s a pretty low bar.

Why do you need a strategy? What are the business issues you need to solve? What questions needs to be answered in order to solve those issues? Articulating these questions is the key starting point for strategy development. In most cases they will be tricky questions and the pursuit of answers will be interesting, even compelling for most people in the organisation. If not, you might not want to bother with an elaborate engagement process. Unless of course you are happy and motivated to oversee an administrative process that ticks the boxes and gives you something at the end to sit on the coffee table in reception.

Yawn.

personal manifesto: the end summary bit …

This post is the final in a series of 16 posts sharing my personal manifesto. If you have stayed with me over the journey, thanks. And if you have have found some useful thoughts I’d love to hear from you. DM me, send me an email at colduthie@gmail.com or just leave a comment.

The complete manuscript is available here.

Drivers

A GENERATIVE LIFE is a life oriented to appreciating the beauty in the world (pleasure). It is characterised over time by a pattern of doing what we are good at (betterness), and has a defining direction of creating a better world for future generations (meaning). Saying it like this might sound a bit grandiose, but I can live a generative life with no public profile. It is not about impact per se or even recognition. It is about living appreciatively in the wonderful place that is our world, about being fully who I am as a contributing adult, with an innate understanding that I am connected with everyone else, that our collective destinies are ultimately different parts of a bigger whole.

External circumstances are important. Living in a naturally beautiful environment can enhance our experience of pleasure. But it can also tend to take what is readily accessible for granted. Only in exceptional circumstances am I, or will I, be robbed of opportunities to experience beauty (pleasure).

My particular life scenario might apparently prevent me from using my best skills, but even then, I gravitate to doing everyday tasks in ways that suit my innate or acquired competencies (betterness). And there are people all around me. The opportunities to make a positive difference to those who come after me are as plentiful as the interactions I have with strangers and loved ones every day. As is often quoted, “if I don’t stand for something, I’ll fall for anything.” (meaning)

Foundations

The inner strength and moral capacity to harmonise my drive for pleasure, betterness and meaning comes from, in the first instance, a ‘home’ where I am fully accepted for who I am and in turn accept others for who they are. Unconditional love. This is my basic human need that, unless satisfied gatecrashes my motivation in virtually every other relationship and endeavor.

And I am a communal being. I do my best work, and experience my most pleasurable moments in relationship with others. So finding kindred spirits in my pursuit of pleasure, betterness and meaning is natural and necessary. I need community.

Disciplines

To enable and sustain mental health in this journey, there are a number of disciplines that, in essence help me live with the tensions of being fully in the moment, but with an orientation to broader patterns and new opportunities. Firstly, I must be alert to addictions. I must develop the mindset that chooses – intentionally – everything about my attitudes, behavior and routines. I must get and stay unstuck.

Secondly, I must resist the contemporary urban pathology of living a busy, cluttered life. To live a generative life I must say ‘no’ a lot. The ‘slow’ and ‘local’ movements are more than a fad; they are a healthy reaction to the unhealthy excesses associated with the increased expectations of speed, efficiency and globalisation. I need to unclutter my life.

Thirdly, the capacity to understand what each of my roles in life requires of me (physically, emotionally, and mentally) to optimize my engagement in each associated context – the discipline of modal living – will equip me with that powerful but too rare trait of being fully present.

Finally, I need to become a master of contentment. Contentment comes from the discipline of opening my eyes, ears, hands (and yes, I guess nose and mouth) to the opportunities for satisfying experiences of pleasure, gratifying contributions aligned with my skill set, and purposeful and meaningful service, right here right now. Contentment is the foundation piece. Its antithesis is restless fantasizing about my future or the current lives of others. Contentment does not trump ambition, but it does trump the obsession with getting and experiencing what I don’t currently have.

Yes, external circumstances are important, but living well, living a generative life, is mostly about choices to have positive attitudes and develop live enhancing patterns of behaviour. This is a good thing, because so many of life’s circumstances are outside my control whereas the communities of people with whom I choose to share life and the associated habits of thinking and doing, are entirely up to me. I will not settle for anything less. I will figure out what I need to do to live better, right here, right now.

Generative

1. A generative life has these elements (as above).

2. How this is expressed is up to me. But I know that a generative life will be continually and intentionally evolving, growing, developing, changing, not for change’s sake, but because stagnation, equilibrium is death. The external environment in which I seek to live is relentlessly asking different things from me, and offering me new experiences of beauty and wonder.

3. And ultimately, the essential characteristic of a generative life is that it facilitates the possibility of a positive future for others. This is the litmus test. In theory, all the other elements could get ticks, but if my commitment to living a life oriented toward the welfare of others is inconsistent over time, then, in old age, my answer to the question “What kind of life have I lived?” will leave me with deep dissatisfaction.

I aspire to live a generative life. I am happily determined to look back on life with no regrets; I intend to experience as much beauty in the world as I can; to become the best I can possibly be with what I’ve been given; and to ensure that my legacy is to have facilitated a better life for others.

personal manifesto: generative engagements

I can sustain engagement with a cause, an employer or a recreational activity when what I give and what I get are generally in balance. There are three ‘currencies’ with which I give and take; physical, emotional and intellectual. It doesn’t matter which ones are in play, but overall, what I give compared to what I get will need to be correlated.

For example: If what I give at work either physically or intellectually is significantly less than what is deemed reasonable given the size of my paycheque (physical), then I am likely to get a tap on the shoulder and asked to lift my game or lose my job. If what I contribute through volunteering at little athletics is not matched by the emotional satisfaction I take, I am likely to opt out.

Further, if my engagement involves my core values and decision-making drivers then I am likely to give more, resulting in a deeper engagement. If I do not, my engagement will remain superficial. The deeper I engage, (usually accompanied by strong connection with others who are also engaging, see notes on Community above) then the deeper I will be drawn in. It is possible, that the ‘reason for being’ of a particular community or cause, becomes or is recognised as being aligned with my own sense of calling and passion. At this point the engagement actually generates energy and the giving is overshadowed by the positive flow outwards.

We can call this generative engagement.

A generative life, is therefore not just a life that ticks the three boxes of pleasure, betterness and meaning. Generativity happens when I engage deeply in the different dimensions and experience an energising that enlivens my life and flows onto others. This most typically happens in the context of ‘community’, where my engagements tap into the purpose and meanings associated with the entities.

generative engagement 1

generative engagement 2

generative engagement 3

Surfing is somehow more enlivening when the routines and activities are shaped by the reality or fantasy of belonging to the surfing tribe. When what I experience is the same as what I imagine that reality to be, it is a generative experience. This is what I love.

When I burn the midnight oil to solve organizational problems and design and facilitate change processes that deliver the outcomes that are at the centre of the organisation’s reason for being, I feel pride and confidence. My facilitating is a generative practice. This is what I do.

When I collaborate with kindred spirits to enable a real difference for people, whether via an international development project or a empowering a local values driven organization, I feel like I am living in tune with my purpose. It usually takes blood sweat and tears, the effort is substantial but the outcomes pay me back with surplus. The world is a better place because I have linked arms with others and done something that wouldn’t have happened without us. It’s a generative contribution. This is what gives meaning to my work.

personal manifesto: generativity and living well

As with generativity in other domains (see my last post), the elements do not predetermine what the outcome looks like. Rather, they are the basis from which individual decisions and creativity happen. So this is not about saying what I must do, or how specifically I must live in order to live well, it is about identifying why a particular season of living, or even a life overall, just works.

The three common dimensions I observed in generative domains were:

  1. Hard coded, non-negotiable but non-prescriptive design elements. From my observations of my own life and those around me, the drivers and foundations of a well-lived life outlined in Part 1 are the design elements of a generative life.
  2. The outward expression is intentionally and continuously evolving creatively. A generative life is intentionally and continuously evolving. This applies to pleasure, betterness and meaning, the pursuit of which draws me to experience more of the beauty in the world (pleasure), continually develop my innate and acquired talents to be the best I can be (betterness), and contribute with ever increasing effectiveness to a better future for others (meaning). The disciplines (getting and staying unstuck, uncluttering, modal living and contentment) equip me to navigate this ever-evolving terrain with determination and grace.
  3. Positively oriented; it generates positive experiences and cultivates a positive future. A generative life generates life. The meaning here is not about physical reproduction. A generative live is life-enhancing, life-giving. There are two expressions of this: Firstly, generative living is engaged with communities (see note above) in ways that generate internal energy (see note of generative engagement below). The harmonizing of the design elements creates and sustains energy for living.

If any one of these three dimensions is lacking, life misses that generative edge. If the foundational drivers of pleasure, betterness and meaning are unharmonised, then generativity gives way to striving, restlessness and a sense that something is not quite right. And if my life is not continually evolving, moving from the known to the unknown, then stagnation takes over. As biologists remind us, equilibrium or static balance is death. And lastly, to live generatively, my orientation in life must be positive. Always hoping the best of and for people. Always looking to build up rather than tear down, always seeking to leave the word better than how I found it.

And then in addition to these three dimensions, a generative life energises those with whom it engages. In simple words, being around a person living a generative life is inspiring and motivates us to experience pleasure, be more fully ourselves and prioritise what matters most to us. A generative life is a potent, if not always publicly acknowledged force for good in the world.

table

personal manifesto: an introduction to generativity

My previous post on the discipline of contentment was the final piece of Part 1 of my personal manifesto. Part 2 is about generativity and how it relates to the four drivers, two foundations and four disciplines that made up Part 1. The diagram below pieces the bits from Part 1 together.

overview annotated

A well lived life harmonises pleasure, betterness and meaning. The contexts within which I pursue these are the communities from which I derive my identity. The quality of my engagement in these communities is largely determined by my experience of unconditional love within spaces where I can be freely myself; my literal and figurative home(s). Further to these foundations, the disciplines of getting and staying unstuck; uncluttering my life; priming myself to be my best for the recurring contexts of my life via modal living; and active contentment, make up the elements of a well lived life.

An introduction to generativity

There were a couple of hundred of us in a large room, scattered around small tables. We were in intense conversation. I had never heard the word before, but when I heard Peter Senge describe a particular kind of learning as ‘generative’ I intuitively understood, at least partly, what he meant. The word resounded with meaning for me; I heard something about creativity (generating). I heard something about people (generations). But it was more than understanding, there was something about the word, so pregnant with meaning that captivated me. That was a long time ago, and I had been using it for a number of years before I decide to dig a bit deeper. What I found intrigued me even more.

Unknowingly I had encountered the concept of generativity way back in my year 11 English class. Being a mathematically oriented student I tolerated English classes, managing to get through most literature assignments without actually reading the texts. But there was a unit of year 11 English that suited me down to the ground. In our class it was called transformational grammar. In transformational grammar we learned the ‘code’ behind sentence structure. The idea was that if you understood the basic elements of a sentence, you could then create meaningfulness by inserting your own content. It was the ‘science’ of English that facilitated creativity. But if the elements we not well formed, no content would make sense to the reader/listener. As with any design practice, the application extends to diagnosis as well as construction. If a sentence is non-sensical, transformational grammar allows us to diagnose why.

When linguist Noam Chomsky developed the theory I encountered as transformational grammar he had called it generative grammar. I was curious about the common meaning between Senge’s generative learning and Chomsky’s generative grammar. So I dug further.

Psychologist Erik Erikson, known for his work on stages of human development, coined the term generativity in the early 1950s to describe the struggle against adulthood stagnation. In his work, it meant living with a concern for the next generations, typically characterised by an optimistic outlook. More generally, generativity came to mean the ability of an independent system to generate new content, unique to that system, without external intervention from the creators of the system.

OK. So that started to make sense of the other uses of the word I was now discovering.

Renowned music producer Brian Eno used the word to describe ever-different and changing music that is generated by a system. While Eno’s generative music is electronic, we could also think about a wind chime in a breeze as an example of generative music. Generative art, similarly, is art that is autonomously created, whether by computer algorithms or other patterned systems.

In 2011 I came late to the genius of Christopher Alexander. After a trusted recommendation I trawled the specialty bookshops in Melbourne for his 1974 classic Pattern Language. The day it arrived I sat down to skim the contents and was instantly mesmerised.

The scope and brilliance of the book was intoxicating. From the design of the universe, through how to arrange nation states, right down to where to put windows in hallways, here was a mind so attuned to ‘what works’ it was like ‘waking up’ to a way of thinking I didn’t even know existed. Alexander had understood the design of ‘things and people’ in the same way Chomsky understood language, and had broken it up into rules that everyone can understand. Generative design. (My label)

While the dictionary definitions of generative tend to focus on the ‘capacity to generate offspring’, the use of the term in the contexts I have come across imply a richer meaning. From these examples I have distilled my own, more nuanced appreciation of generativity.

For me, generative has three dimensions.

  1. Hard coded, non-negotiable but non-prescriptive design elements.
  2. The outward expression is intentionally and continuously evolving creatively.
  3. Positively oriented; it generates positive experiences and cultivates a positive future.

I then reverse applied these three dimensions to the uses of generativity I’d come across:

  • Erikson’s struggle against adult stagnation,
  • Chomsky’s generative grammar,
  • Peter Senge’s generative learning,
  • Eno’s generative music,
  • Generative art.
  • Alexander’s generative design (my label).

But as interested as I was in language, learning, music, art and design, for me the main game was about living. And so I wondered what generative living might look like.

So, next time: what does generative living look like?