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[liveblog] CV Harquail on generative business

I’m at a lunchtime talk by the Harvard Business School Digital Initiative (led by Colin Maclay) by CV Harquail. (I’m an advisor to the DigInit.) CV says she is a academic and am enthusiast of “something going on out there” that she calls “generative business.”

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

CV defines generativity as the ability to create things that didn’t exist before. Generativity as a term comes out of a few spaces. It’s used in the world of tech innovation and platforms. (See Jonathan Zittrain.) If you’re a systems thinker, you think about generativity as the source of emergence. But on other sides such as the positive organization studies group, which CV identifies with, or feminist organizing, generativity shows up differently. The phrase itself comes from Erik Erikson‘s theory of adult development; it’s the moment of “Holy crap! What am I leaving behind when I go?” CV is particularly interested in how organizations can have an effect outside of themselves, particularly on other businesses.

Generative business practices: how we can create opportunities for other businesses to grow, by tweaking what we do anyway? Maybe with a small change we can create some generativity.

She looks to the Internet bubble in 1999. We could see that the Net was giving rise to many new ways of being together, including B2B. What can we do with it beyond the usual? The network technology “enables a network mindset.” She points to four areas where this mindset manifests itself:


  • p2p: mutuality of effect and benefit


  • multi-type: polysemous exhange (more than one story in the exchange)


  • multi-directional: small bets gently made


  • interdependent: compounding effects


So, she asks, what is happening?

People are tweaking what they normally do in order to create opportunities for other people, throwing off extra value.

Why care? Because it creates an environment that is more resource-rich for everyone, including the generative firm. Also, it is a “leadership” opportunity for the generative company; it makes them influential in lots of different ways. “The more generative they are, the more influence they have on institutions around them.” They can guide new practices, promulgate their organizational values, and become beloved by those in their circle.

E.g., CV went to a Buffer meetup. A hundred people showed up because it was advertised on the Buffer Facebook page, and because people wanted to meet “the Buffer guys.”

CV doesn’t want to argue that your business should be generative in order to make more money because it diminishes the generative impulse. But it often does have that effect.

Generative practices come from:


  • Open Source.


  • hacker culture


  • DevOps mgmt


  • social business


  • inbound marketing


  • customer orientation


She notes that many of these practices come from people who are kind, generous, and loving…and their companies reflect that. (She notes that this is a Dale Carnegie idea.)

Generative practices with products include building products that help others, or that are generate when used. Also, consider enabling co-creating by opening up some APIs. [woohoo!]

Our basic model of a business model is that our company should extract the max value from our employees and customers. But we can create generative business models:


  • win win win structures


  • platforms (real and metaphoric) that encourage experimentation and creativity


  • “catalytic containers” and serendipity engines


  • barn-raising (E.g. Community Sourced Capital: a kickstarter within your community), matchmaking, upcycling (take stuff we throw away and turn it into value. E.g. Waze).


Generative practices in relationships: She points especially to cultivating the commons (or network citizenship). And social keiretsu: multiple companies creating a safe environment for someone to experiment.

Q: Do you see bad actors?

A: Yes. And I ignore them. That’s my conscious decision.

Q: Is this a governance issue? How do the generative companies discipline bad actors?

Q: Elinor Ostrum‘s commons talk about how they are maintained. Often the biggest sanction is exclusion.

Q: [me] There are plenty of bad actors in what you say because these generative pockets are often carve-outs from nests of vipers.

Q: Are you making an assumption that generative business models open the business to everyone? Does generativity imply that sort of openness. E.g., curate models: you deal with the bad actors upfront by excluding them.

A: I don’t assume generativity implies open for all. Some generative organizations are extremely choosy about who they partner with.

Q: Is Anonymous a generative organization?

A: I’ll ask Gabriella Coleman. [laughter]

Q: Generativity need not be used positively.

Q: Why aren’t more businesses adopting this?

A: The bottom line is a fiction because we don’t think about externalities, which are just costs we’re ignoring.

CV looks at two examples: Etsy.com and Buffer.

Etsy is “the marketplace we make together.” They have an engineering blog called Code as Craft, and a Code as Craft initiative that employs generative learning practices: open workshops at which they invite their heroes, and livestreaming them. They have hacker schools, hackathons, an API developers program, GitHub open repositories, and each of the 150 engineers is expected to give two presentations a year outside their company.

Underneath this are Etsy’s engineering values and philosophies. They have a “learn to fail” culture, etc. [I’m not keeping up] Generosity of spirit is a “core Etsy Engineering principle.” It’s a whole bundle of practices related to learning.

Buffer has about 25 employees. With Buffer, you can highlight a line you like, and it gets put out into social media spread out over time. Buffer uses who it is and what it believes in to inform and inspire and influence other organizations. People underestimate the value of walking the walk. Buffer and Etsy are happy to amplify the good things that others do. Buffer is shifting to “gift-mindedness. They posted nine values at Slideshare. Other companies are picking up on those values.

Some of buffer’s practices for generative transpaarency:


  • open blog


  • engineering blog


  • monthly financial status report


  • public revenue dashboard


  • open salary (the formula and how much everyone makes)(Everyone had to agree.)


  • open equity


  • YouTube & Slideshare


  • Employee growth goals


  • Online book club


Q: Could AT&T adopt these values and reap the same kind of benefits?

A: No mattter how much they try, they have a PR legacy.

CV says that last year Buffer got hacked. A week alter they shared all the data about the effect on their company of the hacking. E.g., they lost 8% of their customers. (They recovered most of them.)

Q: [me] This seems like the company saying that they’re on our side. But it doesn’t seem particularly generative, unlike an open API.

A: It’s generative in the longer term.

Last Tuesday they announced they’re raising $3.5M…and they published their term sheet and why they’re doing it.

Q: Is transparency is always a good thing? E.g., there’s some thought that the lack of a private space keeps politicians from being able to compromise.

A: Don’t be transparent about anything that would kill your business. Or if there are people in the process uncomfortable with it, don’t do it. You could be transparent about being a crummy organization and I don’t know if that’s generative. (She mentions that at Buffer they all wear FitBits and share their sleep data.)

CV says that this sort of transparency is generative in that it tells other companies about new possibilities.

Q: Don Tapscott says that the increased transparency will force people to be more like Buffer.

Q: But this might be a selection effect: the company is attracting people who agree with its values, but the companies that don’t support these values therefore won’t be affected by what more open companies do.

Q: Buffer’s product is trust.

A: They’re selling a different way of running a startup, and they’re funding it with their Twitter scheduling tool. [Nice way of putting it!]

So, how does this create opportunities for people? People respond and tell Buffer how powerful it’s been for them. It may influence those people’s practice in the future.

Generative practices let us be more like the people we want to be. “People and companies blossom into these opportunities.”

Q: It sounds like Us vs. Them. If everyone does this, where will the selfish people work? [laughter] It’s nice to carve out a space for us nice people, but what about generativity can apply beyond the Us?

A: I will think about that. I’m trying to call attention to, and articulate, alternatives. I’m articulating ideas, and we together will discuss them and see what becomes of them. This is a generative conversation.

Q: Mob programming is a step beyond agile programming. When there’s an intractable problem, ten people spend a day working on it, with two screens. People say it’s the best way to tackle difficult problems.

Q: [karim lakhani] When you were describing Etsy, it sounded like Bell Labs. The ideal university is based on the same ideas. An hypothesis: Generativity won’t work commercially without subsidies.

A: Interesting. There are no completely generative organizations.

Q: [me] Gaming industry is hugely generative. Modders can sell their mods.

Q: [karim] But only because Steam allows them and takes their cut. [Me [unexpressed because I’d talked too much]: But it’s the game companies that are the example of generative entities here, not Steam as a platform.]

Q: Your examples all are about sharing information. It’s harder for humans to share physical goods that are in limited supply.

[Quite a generative discussion! CV walks the walk.]

One Response to “[liveblog] CV Harquail on generative business”

  1. […] about the effect of bad actors in the model of “generative business” she was explaining in a recent talk sponsored by the Digital […]


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