What do I mean by ‘generative pattern’?

That question came up recently in our weekly #community Zoom and again afterwards so I thought it would make sense to write it up here. I have two possible definitions, but before I get to those, some lower-level building blocks:

  • Generative and generative process: Generative has two meanings, (i) capable of creating something, or (ii) something with finite rules that when applied repeatedly can produce things of arbitrary complexity (for example the production of language from the rules of grammar; computer-generated art or music). Both of these meanings have some relevance here; I use generative process when referring specifically to the second of those meanings.
  • Generative image: words or images designed both to challenge and to inspire a wide range of possible responses, usually achieved by taking care not to prescribe or otherwise over-specify, perhaps to the extent of deliberately introducing ambiguity or paradox. Two notable examples, beginning with the most famous of them all: “sustainable development” and “Agile Software Development”. Examples from Agendashift include our True North statement, “wholehearted organisations” (best left under-specified), and the assessment prompts (inspired by practice but carefully non-prescriptive); we have others. These examples are all carefully crafted well in advance but they might instead be harvested from the organisation or created through (say) a workshop exercise; one of the earliest exercises in  Gervase Bushe’s The Dynamics of Generative Change (2020) has the objective of crafting a generative purpose statement for the change initiative in question.
  • Generative question: open-ended questions that can be used in a wide range of contexts and generate a wide range of valuable but unpredictable answers, perhaps provoking some insight in the process. Examples: setup questions such as “For this ___ to be really useful for you, it will be like what?” (from Clean Setup) and menus of questions that can be used repeatedly within a generative process, for example “Why is that important?” and “What stops that?” (from Challenge Mapping), and the Clean Language questions (our Clean Language-inspired coaching game 15-minute FOTO includes 8 of the 40+ canonical questions)

Rather like the word generative, the term generative pattern could have several meanings. Literally “things that as patterns recur in different contexts and that are generative”, would do. Then there’s the more specialised, “patterns that combine in a pattern language” – think for example Christopher Alexander’s pattern language for architecture and the facilitation patterns of Liberating Structures.

Agendashift’s usage is tends to be more specific but still compatible with both of those meanings. Usually I’m referring to higher level structures into which which all of the lower-level generative elements mentioned so far can be plugged in. The design community’s double diamond would be an example of that, a recognisable pattern with applicability in a wide range of innovation contexts, within whose overarching structure a wide of generative tools can be used.

The most memorable generative pattern in Agendashift is the IdOO pattern (“I do”, for Ideal, Obstacles, Outcomes) and it meets all of these definitions. It’s clearly a pattern (it’s recognisable in different contexts), it combines with other patterns (even with itself – the landscape of obstacles and outcomes is fractal), and it’s a structure into which other generative elements can be inserted:

  • Ideal: typically a reflection on a generative image and often with the aid of a setup question; sometimes it’s just a question, perhaps with the hint of a generative image embedded in it (see the Outside-in Strategy Review template for at least one example of that)
  • Obstacles: “What stops that?” as a generative question or something more elaborate, the TRIZ exercise from Liberating Structures for example
  • Outcomes: SFBT’s miracle question on its own or as a precursor to 15-minute FOTO, generative question and generative process respectively

What it does of course is keep that generative conversation moving forward in a productive direction. Unconstrained, the random walk might be enjoyable for a while but trust in the process would diminish rather quickly.

Postscript 1

It’s about time I announced the IdOO breakout generator tool. I’ve been using it in meetups for a few weeks now. It’s simple online tool to help you facilitate breakout discussions or personal reflections with the Ideal, Obstacles, Outcomes (IdOO) pattern. These convenience links will take you to first user-facing page with an Agendashift-related challenge already configured for you:

You can also configure it to use a challenge of your own. Read the tips and gave a play!

Postscript 2

Talking of structure, while this post was already under construction I saw in a community forum this from Ian Phillips . With his permission:

…so I know a few people on here attended the MindShift Conference on ING’s. Am reflecting a bit on Jesko von den Steinen and:
  • “There is intuition in your structure.”
  • “Structure your intuition.”

Love that! It took a while for Agendashift’s patterns to crystallise out but it was well worth encouraging that process. After doing it once with the IdOO pattern (and it took much of the time between the 1st and 2nd editions of the book), it got easier. 2MBM took only hours 🙂



agendashift.com/book (March 2021)

What if we put agreement on outcomes ahead of solutions?

Agendashift™: Serving the transforming organisation
Agendashift  Academy: Leading with OutcomesHome | Store

Links: Home | Subscribe | Become an Agendashift partner Events | Contact | Mike
Resources: Tools & Materials | Media | Books | Assessments 
Blog: Monthly roundups | Classic posts
Community: Slack | LinkedIn group | Twitter