Generative Image: a metaphor, phrase, or symbol that introduces a conceptual landscape opening new paths for thinking, speaking, and acting on what is possible and desired.

Pandemic, political polarization, economic uncertainty, and social engagement restructuring. The path ahead seems to introduce more complexity with each passing day. We create strategies and make plans to respond to the present and create a peaceful, productive, and profitable future. These strategies and plans intended to carry us forward are relayed through words to describe what, why, how, and when. The meaning we assign to these words build images in our minds about the current situation and the possible future.

 A meticulously balanced cairn of stones by a riverA question I believe we need to consider is, are we putting words together that invite people into a generative and creative way forward that accepts the complex reality we live in? Do our words invite people to explore novel approaches to work with the paradox of increasing output while simultaneously reducing costs, or the dilemma of ensuring consistency of global processes while advancing localization to meet the needs of a specific geography? Or do our words build images that divide us, focusing on negative descriptions that lead to unproductive images of today and what may lie ahead.

Complexity can create confusion and frustration. We typically want to alleviate that experience in ourselves and those around us. It is understandable to want to reduce that challenge of complexity to pursuing one outcome versus another, to right or wrong, good or bad. This may make our decisions and actions far simpler in the moment. Yet, this process reduces the possibility of capturing breakthrough ideas and approaches that emerge when balancing the multifaceted importance of what initially may appear as competing objectives.

As the desire to advance peace, productivity, and profitability continues, we are being called to move beyond the prevailing assumptions that lead us to swing between polarities of policy and action. To redefine assumptions, we can create generative imagery introducing conceptual models that expand our understanding of the complex terrain we have entered.    

“We have entered terrain we do not have the language for”

I heard a story many years ago from the poet David Whyte. He was at a conference sharing his unique voice and perspective on life through the imagery and metaphor of poetry when Peter Block, a leading thinker and practitioner in the field of organization development, invited David to bring his voice and his poetry into the world of organizations. As David tells it, he looked at Peter confused and responded, “For what?”

Peter then said the words that have impacted me many times and particularly over these last couple of years of cultural and social disruption; “We have entered terrain that we do not have the language for, and I heard something in the poetry that we need to help find our way.”

If language is the map of how we make sense of our reality, and that language is based on narratives and assumptions that are grounded in conceptual models that don’t appear to apply to our goals and challenges, then how can we find a path through this terrain? Subsequently, we have entered terrain we do not have the language for!

This story is a wonderful jumping off point to describe the importance of creating generative images that invite people into new ways of thinking and acting when confronted with our current set of profound challenges.

An example of a generative image

One of the best examples of a generative image was the introduction of the phrase “sustainable development” in the 1987 United Nations’ Brundtland Report. The report stated that governments could not address environmental protection separately from related crises, such as economic development and energy production.

Once that phrase was introduced it changed the narrative to make it possible for environmental activists and the business community to work together for our collective benefit. This phrase is so common to our mental models today but in 1987 these two words invited a conversation, a relationship that moved away from one or the other towards accepting the complexity of the relationship and exploring novel pathways forward.

In the opening paragraph I wrote, “create a peaceful, productive, and profitable future”. Let’s examine the impact of the word ‘profitable’. I have observed during times of economic uncertainty that a focus on profitability often leads to an assumption that senior management is acting out of self-interest and do not care about the general population of employees, because one principle to maintain or increase profitability is to lower expenses related to employees.

The response from senior management may suggest that without profitability there would not be the funds to invest in people and equipment to usher in the next products or services that maintain fiscal health and viability. Even leadership teams at not-for-profit organizations wrestle with the fundamentals of this dilemma.

To play with generative imagery, how might the introduction and process of defining the phrase Cultural Profitability impact the thinking and actions inside an organization. In this phrase, I am defining culture as: the way we do things around here, what we expect from one another. This phrase is intended to generate thoughts and actions that both our interactions in the organization and our products will be created in a way to ensure that benefits exceed the cost.

I have seen many organizations create tag lines like People, Products, Profit to capture the relationship and indicate a prioritization of importance. This listing of elements does not invite people into new ways of thinking and acting, it separates. Generative images invite new ways of bringing the elements together, reducing swings between the importance of profitability or the importance of the wellbeing of employees, accepting the essential nature of both.

Examining the impact of your language

Examining the language you rely on, or your organization relies on, can be quite revealing of the conceptual models that direct thinking and action. Here are a few words and phrases I have noticed to be quite common in organizations that I believe create a conceptual model that is more unproductive than generative: change, siloes, broken process, and hold accountable.

To make those words more generative I might shift them to: evolve, semi-autonomous, not responding well to shifting desires or needs, and explore shared commitments and expectations. One could say this is just word play.

Yet, do these reframes generate images in your mind that lead to different thinking about these common words or phrases? Could this reframing lead you to take different action when confronting these situations?

We make meaning of our reality through language. Words matter. We know that words can divide, and we also know that words can inspire. We can generate images through metaphors, phrases, symbols that invite new pathways for thinking, speaking, and acting as we move through the uncertainty of the terrain we have entered.

The invitation

The opportunity I see is for leaders and leadership teams to invite their organization into conversation to discover a future that fulfills both the individual and collective desire for peace, productivity, and profitability. A conversation about a generative image (metaphor, phrase, or symbol) that introduces a conceptual landscape to open new paths for exploring what is possible and desired. These generative images can act as a guide through the uncertainty of the terrain we have entered.

Steps to begin a new relationship with the terrain we have entered

  • Identify a situation where the desires or requirements seem to be incompatible.
    • Ex: Expand service and cut costs
  • State the actions for moving forward in a sentence where the options are equally important and beneficial. This can be very challenging because our conceptual models will typically default to creating negative imagery of one aspect or another to resolve the frustration inherent in complex realities.
    • Ex: We must take on more work without the funding for hiring or vendors to get the work done.
  • Structural reframing is required to begin the shift in assumptions and invite new ways of thinking and acting to emerge.
    • Ex: We must expand valuable services to our customers while simultaneously maximizing the productivity of our resources and existing workforce.
  • These simple examples illustrate the shift from unproductive assumptions to generative assumptions.
    • Unfortunately, this play with language is often dismissed. There isn’t enough in here to anchor a different conceptual model that invites new thinking and action. Teams will quickly enter a zero-sum conversation negotiating who will get the limited resources and who will give up projects or programs.
  • Take the next step! Explore metaphors, phrases or symbols that expand the understanding and complex reality of the goal or desired future.
  • Once the team has entered this conversation it is almost certain that new possibilities will be revealed.
    • The next challenge is to capture them as they emerge and not reject them. Concepts that challenge our prevailing assumptions are often quickly dismissed. While a generative image can be positive it is not a practice in creating positivity in response to a difficult problem or situation.

Creating language that captures the reality of the landscape we have entered and offers a conceptual model for new thinking and acting can bring meaning and purpose to all those that encounter the metaphor, phrase, or image.