Cause and effect. Intent and impact.

There’s a vast gulf of questionable causality captured by those ‘and’s.

How do we know if generative practices have generative impact?

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It didn’t surprise me when this question came up at the HBS Digital Initiative seminar, since it’s been haunting me for some time.

The question haunts me because– if I can’t show that certain kinds of practices create opportunities  that other businesses take advantage of, I can’t rightly call those practices ‘generative’.

What are ‘generative’ practices? 

The practices have to make things happen that are new, not premeditated, not controlled by the giving organization, and not specifically predictable. Otherwise, they are productive practices (that make predictable things happen) but not generative practices (that create a much more open opportunity for new things to emerge).

My biggest assumption is that when a business makes resources easily available to other businesses, those business (or enough of them) will ultimately take up these resources and use them to good effect.

But do I know this is true?  Especially, how can I tell whether one company’s practice has had a generative impact when I can only look at what’s externally visible?

5 Ways to Assess Generative Impact

Here are five ways that I’m currently assessing generative impact, with the most concrete tactics first.  

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1. TrackingUse Metrics’. 

Feedback that demonstrates that a resource was actually used. A company’s participation in the hackathon your company sponsored, tools built on the api that you made public, or pull requests on your GitHub repo all show that  resource that your business made available was used by another company to create something.

2. Offering Explicit Credit. 

When one organization mentions that it’s been helped or positively influenced by the behavior of another one, this credit demonstrates that the first company’s practices have been generative. Especially when people say ‘thank you’ to the organization.

I see this kind of ‘thanks’ and credit given to companies that share ideas on their blogs. Probably a third of the comments on Buffer’s posts are of people telling Buffer just how much they appreciate whatever it is that Buffer has shared on that page. Sure, it would be nice to see what these commenters do with what’s they’ve gotten from Buffer, but I think that the simple act of giving credit and offering thanks is concrete enough.

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3. Adaptive Mimicry.  

When a second business does something exactly or very much like a practice of another business that’s done it first, that mimicry shows the generative impact of the original business’s practice.

It’s true that sometimes practices and ideas pop up in more than one place simultaneously, so not every pair of practices that look alike are causally related. However, some of these similar practices emerge from one copying another. Some of these copies may simply be copies, and not create something that’s actually ‘new’. However, many efforts to copy are actually adaptations, where an organization has had to add something new and different to a practice that it wants to imitate in order to make that practice fit with its own specific capabilities and contexts.   These adaptations demonstrate generativity.

4. Traces of ‘intent to use’.  

When a business accepts the offer of a resource, I see this as a demonstration of their intent to use it.  Acquiring a resource (going to a training, connecting to a data base, downloading a beta version of their tool) always takes some energy and effort.

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Few businesses extend effort that they expect to waste, and so when they extend some effort to acquire a resource or to connect with a business’s practices, there’s a high likelihood that they intend to use the resource in some way.

One example is when a business forks (makes a copy of) the code that another business has shared on Github. Why go to the trouble of accessing and coping the code to your own workspace if you’re not thinking that you’ll use this code somehow?

5. Maintaining Connections that make influence and exchange possible.

When we remember that many resources and generative practices occur within business-to-business relationships, we’re reminded that the acts that maintain these relationships demonstrate a belief that these relationships are valuable in some way.

We can’t always see what’s flowing through a relationship, so we can’t know exactly what is being supported or prompted or nourished. We can, though, surmise that the businesses in the relationship experience some kind of value in having it.  (I try to remember to save a place for the ineffable, valued quality we call the ‘je ne sais quoi’.)

 Seeing the impact of your own business’s generative practices is important.

 Knowing that someone else is benefitting from something you’ve shared or made possible is incredibly motivating. It can relieve a little guilt about your good fortune, it can satisfy a business’s desire to have a positive influence in its community/network, and it can motivate you to give more.

Noticing that practices you’d hoped would be generative are not as influential as you’d like might prompt you to shift your energy towards practices that have more of a demonstrated influence so that your business gives more wisely. 

 We Must Have Faith In Generativity

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There are some generative outcomes that we’ll never be able to trace.

Generativity takes time.  It can take years for a resource to become useful and to show the practice that created it as being generative.

For example, that coffee can filled with tiny pine cones that my mom gave me 10 years ago just sat on a shelf in our storage room, until last year when I realized the pine cones (once sprayed with glitter) could become beautiful decorations hanging from the garland on our mantlepiece.  As much as that can of useless pine cones annoyed my spouse whenever he went searching for something else, I had faith that someday those pine cones would become resources for something I wanted to create.

A practice may be ‘necessary but not sufficient’.

Some practices throw off resources and opportunities that, by themselves, are not enough to enable another organization to create something new. These resources have to be combined with other resources coming from places before they can be useful to another business. In these situations, it can be hard to trace ‘credit’ for generativity back to your own organization’s practices, even if these were necessary to making things happen.

We want to take full credit.

Other generative outcomes will be hard to trace because sometimes we want to own the outcome wholly. We need to feel like we did it ourselves.  They say the best leaders leave others feeling like they lead themselves. These very best leaders never get credit for marshaling the energy and effort of a group, and that’s okay.

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It doesn’t matter if impact can’t be proven.

Then there’s the point that’s hard to make in a business context, which is — who cares about tracing outcomes? If the generative practice feels right for us and is easy to do, they do we even need to care whether we or the organizations we interact with can see how the practices have generated opportunities? It’s okay simply to have faith that they might, and to be fine with that.

Obviously, I’m not the first person to have thought about how we trace the impact of one organization’s activity on other organizations– there’s an entire field of study that examines the ‘spread of innovation’.  Organizational scholars who study innovation have ways of demonstrating influence and the spread of specific innovations, and I’ll eventually search for a journal article that categorizes and documents the main ways in which innovations spread. (Unless you’d like to recommend a favorite?)

For me, the more pressing challenge is to continue to gather specific examples of one organization’s practice influencing another organization’s success, among the businesses I’m looking at more closely.

Are there any ways to assess whether a practice is generative, that you’d recommend I add to this list?

Originally published Dec 3, 2014

Images of pugs by wombatarama, on Flickr