Creating Patterns of Generative Engagement

This is the next in a series of blog articles where Royce Holladay and Mary Nations explore dynamics of Generative Engagement. The specific focus of this piece is to apply an HSD lens to patterns of diversity and engagement.

I first met Royce ten years ago. At the time, I was working for a couple of national consultancies offering different takes on diversity work in organizations. I was frustrated by the somewhat simplistic approach these programs took, and the limited perspective. Royce was in a similar place although arriving there through a much different path. So, we began talking through the importance of this work in a complex world, and exploring what HSD could bring to the issue. The following are my reflections on this collaboration journey, some years on. And Royce and I are still talking, and talking some more!


I've painted by opening my eyes day & night on the perceptible world, and also by closing them that I might better see the vision blossom and submit itself to orderly arrangement. – Georges Henri Rouault

For me, this quote from a French painter from the last century relates to the external/internal work needed to make sense of the chaos and information overload in our world today.

Just like the artist, we take in information through all our senses, and combine it with what is already in us - memories, knowledge, experiences, perspectives, ideas, inspirations – and we make meaning of it individually, and in relationship with each other. We find what for each of us is some semblance of order out of chaos.

Through our interactions, a different truth may emerge as useful – a mix of yours and mine, something unknown to either of us previously. A new painting emerges from our exchanges, our similarities and differences.

Yet…sometimes there is difficulty in creating something new together - differences create tension between us.

We are in fact surrounded at all times by these very fluid tensions, depicted here by soap bubbles.


Tension and its release are the purpose for change, the mechanism of change, the substance of change, and its motivation. (The HSD Paradigm Shift - Glenda Eoyang)

If differences create tension, then differences have a primary role in change. The tensions will shift until the differences “fit” the system.

Difference is just another word for diversity, yet in some circles the term diversity comes with a lot of baggage, due to systems that treat it very superficially. When I say superficially, I mean that an organization’s policy may be a statement of inclusion, but the lived experience may be very different. The tension remains, and the differences do not fit. My frustration with this is one of the reasons I was attracted to learning more about HSD in 2006.

At that point I had been looking for a way for navigating difference that considers and activates the full complexity of human systems, but I was not finding much that fit. A few years ago I found this reframe is the closest – illuminated through selected quotes from a dissertation by Dr. Toni Gregory, a scholar and practitioner who specialized in the impacts of culture and complexity on organizational transformation. (Transformative Learning: A Case Study of Thomas’ Theory of Diversity (University of Cincinnati, 1996)):

“Although there has been considerable research with respect to issues regarding specific human characteristics such as race, gender, sexual orientation, and other characteristics used to differentiate and disenfranchise, a limited conceptual understanding of diversity dynamics has rendered scholarship in the field frozen in time. . . Understanding the dynamics of the interrelationships of various dimensions of diversity within systems can contribute to our mastery of the complexities of life.”

And two more quotes, this time from a journal article by Dr. Gregory (Gregory, T. A. 2006. World Futures: The Journal of General Evolution An evolutionary theory of diversity: The contributions of grounded theory and grounded action to reconceptualizing and reformulating diversity as a complex phenomenon. 62(7), 542-550):

“The tendency to relegate the study of diversity to a few, albeit critical, dimensions has had its limitations. It is analogous to limiting the study of art to an examination of the color red. As a primary color, red makes a tremendous contribution to art. However, focusing only on red and only on color would severely restrict our knowledge and comprehension of art. Likewise, the inability, or unwillingness, to recognize the importance of expanding our study of the phenomenon of diversity could restrict our knowledge [of ourselves and our world]… Our very nature as human beings prevents us from seeing diversity as a field of potential with infinite possibilities and limitless forms of expression. Rather, it comes very naturally to us to segment and categorize rather than to see wholes.”

I’d like to amplify Dr. Gregory’s distinct call to step away from this tendency to focus on the parts rather than the wholes and even the greater wholes, and to recognize diversity as a field of potential with infinite possibilities.

For me, it is imperative to view diversity not as a problem to solve, but as a key to solving problems.  

Diversity is relational, as are many of today’s sticky issues. Diversity is both a cause of tension and a key to determine new effective ways to explore Dr. Gregory’s “limitless forms of expression” to create generative outcomes, and to build adaptive capacity. HSD gives us radical ways to do this, with potential impact anywhere difference makes a difference.

We can ensure we know how to use much more than just red paint. With all the complexity in our differences - we can create these beautiful possibilities.

To explore this, Royce Holladay and I used Dr. Glenda Eoyang’s CDE model to consider what would be needed for a pattern of seeing, understanding and working with differences in any interactions. We had countless hours of discussion to consider our own backgrounds and experiences, before realizing this approach might be what we both had been seeking. We modified the CDE model to look specifically for the pattern we sought to create.

In that way, we focus on the difference that is making a difference, among the many – the one that is causing a tension of interest. Instead of avoiding tension, we can use it as a catalyst.

In particular, we use tension to explore the possibilities that exist between and among the people in a given system.

Consider tension as catalyst for creating a wide range of meanings and diverse options for action…

I’ll come back to our use of the model, but first let’s delve into the particular pattern we named “generative engagement”, to give you an idea of what we were looking for.

The word “generative” is explained well by Dr. Gervase Bushe, known for his work in appreciative inquiry. He says that generativity occurs when a group of people discover and create new ideas that are compelling to themselves and others and provoke new actions.

Dr. Bushe’s term “generative” fits right in the middle of the HSD landscape diagram. This is where self-organizing happens – with some degree of agreement and certainty, possibilities emerge, yet we must engage to find a wise choice among them.

To further explore term “engagement”, I borrow from Dr. Ellen Langer’s description of mindfulness as “the process of actively noticing new things. When you do that, it puts you in the present. It makes you more sensitive to context and perspective. It’s the essence of engagement.”  

So … the mindfulness of our painter I cited at the beginning comes into play when engaging together. We engage with our minds and in our behaviors, and patterns form on the canvas we co-create.

In this place of emergence, in the midst of uncertainty and lack of agreement, in order to explore our many contexts and perspectives, it becomes essential to hold answers lightly. Staying in inquiry is essential:

  • Turn judgment into curiosity
  • Turn disagreement into shared exploration
  • Turn defensiveness into self-reflection
  • Turn assumptions into questions.

These concepts of generativity, engagement, and emergence come together in the pattern of generative engagement.

A pattern of generative engagement fosters generativity by using differences and inquiry to

  • Actively notice new things,
  • Create new ideas
  • Strengthen relationships, and
  • Provoke new action.

This is my role, this is our role - to be mindfully and actively creating patterns of generative engagement in the midst of tension.

Having explained our quest for a pattern of generative engagement that creates generative change – let’s go back to the modification of the CDE model that Royce and I used in exploring what would help to create this pattern:

Identity: This is what brings us together - the "who are we?" in any given social space. The more strongly we share a common identity, the stronger our relationship is. This notion of identity is scalable to any level – you can consider your part, a whole group, or the greater society as an identity.

Power: “the ability to influence." The issue in engagement is about how readily and fluidly we influence each other – depending on the context, the moment, the culture, and so on.

Voice: How we share information and other resources, depends on how we speak and listen, act and observe, give and receive. 

How do we use this set of conditions, identity, power, and voice, to note and understand the dynamics of difference and use that understanding to create generative outcomes?

Through adaptive action!


  • Notice differences setting up tension among those with whom you engage.

So what?

  • Consider contexts and perspectives, hold answers lightly, and look for shifts in how you see the tension
    • As you consider the identities, power and voices in play, can you
    • Shift your initial judgment to open curiosity,
    • View potential conflict as an opportunity for mutual exploration,
    • Change any defensiveness into self-reflection, and
    • Turn your assumptions into questions?

Now what?

  • Take the next wise action that is most resonant, given the goal of creating a pattern of generative engagement

These considerations for working with a tension to create coherence may happen in a moment and one scale, yet the pattern can ripple out.

Emergence is happening whenever identities, power, or voice change among us. Think about this in a broader context of a team, an organization, a community. What is the impact of shared identity, shared power, and shared voice over time? This is where I get particularly excited about the potential for diversity dynamics alluded to by Dr. Gregory.

The Generative Engagement model can help us be more intentional and effective in finding a useful adaptive action for a given circumstance, regardless of the complexity of the situation.

Combining this model with other HSD methods like inquiry, adaptive action, and the landscape diagram help us consider ways to co-create and co-evolve in relationship with each other through the power of diversity.

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