Generative Engagement: Leverage Dynamics of Interaction

This is the first in a series of blogs where Royce Holladay and Mary Nations explore dynamics of Generative Engagement.

Human Systems Dynamics Institute builds adaptive capacity. Adaptive Action and Pattern Logic help us help others to understand and manage complex change.
Adaptive Action is an iterative inquiry cycle that is deceptively simple, using three questions that help you 1) See the patterns that shape and influence your system (What?); 2) Understand the underlying dynamics of those patterns (So What?); and 3) Take action to shift those patterns toward best fit and sustainability (Now What?).
Pattern Logic explains the underlying patterns of human decision making and interaction. You use that understanding to take wise action and shape the patterns as they emerge.
Today’s blog uses the Adaptive Action cycle to reveal the use of the underlying Pattern Logic of using Generative Engagement to leverage the dynamics of Interaction in your human systems. In each step, I have included a brief guide for you to use these ideas in a particular challenge in a human system where you live, work, or play.


In working with individuals and groups, we are increasingly asked about how HSD can be used to help people reach across the emerging chasms that threaten to divide our families, organizations, and communities. Today’s offering, Generative Engagement, is one HSD-based model/method that can help you explore your system to make decisions about how you can set conditions for more productive interactions. Mary Nations and I co-created this this model to define Generative Engagement as interactions that create system-wide patterns to:
  • Assure purposeful, meaningful dialogue
  • Support productivity across differences
  • Build adaptive relationships
We named a set of conditions that can shape interactions to create those patterns.

  • Shared identity - When members of the system see themselves as sharing some perspective or experience of participating together in a system, without giving up their own identity.
  • Shared Power - In any system people work together in power-based relationships. In generative relationships, they recognize that power is about influence and that it has to be a two-way exchange. Individuals must be able to influence others, even as they allow others to influence them. Regardless of positional authority or accountability, the members of the system consider questions of power: How do we work to influence each other in this system? In what ways do we, individually and as a group, allow others to influence us?
  • Shared Voice - Individuals and groups in systems must share information and other resources in ways that others can hear and understand what they need. We refer to this as “generating” voice. At the same time, they must be careful to listen to others, allowing them to express their needs and interests. We call this “granting” voice. Generative interactions require that individuals and groups in the system simultaneously and constantly grant and generate voice.
Identify a human system that includes you--your family, a neighborhood, a team, a work group, etc.. Think about a challenge you currently face, and the patterns of interaction and decision making around that challenge. What does it feel like to be a member of that group? What do you see among others who are members of the group? What are the agreements and or disagreements around the challenge? Is everyone committed to the same outcomes from the challenge?
Describe your “shared identity.” In your system describe the ways all the members in that group stand together to look at your challenge. How do they see themselves working together? How do you believe they should be working or standing together in this challenge? Describe the evidence you see that informs your observation.
Describe how ”power” or influence is used in this challenge. In your system, describe how members use power to influence each other. Do they seek agreement or is there bullying going on? How much do individuals allow themselves to be influenced by others? What is the evidence you see that confirms your observation?
Describe how people “grant or generate voice” in your group. Finally, in this challenge, describe how well members grant each other voice? Does each member listen to all other members of the group? Does each member of the group feel safe and invited to speak up? Do the rules, regulations, policies, and procedures treat all individuals in equitable ways? What evidence do you see that this is the case?
This is one series of questions you might use to describe the conditions that can shape patterns of interaction in the “What?” step of your Adaptive Action. The next series of questions and observations (“So What?”) will help you make meaning of what you have observed and identify options for actions you can take to shift the patterns.

So What?

In this phase of your Adaptive Action, you want to make sense of the patterns you have observed and use that further insight to help you identify possible options for action. You do that by moving past your descriptions of the patterns to the explanations of what’s happening in the system to shape those patterns. You use Pattern Logic to see into the underlying dynamics of your system. In Generative Engagement, you explore those dynamics by understanding each of the conditions that shape the greater pattern.
Return to the challenge you described in your “What?” segment of this Adaptive Action. Is the challenge around issues of identity? When working together toward a shared goal, you need each person to “stand” with the others. This act of working toward a shared goal can create a shared identity. At the same time, the differences in the group can enrich understanding and create a broader set of options for action to bring about change. Think about how you can ensure that each person works across those differences, while holding the connection of the identity you share.

Consider if your challenge is about how power is used in the system? How can the group work together most effectively, sharing power and influence as they make decisions and take action?

Finally, consider whether there are voices in your group that are not being heard and if there are voices that override others. What can you all do for each other to be sure everyone has “voice” to contribute to solutions.
Now that you have explored each of the conditions that shape the patterns you see, consider what you might do to shift one or more condition and change the patter.

Now What?

Choose one option and put it in action in your system, making sure it’s a change that is within your scope to make.
  • Remember that you won’t change the entire system in this one shift. Make the change, watch what happens over a bit of time, and then start the cycle over again. That’s what makes Adaptive Action iterative: You learn from each short cycle and apply that learning immediately in the next cycle as you continue to address your challenges through Generative Engagement.
  • Recognize that you will never reach a state of constant Generative Engagement. It’s not a destination. It’s a choice you make in every moment and over time to shift the patterns of interaction and decision making toward more generative and productive relationships across the system.
Try it and let us know how it goes. And join us for next week's blog, where we will talk more about the kinds of patterns you can see in truly generative engagements.
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