I’m at the end of three head-spinningly rich days with Peter Pula, the founder and CEO of Axiom News. We’ve been exploring what he and his team mean by “generative journalism” and what more it might come to mean. The gist of our discussion has been that there’s tremendous power in aligning their work with the core characteristics of living systems. (After all, only life can truly be generative.) It’s exciting stuff that seems likely to have broad relevance, not least of all for media organizations trying to figure out the future of journalism – but, really, for any leader hoping to catalyze greater capability across a community.
The phrase “generative journalism” was coined by Axiom and has been the foundation of their work for nearly two decades. It is generative because it aims to enable something new and vibrant to emerge – specifically, some aspect of the world we want. The work is grounded in Appreciative Inquiry – an approach that notices and nurtures what is affirmative and alive within a system – as well as in giving voice to the individuals within an organization or community. “We believe in storytelling as an enabler of strengths, and a catalyst for change,” explains the company website. In practical terms, this means that Axiom is hired to elicit and report positive grassroots stories among their clients’ stakeholders, which then helps more good things come to life for those organizations. It’s an organic process, in which the people interviewed feel seen, valued and engaged and in which the attention given to their stories encourages healthy tendencies to grow throughout the organization.
And as pioneering as that is, Peter has long sensed that even more is possible – and necessary.
These past three days, we have delved into the full meaning and requirements of generativity. Peter was drawn to my work around stewarding organizations and communities as living systems because he sensed that it offers important clues about generativity. In fact, to many biologists, the very definition of aliveness is the presence of continuous self-generation and emergence. So if Axiom’s work is to enable generativity, then what they’re really talking about is creating the fertile conditions for life to self-generate and emerge.
This understanding confirms that giving voice to individual people is an important part of supporting generativity. If an organism or ecosystem is to thrive, it must enable diverse expressions and contributions at the level of its component parts. This is the lesson of biodiversity. And this is perhaps the core value of Axiom’s work telling grassroots stories.
The living systems lens also reveals that a few more conditions are needed for full generativity. For example, we know from biology that those diverse parts need to be connected in dynamic, responsive relationship both with each other and with their surrounding context. As Margaret Wheatley says, to make a system healthier, we need to connect it to more of itself. Or, as Doug Conant and Mette Norgaard say, “The action is in the interaction.”
For generative journalism, this might suggest a practice not only of interviewing individuals but of gathering them together in rich connection and conversation, both online and off. As any of us knows, a good conversation can be wildly generative, weaving ideas and perspectives together in novel ways and producing unforeseen possibilities. It’s no surprise, then, that Peter is increasingly integrating this kind of convening into Axiom’s offering, as well as partnering with others who do this work.
We also know from biology that a living system only becomes fully generative when all those diverse and interconnected parts converge into a coherent whole… when a new level of life is created, with characteristics and capabilities that can’t be found at the level of the parts. This is the great promise and magic of living systems – when, for example, a bunch of cells get together and make you, with the new, emergent capabilities of thinking and feeling and moving. For an organization or community, this level of convergence is created by shared purpose, which acts like a magnet, drawing people together and giving useful boundary and identity to what would otherwise be a shapeless crowd incapable of concerted effort. And the more meaningful the convergent shared purpose, the more generativity becomes possible.
For Peter, this means that Axiom’s work will be most generative when the client organization has a high level of clarity and passion around shared purpose. And this means that – in addition to inviting individual stories, and in addition to connecting those individuals in conversation – there will often be a need to explore what powerfully holds those people together, or what could. In my own work, this takes the form of helping organizations craft a manifesto or helping a community identify the compelling question they want to gather around.
In all, these living systems insights suggest a cohesive set of practices to support a group’s generativity:
(1) helping them rally around meaningful purpose;
(2) connecting them to each other in relationship and conversation; and
(3) inviting and highlighting diverse perspectives and contributions.
What does this mean, then, for journalism that hopes to be generative – that wants to contribute to creating a better world? It means that reporting stories has a key role to play within a larger process of community engagement. It means that several kinds of stories are likely to be needed: grassroots, individual voices; accounts of connection; and stories of shared purpose. And it means that all stories probably have to be linked to the meta-narrative of convergent cause.
For Peter and his counterparts, it means a call to partnership. “If the work we’re doing could be paired with these other practices – all operating from the same principles, the same fundamentals,” says Peter, “then what we’re doing together would be exponentially more powerful.”
For me, the most important lesson in all of this is that supporting generativity is an act of stewarding life – of cultivating and participating in life’s inherent process of creativity and emergence, like gardeners or farmers. There are profound implications in this. As stewards, both the journalist and the leader play a special role. Though perhaps from different vantage points, each is in a position to sense the deep longing that pulses through a community of people and to serve its blossoming. This is quite a different stance – and responsibility – than the traditional roles of leader-as-engineer and journalist-as-chronicler.
All of this makes me wonder when the word “generative” will seem unnecessary, in the same way that “social enterprise” will one day become a redundant phrase. At some point, we will know that, of course, every enterprise should be a social enterprise. And at some point, every act of journalism will be generative, guided by the clear and informed intention to serve life.