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November 22, 2011

Dave Odom: Generative organization by example

What are institutions for?” My colleague David Toole addresses that fundamental question this week at Faith & Leadership. He offers a picture of institutions that, when at their best, are generative -- they organize human efforts toward a common end in ways that generate life-giving creativity and offer a definitive expression of what it means to be human beings made in the image of God. He finds some interesting examples of this in General Motors during WWII and Pixar under Steve Jobs.

I wonder: What about examples of Christian institutions?

Fuller Theological Seminary comes to mind. Fuller, with its main campus in Pasadena, Calif., strives to be global and local, communal and personal. It is an evangelical school with more than 4,000 students from 70 countries, representing more than 100 denominations and studying in 18 degree programs that range from the arts to global leadership. Rich Mouw has been the president for nearly 20 years. His wise counsel is sought by the readers of his books, newspaper columns and blog posts.

The latest sign of Fuller’s generativity is an exploration of the future of seminary education among American Protestants. Working with Christianity Today’s Andy Crouch, the seminary conducted 11 focus groups of two to 15 people and came to some clarity about what is at stake for seminary education.

To be sure, all institutions gather data from constituents as part of strategic planning. But how many invite the rest of us into the conversation? Fuller has. Rather than focus only on the future of their own institution, they looked at all of seminary education. They summarized what they learned throughout the project into coherent discussion points and invited anyone to explore them on their website.

Fuller’s improvisational move is an offer to the rest of us. They set the stage, framed the issue and now invite us to make the next move by commenting, tweeting and using their work within our own spheres. That’s what jazz musicians do; they start a musical motif and offer it to the other band members to carry forward. Fuller is playing institutional jazz at its best.

What traits are required to practice such openness? Humility and interpretive charity come immediately to mind. Organizing a process generatively includes asking question after question, not keeping the answers to oneself and adjusting course based on what is being learned. All of this requires considerable discernment and willingness to act.

Fuller is so large that one can default into thinking that big things simply get bigger. The recent history of mainline Protestant denominations and General Motors tells a different story. Increasing the scale and scope of one’s ministry requires on-going experimentation, recognizing when something is working and joining forces across the institution to bring the promising experiments to scale. Painfully, growing also requires pruning the activities that are not making a difference. Trusting each other so much as to help each other through failure and success is a mark of generative organization and Christian community.

What does generative organization look like in your world? What activities are required to keep being generative?

Dave Odom is Executive Director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

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