Blending Operational Excellence with Innovation

Join our conference call on this topic on Dec 18, 3 pm ET, noon PT.
To register please call 303 527 9905 or email

Focusing on excellence in operational performance is a the primary focus of most organizations, but it is a different area of skill, type of conversation, mood and energy than innovation conversations. These two skill areas overlap more easily when the operational work includes design, strategy, and planning, but a full focus on performance often leaves professionals unfamiliar with innovation conversations.

Leaders looking to grow the value of their organization must help their people learn to engage in both types of conversations and skills without sacrificing one for the other. Here’s an overview of the two kinds of conversations, and I invite you to explore this further in our conference call Dec 18.  In the call, we’ll explore how effective leaders make this blend.

Our work in Generative Leadership over the last three decades has shown that all action and results are shaped by prior conversations.  This makes skills in communication and conversation crucial for successful leadership, management, and organizational culture. This is where action is initiated, defined, and coordinated. This means that we have to see conversations as generative, generating action and results, rather than just descriptive.

As we look at organizational performance, we see that what dominates the results of organizations, teams, and leaders is their skill in two particular types of conversations – conversations for action, and conversations for possibility.  Action conversations focus on clear and effective coordination and team work to produce a valuable outcome, fulfilling a promise that satisfied customers.  Most professionals have spent a career building their skills in this area, and management is about being able to make bigger promises by guiding the actions of teams and organizations. This requires skills in the action conversations.  While most successful managers have some skills in this area, it is not widely taught and is almost always an area that can be leveraged for even better results.

Executives and leaders have the responsibility to create new value in addition to their responsibility for excellence in execution.  To go beyond excellence in execution requires skills in different conversations – strategy, designing winning games, aligning the commitment of teams, creating room for learning, designing new applications of technology, process improvement, invention, and innovation.

For most professionals the transitions from performer to manager, and from manager to leader, are huge transitions. This is because the skills for success at one level are not adequate for success at the next level.  Some meet the new challenges, and many fail.  They don’t know what the new conversations and concerns are, and don’t know how to develop their skills in these new areas. The default is hard work, more effort, often leading to exhaustion in the leader and in the organization. To work “smarter, not harder” means to know and develop skills in the new conversations required for the new level of responsibility.

With the focus on conversations as the starting point for action and results, we see that as professionals shift from a focus on individual performance to management, and from management to leadership they must develop more skills in conversations for possibility and value creation.  These conversations are ones that have a structure and standards for skill, need to be learned through practice, and require a healthy rhythm for the leader, the team, and the organization.

Operational excellence requires a healthy rhythm of conversations for action, updates and navigation, dealing with and learning from breakdowns. These practices and skills differentiate an excellent team from a good one. In the same way, value creating innovation requires a rhythm of conversations for possibility, design, and integration into development and deployment of new offers.  In our book The Innovator’s Way Peter Denning and I outline these conversations of successful innovation. 

The successful value creating leader must create a culture in which both sets of conversations – excellence in execution and value creating innovation – are part of the skills and practices of their organization. Effective generative leadership involves the design and learning to produce that a successful blend of these two different kinds of conversations and skills.

Join our conference call on this topic on Dec 18, 3 pm ET, noon PT.
To register please call 303 527 9905 or email

Can You Feel It?

I had the privilege and pleasure to spend a couple of weeks in retreat in a nature preserve in southern Chile
in December.  I was staying in quite a nice house, but it was one separated by forest from the few others in
the preserve, which is in a region of volcanoes, mountains, forest, and lakes.  Heat came from a wood burning stove on the cold days, even though it was entering summer in the southern hemisphere.

I shared meals with friends, and had a pleasant 20 minute walk through the forest for these events. I thought myself quite close to nature, which I admired, appreciated, and took pictures of.  Time slowed down – or speeded up – depending on the experience of the moment as I began to settle into natural rhythms not dominated by my calendar and the clock.  I found myself getting stronger on my walks, and becoming friends with the trees, the insects, the birds, and the winds on the way.

Two days before I was to return, I was sitting in the morning watching the sun come up.  Dew was sparkling on the grass, and a pair of oxen were driven past on their way to work.  I had the fleeting thought that I’d be traveling home in two days, and unexpectedly – a wave of visceral sadness swept over me.  It surprised me, and I realized that over my two weeks that I’d developed a connection with my surroundings deeper than I realized.  It wasn’t a sad thought, but a full body reaction without more thought.

Two days later I was in the airport in Santiago, Chile, waiting for my flight home.  I was in a beautiful terminal with its glass, shiny metal, shops, restaurants, and cushioned seats. And I felt like I was in a desert. My body was yearning for the dirt trails and living energy of the trees and birds.  I wanted to feel the wind.

My body was teaching me a lesson that was new for me, not in my thinking, but in my feeling.  About the degree of connection with our surroundings, and the level of energy that healthy surroundings and nature gives to us.  I have a greater appreciation for hikers, for the trees that surround my house and neighborhood, and for the blessing of being around full living life, and an appetite for connection with it.

I’m a product of our urban and suburban culture, and we live in a culture that has focused for hundreds of years on the supremacy of the cognitive, the rational, and the logical. The tremendous impact of science and technology seemed to validate that it is our analytical abilities that will produce the best outcomes in life, and in the 1950’s even areas of the humanities were trying to become “scientific,” such as the study of language and psychology.

But since that time we are learning that the rational, materialistic, scientific world, although powerful with our external physical environment, leaves something out – us.  Scientific method tries to eliminate bias and subjectivity, and the personal experience or perspective has to be eliminated to reveal only what can be reliably replicated by others.  This has been the standard for our “reality,” with subjective experience relegated to a subversive status that we must try to eradicate even in our personal lives.

And so our culture has learned to disconnect in order to be in “reality.”  And we learn to privilege the rational and
cognitive, leaving out the wisdom of our bodies and emotions. Perhaps this is true more in the sphere of organization and business than elsewhere, where this cultural bias leads us to try to make human groups and communities into predictable and controllable systems.

Ken Wilbur’s integral framework, Goleman’s introduction of emotional intelligence, and the rich culture that has arisen around somatics, alternative medicines and philosophies, coaching, and others fields is opening the possibility of re-imagining the experience of being human.  Re-imagining and redesigning our very conceptions of groups, organizations, and teams.

My Chile experience is a deeper realization of what I have been exploring for years.  It is connection and disconnection, with each other, with nature, and with ourselves, that are the foundation of our experience of life, our effectiveness in action, and the meaningfulness of our purposes.  Organizations and our world will begin to unfold a different future when we each learn to notice and learn in each moment whether we have disconnected, and how to reconnect.

We must learn to feel it, not just think it.

Can you feel it?



When the World Breaks

How do we lead and help people when the world breaks?

On March 11, 2011, the Fukushima Daiichi and the Fukushima Daini nuclear power plants experienced a severe earthquake, followed by a tsunami.  TheNew York Times reported on March 26: “In the country that gave the world the word tsunami, the Japanese nuclear establishment largely disregarded the potentially destructive force of the walls of water.  The word did not even appear in government guidelines until 2006, decades after plants—including the Fukushima Daiichi facility that firefighters are still struggling to get under control—began dotting the Japanese coastline.”

The lack of attention may help explain how, on an island nation surrounded by clashing tectonic plates that commonly produce tsunamis, the protections were so tragically minuscule compared with the nearly 46-foot tsunami that overwhelmed the Fukushima plant on March 11.  Offshore breakwaters, designed to guard against typhoons but not tsunamis, succumbed quickly as a first line of defense. The wave grew three times as tall as the bluff on which the plant had been built.”

The entire Japanese nation, with widespread global response, is reacting to the crisis, dealing with the damaged nuclear plants, the release of radiation, and the dislocation of millions of Japanese.  The Japanese government has rated the disaster at the same level as the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown in Russia of April 1986, and the consequences are still in doubt.

When the world breaks, we still have a future, but we have no choice but to cope with the current situation and hopefully can productively modify our stance to the future going forward.  The world break can overwhelm us with its immensity since we commonly see ourselves as smaller than the world.  Yet we have choices in that moment of what we will do—we can, in fact, get “bigger” than the breakdown—go beyond the limits of possibilities inherent in our old interpretations of the world.  For those of us who are leaders, helping people when their world breaks is part of the value we offer, and how we learn most powerfully is through the changes in our own lives.

Many of us are coping with other immense breaks in our world including the 2008 financial crisis that the world economy is still recovering from and other natural disasters.  The current debate in the US Congress is about creating an immense break in the future for entire generations of people with possible changes to Medicare and Social Security.  The global warming phenomenon is advancing faster than scientific predictions, and we will all have to cope with the widespread consequences of weather shifts.

These are examples of breaks of global scale, but in our individual lives our worlds can also be broken: the death of a parent or a child, losing a job, and health crises.  Our future can be broken with positive changes that require new coping as well: getting married, the birth of a child, or unexpected, dramatic, financial success.  Our clients may have the survival of their businesses or careers threatened or an overwhelming trajectory of increased demand.  Last year in my own life: I completed a divorce, got married, had a child leave home, recovered from surgery, had another child in treatment, published a book, had multiple planned business engagements canceled, and had an overwhelming business schedule.

How do we help ourselves, others, our communities, and even our world cope when the world breaks, when the future breaks?  There are some as coaches who specialize in helping people with life transitions, but I believe that all leaders and coaches should be able to face the experience of a world breaking with others, and it is, in fact, a life skill for everyone.

What I have learned in over thirty years of exploration of leadership with my colleagues dealing with breaks in organizations and people’s lives is that productive coping is a learnable skill, a leadership skill, a professional skill, and a life and human skill.  Principles that have been confirmed through this time include that breaks, sometimes world breaks, are inevitable.  No amount of avoidance, prudence, withdrawal, or prediction and control will avoid them.  We are finite, and the emergent universe is infinite—it will always unfold surprises.  Studies of complex emergent systems such as the economy show that discontinuous breaks are normal and unforeseeable, except for the fact that they will occur at some unpredictable time.

Breaks, or breakdowns, are a moment when our transparency of how we see the world is broken, and we must notice and cope with new actions and possibilities.  We can learn to ask for help—a skill that is not deeply encouraged in our culture and is often missing in organizations and teams.  We can learn to anticipate better—this doesn’t eliminate breakdowns, but tends to improve the class of breakdowns we will encounter.  We can find and use equipment that helps us or invent what is missing.

In fact, such breaks are always a moment that opens new opportunities for invention and innovation to take care of the breakdowns.  This shows up if we can manage our emotions and moods, which are always triggered by a break, from closing moods such as fear, anxiety, and resignation, to opening ones such as wonder, ambition, curiosity, and possibility.  People who face terminal illness often report that they come more alive from this break, and in a popular country song, the lyrics say, “Someday I hope you get the chance to live like you were dyin’.”

We face small breaks in our lives every day, and they are a chance to practice with the root skills of productively coping when the world breaks. We are surprised, disappointed, triggered, and have breakdowns.  The most
fundamental skill is with the body, to manage the reaction of contraction and tension and to relax and reopen to the situation.

Our possibilities are determined by our awareness and our attention, and we can train them for breakdowns, instead of having the breakdown take them from us.  We can learn to manage our emotional reactions and moods to start from acceptance of the situation, to enter the situation without the dominationof fear, and to cope, learn, and perhaps innovate.  A huge reaction that most people in our culture have is to contract, withdraw, and go solo.  Breakdown is a time to relax, reach out and connect, and open conversations where new possibilities can be opened with others.

Regardless of the break, we always have our bodies and our breath; we have our care and our commitment; we have the capacity to learn and to act; and we can always come back to our ground for taking care and adapt ourselves to a new path.  We can go beyond having to know in order to act and have not-knowing be the beginning of the actions and skills of invention, innovation, experimentation, and exploration.  We can learn to cope with our triggering and bring choice to our bodies, our emotions and moods, our attention, and our capacity to enter and act.  We can learn this with appropriate practice, and when we learn this in our own experience and embodiment, we become a more valuable leader for people when their world breaks.

When we learn to accept the fact of our finitude, to accept that breaks are part of life, and to learn that we can face and enter these moments with presence, calm focus, and the capacity to improvise, learn, and innovate,
then we will have new ways to dance with life and to lead.

When the world breaks, we can learn to be bigger than the break, to open and enter a new future, instead of the broken old one—a future held in our care, in a dance with aliveness and gratitude, with a commitment to taking care.

The MBA Has No Clothes?

In the story of “The Emperor Has No Clothes” a slick seller convinced the emperor that the “invisible,” and expensive, clothes that he was given showed up as gorgeous raiment to the eyes of onlookers.  When the emperor strode into public with his new “clothes” a child blurted out “but he has no clothes on” to the embarrassment of the emperor.

Is the MBA a similar sale?  The MBA was originally a degree in “Business Administration,” and delivers on the promise of presenting business and organizational studies, but is also sold as “management and leadership.”  Some business schools call themselves Schools of Management. Does the MBA have management clothes?

Many professors in business schools think not.  Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor in the Stanford School of Business reviewed dozens of studies of the results of business school education, and concluded “There is little evidence that mastery of the knowledge acquired in business schools enhances people’s careers, or that even attaining the MBA credential itself has much effect on graduates’ salaries or career attainment…A large body of evidence suggests that the curriculum taught in business schools has only a small relationship to what is important for success in business…. there was too little attention given to developing leadership and interpersonal skills, and too little emphasis on communication skills.[i]

Warren Bennis and James O’Toole, professors in the University of Southern California business school, wrote in the HBR article How Business Schools Lost Their Way: “Business schools are on the wrong track…business school faculties simply must rediscover the practice of business.[ii]” Henry Mintzberg, Professor of Management Studies at McGill University, and considered a leading expert on strategy, wrote a book called Managers Not MBAs, and wrote “The trouble with “management” education is that it is business education, and leaves a distorted impression of management…we need to build the craft and the art of managing into management education and thereby bring these back into the practice of managing…conventional MBA programs train the wrong people in the wrong ways with the wrong consequences.[iii]

Although some business schools have responded with more courses on communication, emphasis on team projects, and a focus on “capstone projects,” the practice, and hence the skills of management are not designed into or delivered in MBA programs. Executive MBA programs tend to produce more relevance for participants since the participants are practicing managers and executives, and there is a greater focus on case studies and applications in the participant’s companies. But the foundations of the practices of management, the coaching in those practices and the focus on meeting standards in performance of those practices is still missing. We don’t train our physicians this way.

I taught in a business school, Presidio School of Management, for three years. Presidio focused on integrating courses on sustainability into the curriculum, but beyond one course – 5% of the course work – had no focus on management practice or skill.  I found the faculty and administration did not find the conversation of the importance of management practice and skill relevant as a promise of the school or a fundamental purpose of the curriculum.

Why does this gaping blind spot exist, and how do we to find the learning venue for actual management and leadership skills? Bennis and O’Toole claim in their article that business schools have become dominated by academics that have organized the school offerings to support their scholarly careers. And the market for MBA’s is not educated to the criticisms of the programs. MBA students, around one hundred and twenty thousand of them in the US alone, are looking for the currently valued credential for their careers.  Perhaps they assume they are getting the skills of management they will need, or know that employers and HR departments recognize the MBA, not actual management skills in their hiring. Developing management skill is left to on the job experience, and the filtering of the promotion regimes in companies.

I hope to see a focus on management skill development in business schools in the future, and it was in fact my purpose in teaching at Presidio to promote that. But there needs to be a new conversation in the business school industry for that to happen, and a more educated clientele for management development.

However, the development of management and leadership skill, actual hands on skills that make a difference in the performance of teams, organizations, and companies has been the focus of the Institute for Generative Leadership (IGL) since 1993. I hope to see the discipline of Generative Leadership – where these skills are developed – in business schools someday, but for now it is available in the Generative Leadership Program offered by the Institute. The program is designed to elevate the measurable leadership impact of participants through management and leadership skills in the performance of teams, organizations, companies, and communities. The development of skill is done through practice working with the real work and life commitments of participants with their teams, provides personal coaching, and organizes participants into leadership and learning teams. The program allows participants to integrate new practices and skills into their repertoire, from team building and breakdown management to power, politics, and organizational change.  Already successful leaders produce the greatest results from their learning in the program.

I invite you to explore the IGL website and to review the testimonials of graduates and the GLP program design. If you are interested in taking your leadership and management skills to the next level, I invite you to a conversation with us to co-design how GLP can support your leadership and career development.

Bob Dunham

[i] Jeffrey Pfeffer,
Professor Stanford Business School, and Christina Fong, PhD candidate, The End of Business Schools? Less Success Than Meets the Eye, Academy of Management Learning and Education, Volume 1, Number 1, September 2002.

[ii]Warren Bennis and James O’toole, How Business Schools Lost Their Way, Harvard Business
Review, May 2005.

[iii] Henry Mintzberg, Professor ofManagement Studies, Managers Not MBA’s,
Henry Mintzberg, Barrett-Koehler, 2005.


To Blog – for the Sake of What?

After much encouragement, we are going to begin the Institute for Generative Leadership (IGL) blog in earnest. I will be a regular voice in the conversation, along with the members of IGL coaching team, and other guest “speakers.”

What do we have to say? And why is it relevant? Our work together over the last decades has been to demystify effective management, leadership, organizational and team performance, and living a good life. We’ve been quite successful in making these areas ones that are understandable, observable, and actionable, and can enable development of powerful skills and results in people’s lives. Our program participants are satisfied and an example of generative leadership, and we will be sharing their stories in future posts.

The mainstream understanding of management is thought to be captured in the MBA education, and it does represent the mainstream understanding. But that understanding doesn’t work, and the customers of MBA programs – the hiring CEO’s – as well as a number of business school professors point out that the current design of MBA learning doesn’t produce management or leadership competence. In fact dozens of studies have shown that an MBA degree does not produce a measurable difference is career advancement or salary increases over those who do not have MBA degrees (The End of Business Schools, Less Success Than Meets the Eye, Jeffrey Pfeffer and Christina Fong ).

We’ll review these critiques, but more importantly, offer our work of over 30 years that we have evidence does produce measurable management and leadership skills and impact. I taught in a business school – Presidio School of Management – for 3 years, and offer our work as a new contributing frame for curriculum design in business schools to address the failings of the current approaches. We think what we offer is an important currently missing piece for how we develop leaders, and the world is calling for a new level of leadership to deal with challenges that have never been faced before – global interdependency, global warming, environmental degredation, global financial instability, and perhaps more important and fundamental to these other issues, a shift in the kinds of human beings we are becoming in our media rich world.

We also offer the Generative Leadership Program (GLP), which is focused on the development of embodied leadership and management skills that produce measurable impact. Since 1998 we have been engaged with leaders and managers seeking to take their leadership impact to the next level, based on development and application in organizations of our approaches since 1981. We have found that our discipline produces the biggest impact and outcomes for the leaders and managers that are already successful.

If you are interested in a new approach to leadership that is based on leadership results, join our conversation. We will share our experience, our results, our perspectives, and the advances that are being made in making leadership and management grounded disciplines that enhance our ability as individuals and organizations to clarify what we care about, and take care of what we care about.

Bob Dunham

Presidio Executive Certificate Program 6/25

Bob Dunham will be presenting the morning of Saturday, June 25, at the Presidio Graduate School Executive Certificate Program in San Francisco, and speaking that afternoon to a meeting of the Presidio Alumni at Fort Mason in San Francisco.

Foundations of Generative Leadership at PeaceHealth

June 9-11 I’ll be delivering a Foundations of Generative Leadership 3-day workshop for the PeaceHealth Hospital system, as part of a continuing 2 year in-house Generative Leadership Program that is training leaders to make a difference in health care.  We have about 50 people in the program, and a group of graduates that are focusing on projects to improve health care quality, experience, and costs.  We are integrating the generative leadership skills with Innovation approaches from the Innovator’s Way, A-3 problem solving, and a systems approach called SOFI.  Dr. Marc Pierson has been guiding the development of this program, which is led and managed by Carolyn Turkovich and Rachel Lucy.  Rachel is in training to lead this workshop.  I’m looking forward to it!

IGL Events 2011

I’m in Bogota, Columbia, delivering the opening 3 day conference of the LEAD program, a 3 year program for senior executives in Latin America.  June 4 I’ll be presenting at the Leading by Design program at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco.

What is Generative Leadership?

We at the Institute for Generative Leadership have been working on the questions “what is leadership” for over 30 years, and have come up with criteria that we call “generative.”  This means that the distinctions of leadership that we use are observable, executable, learnable and improvable through practice, and that produce the outcomes that we associate with effective leadership.  For those who want to take their leadership to the next level we offer the Generative Leadership Program (GLP).  GLP is designed to strengthen and extend your leadership skills through practice in your work – you get a personal coach, 3 three day conferences per year, and regular Leadership Projects to take your learning into your organization and work.  We are working on a book to introduce Generative Leadership whose working title is “Being Generative” that will show what Generative Leadership produces through the stories of its practitioners: graduates of the GLP program.  We will be sharing these stories as well on this website.

New Generative Institute web site

It is my great pleasure to welcome you to the new Generative Institute web site.  We hope you will find the navigation more intuitive and that you enjoy the content and find all the information you need about GLP and EP.