Maps/Gear | Designer Distinctions | First we shape our language; then our language shapes us

Designer Distinctions


A Few Working Beliefs About Language
  1. The power of words is enormous. Written knowledge, the social and physical sciences, our organizing forms, are all built upon a foundation of distinctions. First we shape our words, and then our words shape us.

  2. All words are limiting. They are both central to the collective exploration of that mysterious co-creative process we call life — and, they're always limiting. They are essential to our attempt to map our experience and our possibilities — and, the map is not the territory. The menu is not the meal.

  3. To evolve our organizing forms—our social organisms—we must continually evolve our language in a way that makes higher levels of intricacy and consciousness distinct to us. We must find creative ways to make a new kind of future and pathways to that future more distinct for everyone.

  4. We have a serious responsibility to co-evolve language that transcends and includes the language of our dominant (and "dominator") worldview. The walls of our conceptual/perceptual boxes are built from our beliefs fabricated from our words. Our challenge is to construct those walls to serve us without limiting us.

Working Principles for Evolving this Distinctionary
  1. We will strive to create distinctions that open up constructive new possibilities.

  2. We will encourage participating players to engage and upgrade these emerging distinctions and their descriptions. These distinctions will always be work-in-progress.

  3. We will craft distinctions in a way that —
    • Supports a "conscious living systems" or "generative" worldview vs. reinforcing more limiting worldviews.
    • Keeps language as simple as possible, but not simplistic.
    • Supports coherence and wholeness.
    • Encourages their adoption within existing disciplines/philosophies.
    • Encourages bridging across boundaries of all kinds.
    • Encourages rigor and singularity of meaning.
  4. We will treat the selection and development of these distinctions as a sacred co-creative process in the service of accelerating our conscious evolution as humans.

Creating New Distinctions — An Evolutionary Imperative

We've been in the distinction-creation business ever since the development of our unique vocal chords. The creation of new distinctions goes hand-in-hand with our evolution as a species. For example, the cover story in Business Week's August 26, 1996 issue focused on corporate strategy and highlighted a number of new distinctions that were, in effect, marking an evolutionary shift in the realm of business strategy:
  • business ecosystem — Business ecosystems span a variety of industries. The companies within them co-evolve capabilities around the innovation and work cooperatively and competitively to support new products, satisfy customer needs, and incorporate the next round of innovation. Microsoft, e.g., anchors an ecosystem that traverses at least four major industries: personal computers, consumer electronics, information and communications.
  • value migration — The movement of growth and profit opportunities from one industry player to another.
  • co-evolution — The notion that by working with direct competitors, customers, and suppliers, a company can create new businesses, markets, and industries.
  • white-space opportunity — New areas of growth possibilities that fall between the cracks because they don't naturally match the skills of the existing business units.
By introducing this small family of new distinctions, Business Week was better able to help evolve the conversation called "business strategy" to a new level of intricacy, potency and wholeness. With these new distinctions, the business strategy conversation can now transcend and include company-level and industry-level deliberations. These distinctions open up new territory—new possibilities.

No matter what the field of human endeavor, our significant social and technological advances have inevitably been enabled by the creation of new distinctions essential to describing that new territory.

We Invite You to Help Evolve this Distinctionary

Developing distinctions that will help us move out of our individual and collective conceptual boxes requires the involvement of players ready to help pioneer new linguistic territory. We intend this invitation to evoke co-evolutionary exploration, much as our forebears were invited to leave primeval oceans to explore the newly emerging land mass and to populate our earth with wondrous diversity.

Language is paradoxical. It is both essential to our evolutionary process as a species, and it, by definition, ensnares us in our beliefs and concepts as we move through that process. When we define a term we create a conceptual box or mental model that includes some interpretations and excludes others. We tend to be unconscious of the excluded possibilities. Because we are all born into language, it tends to be the sea we swim in. It remains as indistinct to most of us as water to a fish. What's exciting is what can happen when we climb out of the water, notice we're quite wet, notice the ocean of possibilities, and begin to play with those possibilities in imaginative life-enhancing ways.

This prototype distinctionary is an invitation and a challenge to each of us to explore the role of language as a generative force in our evolutionary process. We invite you to splash around in this uncharted emerging meme pool in a way that best supports your unique and our collective discovery/learning process.

The sampling distinctions that we've used to seed this distinctionary is intended: 1) to provide descriptions for the terms we're introducing in this web site, 2) to help demonstrate our beliefs and principles, and 3) to attract additions and "upgrades," both to the distinctions themselves and to the larger game we are bringing into play.

Distinction-Sculpting: An Art Form for Conscious Co-creatives

Language is the medium of the poet and the story-teller. Distinctions are foundational to the world of art, science, commerce and governance. The development of vocal chords in humans some 40,000 years ago and the subsequent invention of writing were central to our distinguishing ourselves as a species.

As I see it, we humans have just begun to raise our heads out of the Industrial/Informational Age sea and to notice a radically different universe that expands above and around the confines of that sea. And just as the first land creatures were challenged to imagine running and flight, so we arlevel futures.

We can choose to use language to provide ourselves an unlimited collection of lenses—openings in the walls of our individual and collective boxes. We can choose to create lenses designed to make the invisible essentials visible. We can choose to give language an increasingly vital role in creating openings into new possibilities—into new uncharted territory.

Our world today is being shaped by the finite games kept in play by organizations in all sectors of society. Our world of the future is going to be shaped by how creative we are in transforming those social forms. Our ability to see and evolve new possibilities is dependent on our ability to be creative together in evolving a language that helps call forth that future.

An Extended Riff on "That which is Generative"

The distinction 'generative' is our prototypical North Star Distinction. Since the distinction "generative" is implied in various degrees in mother distinctionary entries, we'll describe it in detail below:

The distinction 'generative' is intended to help us focus on that which tends to be life-giving/freeing and self-evolving. 'Generative' can be either an adverb or an adjective, e.g.,

generative change
generative interventions
generative actions
generative learning
generative listening
generative capacity-building
generative leadership
generative design
generative strategy
generative context
generative theory
generative initiatives

The distinction generative is intended to help pioneer an emerging new paradigm in the domain of organizational learning, design and change. This emerging paradigm is most easily seen when contrasted with the traditional "problem-solving paradigm" that has dominated the social and physical sciences for the last several centuries.

Problem-solving is an absolutely essential aspect of organizational design and change, and it has gotten out of hand. It has blinded us to the larger picture—to larger possibilities. Problem-solving change is grounded in a mechanistic view of organizations and people. A problem-solving mindset automatically focuses us on what's wrong—what's broken—what needs fixing. Problem-solving approaches to organizational change make the arrogant assumption that we know what ideal is. Problem-solving-centric change tends to improve the effectiveness/efficiency of the existing paradigm rather than open up new paradigms.

Problem-solving language, theory and practice have been fundamental to the evolutionary progress of our species and will continue to be foundational for future progress. Generative language, theory and practice transcends and includes problem-solving. In that sense it obeys one of the fundamental principles that has been guiding our evolutionary breakthroughs since the universe was born over 14 billion years ago.

By "generative" we mean that which is life-freeing and innovation-engendering; that which tends to take on a life of its own; that which spreads and evolves in an enzyme-like fashion.

We see that which is generative as transcending and including that which is rational, linear, predictable, managed and machine-like. We see "generative" as a "both/and" distinction that includes our "either/or" realities and helps us step up to the next level.

We use the distinction "generative" as a generic modifier intended to open up new possibilities in all aspects of developmental choice, at all levels of system.

We want to imbue this distinction with a sense of limitlessness, to offset our deeply ingrained human tendency to want to define, categorize, and otherwise "contain" wild unimaginable possibility with a reassuring level of definition/structure.

We believe it possible to achieve at least an order of magnitude (10X) improvement in the true effectiveness of our organizational capacity-building initiatives. We believe that such a breakthrough can flow naturally from our searching for, discovering, inventing, and evolving that which is generative.

We have been thinking of and describing "generative" in terms of its ripples, its after-effects, and especially that which takes on a life of its own after the dust settles. The following are some of the questions that help distinguish that which is generative:

  • Does the initiative (or strategy, design, process, system, action, organizing form, choice, state of being, intervention, distinction, practice, whatever) take on a life of its own? Does it create conditions that are life-giving and/or life-freeing?
  • Does the initiative tend to self-evolve, to self-propagate, to self-regulate, to self-sustain and/or to self-improve?
  • Is useful energy not only increased; does it also continue to increase of its own volition?
  • Is the true benefit/cost ratio, or true leverage not only high, does it also continue to improve over time, thus yielding ultra-high leverage return on your developmental investment?
  • Is spirit enhanced, where spirit has to do with the quality of shared vision, will, intention, focus, inspiration and energy?
  • Is soul enhanced, where soul has to do with the quality of relationships; with the sense of belonging, community, caring and trust present? Is innovation-breeding imagination promoted and supported? Is there more openness and less fear? Are people speaking their truth and being heard and rewarded for their courage? Are people having more fun?
Try This at Home

Our distinctionary, as a foundational piece of this web site, is intended to serve as a doorway into new design territory—into new ways of seeing, being and acting. We invite you to experiment with what this doorway might open up for you personally. If you're willing to invest 20 minutes in a personal inquiry process, following these simple steps might just open a new door:

Step 1 — Put your computer to sleep and take out a couple of sheets of paper.

Step 2 — Take a few deep breaths and quiet your thought processes.

Step 3 — Deliberate on these questions:
  • What is it I want to shift in my world?
  • What is it that is really important to me?
  • What are I willing to dedicate my life to?
  • What is it that I am truly passionate about?
  • If I could multiply the lasting difference I make in our world, what would be different?
Step 4 — Fill the first sheet with whatever flows through for you in response to any/all of these questions.

Step 5 — Go to the master list of distinctions and see where your intuition guides you.

Step 6 — On another page record your thoughts on the implications of where this process has led you.

For an even more expansive exploratory experience, apply the above steps to the web site as a whole. Everything in this site is intended to support you in clarifying and achieving positive movement on the above questions.