Sustaining vs Originating


Work generally falls into one of two categories: Sustaining and Originating. Sustaining makes up the majority of work. Sustaining work includes maintenance operations, as well as iterating products to keep pace with a market. It even includes depreciation practices.

Originating makes up a minority of work. It essentially involves creating new things.
Though it should not be confused with being “creative.” All activities in the Spectrum require creativity and ingenuity. Specifically, Originating involves an arc of making a new thing from inception to development to launch. Should the new entry become founded it can move into the Sustaining side of work activity.

Generally, Originating is risk prone, and Sustaining is risk averse.

Sustaining and Originating in Organizations
All organizations require both types of work, but virtually all will lean toward one or the other as part of their identity. Most large, established brands are sustainers. They focus on staying in business by maintaining the activities that keep them in business. This is true even if they make things like cars or smartphones. Products or services that require long-term involvement tend to be part of sustaining organizations.

Originating organizations are generally involved in creating and launching new things. They are rarely successful at sustaining the things they make. Marketing agencies, consultants, the Arts, and startups are all examples of businesses that are likely to tend toward being Originating organizations. They move through the arc of conceiving and establishing a new thing and move on the to the next project.

Understanding the difference between sustaining and originating makes decisions about work and who should accomplish it more intuitive.
Industries and organizations can mix the two types of work, though tension often shows up when they do. This tension can be necessary and beneficial or produce roadblocks and disorder. The film industry rests in Origination when considering individually produced movies. Though, the studios that fund those movies tend to rest in Sustaining practices. The tension comes from the risk prone filmmakers (Originators) conflicting with the priorities of the risk averse studios (Sustainers). If either gains too much power, products and profits will likely suffer.

This is also a reason companies move through “creative” agencies fairly often. Agencies that develop new marketing campaigns or websites shine at the beginning of the relationship but grow tired of the activities of sustaining the work product or relationship. The relationship sours and the clients move on.

Sustaining and Originating in people
It’s more complicated and risky to label people as being Sustainers or Originators. Even more than organizations, people require both types of activities in work and day-to-day life. Yet, our personalities tend toward one end or the other. And this favoring of one or the other doesn’t necessarily correlate with job types either. Artists, actors, accountants, and attorneys can each be either Sustainers or Originators.

A UI designer that is an Originator (or leans that way) will be most successful and fulfilled in an agency setting where she can continually create new projects for new brands. A UI Designer that’s a Sustainer will be happiest and most successful working for a brand where she can maintain, refine, and establish deeper knowledge with the work. Switch the two and each is likely to struggle. An accountant experienced working for a single brand may find the multiple clients and shifting work of a forensic accounting firm frustrating. Whereas, a CPA from the same firm could consider working for a single client to be tedious.

Using the Sustaining and Originating perspective
Determining whether work is Sustaining or Originating provides more than merely an esoteric definition of work. For example, it’s helpful when crafting the set of responsibilities for a new job. Too much mixing of Originating and Sustaining work will make for a tough job to fill and a difficult set of tasks for the employee. Requiring the same person to be a proofreader and fact checker as well as lead the creation of new editorial ideas will probably cause that person to be deficient in one of those roles.

Generally, in-house staffs for brands will tend toward sustaining and be risk averse. While they may be creative they will probably still have trouble originating truly new things for that brand. (This can be done, but often requires incubation and a purposefully different internal structure). Assuming the same programming and engineering team who originated a new software platform for a startup will also be the ones that address ongoing maintenance tickets and version iterations will almost certainly result in that team becoming bored and inefficient.

Well all have to involve ourselves in both types of work, and no job or business is pure Sustaining or Originating. However, knowing which type we, our teams, our business, and our partners are best at will help us make better choices about who to work with and how to accomplish that work.


The Strategic Web is an independent consultancy focused on innovation strategy. I help businesses and organizations develop strategies to differentiate themselves in the marketplace and progress out of static practices.

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Scott Hutcheson