Embrace Emergence

In my last post I said I would take up five principles that might help make strategic planning more creative. The first of those was the proposal to embrace emergence.

Much current writing about leading and managing within organisations talks about emergence. Definitions abound and can be wildly different depending on the authors’ background and area of expertise. Most seem to use the term, however, to refer to the idea that something might be more than the sum of its parts. When emergence occurs, some form of ‘self-organisation’ is taking  place. The emergent activity is therefore characterised by unpredictability and non-linear forms of causation.

Since the Enlightenment most of our thinking and many of the practices we have developed to guide the way we go about leading, managing and organising have assumed that the world is ultimately predictable and that standardised, best practice ways of operating can be developed and implemented to enable us to control what happens. That is, we have focused an enormous of time and effort on trying to discern the rules of the game.


The following neatly illustrates, however, why this may not be as simple as it sounds.

Rules, or laws, have no causal efficacy; they do not in fact “generate” anything. They serve merely to describe regularities and consistent relationships in nature. These patterns may be very illuminating and important, but the underlying causal agencies must be separately specified (though often they are not). But that aside, the game of chess illustrates … why any laws or rules of emergence and evolution are insufficient. Even in a chess game, you cannot use the rules to predict “history” — i.e., the course of any given game. Indeed, you cannot even reliably predict the next move in a chess game. Why? Because the “system” involves more than the rules of the game. It also includes the players and their unfolding, moment-by-moment decisions among a very large number of available options at each choice point. The game of chess is inescapably historical, even though it is also constrained and shaped by a set of rules, not to mention the laws of physics. Moreover, and this is a key point, the game of chess is also shaped by teleonomic, cybernetic, feedback-driven influences. It is not simply a self-ordered process; it involves an organized, “purposeful” activity.

Peter Corning, The Re-Emergence of Emergence p.

It seems to me that human activity it seems to me is utterly unique in that it is enabled/constrained by rules and patterned ways of doing things (that are largely of our own making) AND at the same time always open to people doing things that don’t fit or subtly modify the patterns. In fact human progress and our capacity to innovate and change are dependent on our ability to transcend and transform the current patterns. So the rules or the patterns we follow make it possible for us to work together by both enabling and constraining – but they don’t determine!

It is only when a ‘breakdown’ in the everyday patterns occur that they become visible to us and open to investigation and re-consideration. Perhaps what we should be doing, therefore, is remaining open to and alert for the unpredictability and contingency of human activity (call it emergence if you will). Perhaps also, from time to time, we may need to deliberately disturb the coherence of established patterns. Either way we will allow ourselves to be surprised and to recognise rules and patterns that have become irrelevant or which are inappropriate to the situation.

If we embrace or engage with emergence and disturb coherence and certainty from time to time we will inevitably be more alert to and resourceful about the possibilities and opportunities  for change that are always present as we work together.

Next time something on nourishing ensemble.

Further Reading:

Steven Johnson, Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software

Peggy Holman, Engaging Emergence. Turning Upheaval into Opportunity

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