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Emergence is Everything

Hi there! Please note that this week's post is a follow-up to last week's post on co-creation. You can read it here.

Before we can understand the nature of emergence, we have to understand the nature and behavior of complex adaptive systems.

You already know what complex adaptive systems are, even if you don’t know you know. You’ve seen them in practice. You’ve watched teams self-organize to address a problem. You’ve watched cross-functional interactions resulting in product or service changes. You’ve watched companies adapt to new situations or environments.

Complex adaptive systems are informal groups that arise to solve a problem or capitalize on an opportunity. They are the result of the interconnectedness of people and ideas both inside and outside of the organization. They are unpredictable. And they dissipate when the task is done.

It all starts with a non-linear change – a key account blows up, there’s a technological breakthrough, a new market opens, a product fails in an unanticipated way, a customer says something, a competitor does something, a supplier changes something or the government regulates something.

Individuals in the organization sense the change, challenge or opportunity, often before it is formally articulated by senior management. These individuals form into what the late Swedish economist Gunnar Hedlund called “temporary constellations” of motivated, empowered employees (aka complex adaptive systems). Their tacit knowledge and experience result in unique perspectives on what the change means and what should be done about it. They engage with others who then share their tacit knowledge and experience. These multiple perspectives may result in conflict and competing viewpoints. There is debate and discussion. Ideas and information are aggregated, and eventually solutions arise.

Here’s the really interesting thing about all this. No one tells the temporary constellation to form. Senior managers don’t create a steering committee, which assigns a working group, which then assigns tasks to its members. There are no agreed upon milestones or reporting requirements or even desired outcomes. Because of this, the solutions are reached faster, are implemented more efficiently and are more effective than they would have been in more formal circumstances.

This is emergence.

Interestingly, the non-linear changes that cause complex adaptive systems to form are also emergent in nature. That is to say, they themselves emerged from some other complex adaptive system. It’s all very meta. Emergence creates more emergence. It’s constant. It cannot be codified, regulated or stopped. In fact, to try and do so would be madness.

If purpose and mission are the heartbeat of an organization, then emergence is its lifeblood. It flows and nourishes and energizes. And without it, the organization will die. Or at least, it will become very, very stuck.

The Unstuck Leader’s job is to supply the conditions that will produce emergence and then encourage, coach, remove obstacles, and get the hell out of the way.

This is called Generative Leadership. And we’ll talk more about it next week.

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