Designing for emergence

I got a request last week 'to explore developing and delivering a Business Change function: how it might be structured, and its milestones and deliverables'. It came at the same point as the question, from Peter Murchland, 'can we or how can we design for emergence'?

At first glance, they seemed to be opposing notions. In the Donald Rumsfeld spectrum of 'There are known knowns, there are known unknowns, and there are unknown unknowns', business change typology seems to be more comfortable at the known knowns end, a kind of reductionist view of the work, and emergence typology at the unknown unknowns end a kind of holistic view of the world.

As I was musing on the two I remembered a picture I once had on my wall. It was a drawing by French illustrator Jean Olivier Heron, called 'Comment naissent les bateaux' (How boats are born). It showed a yawl gradually emerging through a sequence of drawings that started with a butterfly-winged mermaid hatching. (See it here).

This sparked the thought that maybe you could develop a business change function that designs, if not emergence, then the conditions for emergence. The originating business change function would incubate the principles and conditions that enable emergence. Peggy Holman describes two types of emergence.

  • Weak emergence describes new properties arising in a system. … In weak emergence, rules or principles act as the authority, providing context for the system to function. In effect, they eliminate the need for someone in charge. Road systems are a simple example.
  • Strong emergence occurs when a novel form arises that was completely unpredictable. We could not have guessed its properties by understanding what came before…. Nor can we trace its roots from its components or their interactions.

The emergence of the yawl from the butterfly-mermaid would be completely unpredictable if we were just looking at the start point and trying to predict an outcome from what we know of butterflies and mermaids. It would be a strong emergence. Except that in the picture you can trace the emergence of the yawl back to the butterfly/mermaid. So maybe its a weak emergence?

I'm interested in designing the conditions for emergence, because I'd like to see a business change function that is focused on helping organizational members manage uncertainty, be curious about what could happen, be willing to participate in experimentation, be happy to continuously adapt and learn new things, be skilled in meeting things that come in from unexpected directions, and be capable of continuously renewing the organization in a variety of ways. That roughly equates to being able to handle emergence rather than comply with processes.

This does not mean abandoning all programme management protocols but it may mean expressing them in a different form e.g. the concepts of 'deliverables' and 'milestones' could change. There might not be a detailed plan. There might, instead, be a trust that 'business change' will emerge and continue to emerge from an agreed direction and some principles.

The story of Miles Davis's, 'Kind of blue' illustrates. No doubt there was a contract and a 'programme' intent on getting an album of a certain quality produced by a specific point in time, with various risks managed by processs like insurance. But Davis approached the task within the programme from an emergent perspective:

'As was Davis's penchant, he called for almost no rehearsal and the musicians had little idea what they were to record. As described in the original liner notes by pianist Bill Evans, Davis had only given the band sketches of scales and melody lines on which to improvise. Once the musicians were assembled, Davis gave brief instructions for each piece and then set to taping the sextet in studio.'

The album is among the top most successful jazz albums ever recorded.

A similar interplay of programme protocols and emergent thinking is hinted at in Peter Corning's article (referenced in Holman's work) where he closes with the point that that both reductionism and holism are essential to a full understanding of living systems. So, it may be in attempting business change – it has to be done with both reductionist and systems thinking.

Leandro Herrero offers 12 simple rules of social change that I think are useful discussion starters for those developing a business change function that would enable continuously changing the business (the weak emergence) and working with the emergence of the unexpected (the strong emergence). One that I'm thinking would cause debate is 'Readiness is a red herring', and another 'Recalibrate all the time. Stay in beta.'

Coincidentally as I was writing this, I read an example about finding a treatment for multiple sclerosis that opens: 'Experiments that go according to plan can be useful. But the biggest scientific advances often emerge from those that do not.' It's a good story of designing the conditions that enable emergence.

Do you think you can develop a business change function that either designs for emergence, or designs the conditions for emergence? Let me know.

NOTE: This blog also appears on LinkedIn