Emergence, Fast and Slow

One word that came up a few times in last week’s workshop (which got a 12 out of 10 by the way) was emergence. It’s a funny kind of word, one that gets some people excited and leaves others completely cold. That’s due in part to its scientific overtones, but there’s more to it than that.

In its slow form, emergence – as in emergent architecture for example – is regarded as a close cousin of evolution, a process whose results (structures, phenomena, properties) emerge from the repeated application of certain rules and constraints. Done deliberately, it looks something like this:

  1. We start where we are, with what we do now, or with a simple but probably inadequate design
  2. We wait until we’re dissatisfied somehow with the status quo
  3. Following some defined rules and keeping within certain constraints, we make what we hope turns out to be a step forward
  4. Rinse and repeat (starting with a new what we do now)

To its fans, it’s reliable way to cause a design to become increasingly fit for purpose – even when the environment around it is continually changing. Two things come with experience of the process:

  • Confidence in the outcome – the details of which aren’t planned in advance but familiar patterns and consistent properties do tend to repeat themselves
  • The realisation that the process can be guided and accelerated, for example using transparency to promote the activations of steps 2 and 4

Unfortunately, to those that haven’t experienced it, emergence and evolution can be a tough sell (which is why I don’t talk about them much). To some ears, these words evoke a process that’s highly wasteful and almost geologically slow, involving speculation, dead ends, and highly unpredictable outcomes. To others, it looks passive and directionless, change happening only in response to external pressures. No-one wants their organisation to go the way of the way of the dinosaur, and when proactivity is called for, it seems safer to stick to planned approaches with their up-front commitments and rigidly defined outputs – never mind that outputs and outcomes are two very different things!

I’ve hinted that in expert hands, emergence can be speeded up. Sometimes it can be very rapid indeed. Take for example the process we facilitate in Agendashift’s Discovery and Exploration activities through our 15-minute FOTO game:

  • Seed the process with a list of obstacles – things that block our path toward our generic True North (for Discovery), impede progress towards specific prompts prioritised from one of our assessments (for Exploration), or some other list
  • Identify the outcomes that lie immediately behind those obstacles
  • Identify the outcomes behind those outcomes, repeating through several layers, searching deeper and wider into outcome space

At Friday’s workshop we calculated that we were generating outcomes at a rate of nearly 2 per minute per table group. Two table groups were able to produce nearly 60 in just 15 minutes! As facilitator, I can’t predict what specific outcomes will be generated (I’ve stopped trying), but I’ve done it enough times to know that it’s a highly productive process, and that what emerges with the detail is a shared sense of both agreement and ambition. That’s gold!

Agendashift’s tagline is “Outcome-oriented change and continuous transformation”. With apologies to Daniel Kahneman, this is “Emergence, Fast and Slow” – the rapid emergence of agreement on outcomes and the emergence of a fitter, more adaptable organisation in the focussed follow-through. Agreement without the follow-through would of course mean the waste of a few hours or days of work. A much greater waste would be to implement change in the absence of agreed goals, the committed support of the host organisation, and the meaningful engagement of the people affected. They need each other!


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We are champions and enablers of outcome-oriented change and continuous transformation. Building from agreement on outcomes, Agendashift facilitates rapid, experiment-based evolution of process, practice, and organisation. Instead of Lean and Agile by imposition – contradictory and ultimately self-defeating – we help you keep your business vision and transformation strategy aligned with and energised by a culture of meaningful participation. More…

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