Engaging Emergence – a new story of Change

Marcella Bremer Change 5 Comments

emergent change“The old story of change, called change management, no longer functions well. Fortunately, a new story is arising that works creatively with complexity, conflict, and upheaval.” Speaking is Peggy Holman, who has been working in and shaping the field of change since the Mid-70’s. She’s an author and consultant who co-authored the indispensable Change Handbook (an inspiring and pragmatic compilation of 61 group methods to engage in change). Her latest book (2010) is “Engaging Emergence – Turning upheaval into opportunity”.

I like that new story of change that is full of surprises because I have a curious and creative nature. I have also seen how the old story produces the illusion of certainty: the comforting belief that the future can be planned for and that organizational change can be controlled. Actual organizational change projects prove this belief false, but many executives find it hard to let go.
This makes the new story not easy to sell to clients, most of whom are working within a hierarchy and who have been raised on planning & control. However, this new story offers the best approach to change successfully.

Disrupt, diverge, converge

A new way of change is working with complexity, conflict, and upheaval Click To TweetAll change starts with a disturbance of the status quo. In addition, every system has a drive for coherence and a drive for differentiation. These forces are constantly interacting, mutually influencing each other: disruption, coherence, differentiation.
It’s nature’s way of changing, explains Holman. It just happens, and no-one is in charge. The challenge of emergence is: we don’t control it as our systems get more complex. Holman states: “If we don’t work with it, it will work us over.”

Disruption breaks apart the status quo. Next, the system differentiates, and innovations and distinctions among its parts come to the surface. As these difference parts interact, a new, more complex coherence arises because “like attracts like” and clusters and patterns evolve.
Emergence leads to a new order, eventually. Characteristics of a new system are its novelty and wholeness: new properties appear and the whole is different than the sum of the parts. The new system shows coherence (a steady pattern of interactions); it’s dynamic, and it has “downward causation”: the system (or new order) shapes the behavior of the parts.

If we don’t work with emergence, it will work us over Click To Tweet

Novelty arises when systems grow and self-regulate through feedback. As we interact, like attracts like. Clusters arise. When we pay attention to these patterns or clusters, we can make sense of what is happening and engage the emergence even though it is not always easy to recognize.

It is often difficult to engage emergence. Holman shares several reasons. The seeds of most great ideas are dismissed at first because there are no examples yet. Success can be a hurdle, too. If things are going well, small disturbances tend to be marginalized or ignored. It’s also easy to overlook the small things that turn out to be vital.
I would like to add the biggest reason of all: fear. Fear makes people and organizations want to control and plan. Faith helps them to let go and keep an open mind to see what happens if they engage emergence – instead of imposing their pre-designed plans onto reality.

Cases of emergence?

ChangeDo you know specific organizational cases of emergence? I know (too) many examples of “negative” emergence such as the negative side-effects of organizational change. For instance, in the Netherlands new procedures and quality checks in health care and education were imposed that drive nurses and teachers mad. The intention was good: to ensure good, consistent quality of health care and education. The disruption was a rolling out of procedures, log files on each patient or student, and more mandatory meetings and bureaucracy. The effect was overburdened professionals, who had less and less quality time to spend with their patients or students. Energy depleted while health care nor education improved. Professionals felt they were controlled and distrusted. Patients and students felt like numbers. This was an emergent change that no one had wanted. But it changed health care and educational organizations.

I know countless other examples of negative emergence, especially during change projects. Things didn’t work in reality as planned for on paper. Downsizing to make an organization more agile, demoralized employees to the point they came to a standstill (which necessitated more downsizing to avoid bankruptcy). Introducing self-organizing teams to stir innovation and flexibility led to chaos and a brisk return to top-down control. And so on.

I’d love to hear some positive examples of emergence within organizations. In my consulting practice, I work with emergence by focusing on the idea that generates the most energy. That is engaging emergence on a small scale, often within teams. In one huge client organization, we organized dialog days to develop a common culture after their merger (they used to be five organizations). What emerged from the dialog days was not so much a common culture, but the feeling to be acknowledged and respected as employees and the discovery that “the others” were likable. A lot of resentment against the executive teams who had arranged the merger over their heads evaporated during the dialog days. This was not the intended outcome, but a very welcome emergent effect that helped this organization accept the change brought along by this merger.

Fear makes you want to control. Faith helps to let go Click To Tweet

Engaging emergence only works if the (client) organization is open to this approach. And as you know: not everyone embraces the surprises of emergence.
Management thinking is: to control and define the possible outcomes of a change project within certain boundaries. Hire a consultant and let them guide your change project before December 31, with specified goals. Such as: develop a common culture for five merging organizations, no matter what happens during the process.
Leadership and entrepreneurship are: let’s see what happens when you do things, try them out, and follow the energy. It’s the difference between the mental world of thinking and the material world of doing.
Hence, we didn’t push people during those dialog days to come up with a specified common culture before 5 PM. We let meaningful conversations arise around their different cultures – and the outcome was mutual respect and a willingness to let go of prejudice and start collaborating.

Principles to engage emergence

Back to the book: Holman discusses some principles and practices to engage emergence. As leaders, coaches and consultants, I think we should help our clients and colleagues to adopt a new mindset and ditto behaviors to work with this new, emergent change.
Principles of emergenceWelcome disturbance: Disruption indicates that the normal behavior of a system has been interrupted. If we ignore the disturbance, the chances are that conditions will get worse. If we get curious about it, the disruption could lead to breakthroughs.

This attitude is vital in my opinion, and we can practice it everywhere. Instead of immediately judging a disruption as negative, what would happen if we turned on our curiosity?
“Hey, that’s interesting. I thought we needed a common culture for these five organizations – but the employees need to vent their frustration about the executives and how the merger was imposed on them. They are exchanging prejudice they held before about the other organizations and laughing about it. They recognize they have more in common than they thought, but they are nowhere near creating a list of common values for the future.”
I can choose from two responses: “How annoying! I won’t get the common culture outlined before 5 PM – I will intervene and put them to work according to schedule”. Or: “Interesting – they are so engaged in these conversations, let’s follow this energy and see where it leads us. They seem to need this… Hmmm…”

Regarding #Change: What would happen if we turned on our curiosity? Click To Tweet

Let’s summarize Holman’s other principles.
Pioneer: Break some habits by doing something different. Prepare and jump into the mystery, working with the feedback that comes. Can you do so? How can you help your team, your colleagues, or your client to pioneer?
Encourage random encounters: Remember, no one is in charge. More accurately, we never know which interactions will catalyze innovation. If you maximize interactions among diverse agents, unexpected encounters will likely trigger a shift. Can you help your client or colleagues with multiplying diverse interactions?
Seek meaning: Meaning energizes us. Shared meaning draws us to common awareness and action. When shared meaning is central, we organize resilient, synergistic networks that serve our individual and collective needs.
Simplify: Principles—simple rules—equip us to work with complexity.

Holman’s practices breathe a different mindset than the average manager in the standard hierarchical organization holds. If all of us would engage emergence, the world, and the workplace would look different.

Step up for what you love

“Take responsibility for what you love as an act of service.” How has this anything to do with engaging emergence? Simple: if we don’t do what we love, we suppress emergence: we are going through the motions without noticing what else is present or wants to emerge. Holman argues: Most of us were taught that it’s selfish to pursue what we love. Thus, we set aside what makes us different and unique. This often leads to unfulfilled, unhappy people. While when we offer our unique contribution, we are at our best and we can make a difference. Withholding who we are, becomes the selfish act!
The unspoken belief that to belong, we must conform – may be wrong. Our distinctiveness carries energy – and sparks creativity with others as well. It’s a great example of tapping our true potential and being attentive to what wants to emerge within a system or situation.
This is a game-changing skill: the more this becomes our operating norm, the more innovation and initiative will occur. It means we no longer need to wait for formal leaders to pose a question or start an initiative. Anyone can take responsibility for what they love to serve the whole.

Withholding who you are, is a selfish act Click To Tweet

What is needed for this practice is to listen to yourself and others, without judgment and with compassion. Whenever you disagree with someone (or with your impulses), practice to ask: “That’s an interesting perspective. Tell me more.”

Prepare for emergence

This practice means that you embrace mystery, choose possibility and follow life energy.
Being receptive to not-knowing takes courage in our current culture that celebrates perfection and correct answers. But mystery is essential to our well-being. Without the unknown, we have no learning. Without learning, our creative impulse goes unsatisfied. Without creativity, life loses its spark.
So, here is the practice of being okay with not-knowing all the answers. That is awkward because we are not used to it. As a consultant, clients tend to ask me: What should we do? They want definitive answers from an expert. My answer is: “I don’t know because I don’t work here. I am here to help facilitate the process of finding an answer. You know your organizational system best – even if you’re not aware of it – so let’s see where the answer is hiding.”
Are you okay with not-knowing all the answers? Click To Tweet

Part of this practice is the mindset of looking for possibilities: What could be? What do we want more of?
Often, though, we have been taught to focus on what’s broken, why we can’t, what’s wrong – the well-known problem mindset. Asking possibility-oriented questions shifts our attention and begins to break these habits. What do we want? What excites us, gives us meaning? What difference can we make? Such questions invite us to dream, to discover the gifts of our differences and come together around what inspires us.
Sysiphus’ task echoes the energy of problem-solving: hard work and discipline and often little joy. Even worse, the best we get is a return to some past state. In contrast, when problems are used as a doorway to opportunity, three core questions typically guide us: What is working? What is possible? How do we create it?
How can you support yourself and your client/colleagues to practice this mindset?

Become aware of the flow

Life energy is that elusive quality that attracts and enlivens us. Although invisible, it has vitality, a flow that we can sense. Following the energy of an aspiration, makes us awake, alive, aware of our feelings. In contrast, angst, pain, discontent are signs that life energy is stuck.
Welcoming upheaval frees the energy so that it is available to engage. Let’s not suppress upheaval or conflict – let’s welcome it so the energy can flow.
Pay attention to where energy is stuck or flowing. If you wish to engage, participate fully, bringing all of your gifts. If not, get out of the way so that others can proceed.
Holman suggests paying attention to boundaries. Boundaries are often where life energy gets stuck. For example, organizational silos (departmental kingdoms), national borders, or how identity is defined create an inside and an outside. Boundaries are useful because they outline the edges of our systems. They just need attention.

Boundaries are often where life energy gets stuck Click To Tweet

Again, this is an uncommon way of thinking within traditional organizations. Following a flow?! The way I practice this during consulting is to alert the group to their process. I share my observation that they all fall silent or avoid eye contact, lean back, return to their mobile phones – and I ask them what is happening. I share my interpretation – the energy seems gone, or: Hey, it seems that no-one wants to engage with this topic…?
It’s a way to get the issue on the table and get the energy flowing again – or to invite upheaval and welcome it.

Host an emergent change session

To work with emergent change, you set up a meeting. What matters to you or your (client) organization? You can invite others, particularly those different from you, to weigh in during this change group meeting or session. Staying unattached to outcomes increases your flexibility. For instance, an organization that wants a results-oriented culture by December 31 is not engaging emergence. They are attached to a specific outcome – and may be pushing for it. The participants will feel what is expected of them (that is: not speaking their true mind) and the flow will grind to a halt. The session may look like change work, but could be nothing but a ritual where everyone dutifully plays a part without any real commitment (aka energy).

Complexity scientists tell us that initial conditions are crucial in shaping what emerges. Welcoming conditions make the difference, and you can sense the vibe and space of a group. Creating a container for emergent change work is as important as setting a useful agenda. How do we make our intentions clear? Whom do we invite? What is welcome? What of our history needs to be shared?
Engaging Emergence and changeSpace matters to people. Holman did an experiment. She gave a keynote speech while the audience was seated in four different ways: in rows, at cafe tables, in a circle or lounging at couches. The people in the large circle loved being part of a whole. The café table participants reveled in the company of friends. The people in the living room were so comfortable lounging around; it wasn’t clear that they had paid much attention to the keynote. Nor was it clear that they’d leave the space at break! The people who were seated in rows were grumpy. They felt constrained, isolated, and frustrated that they hadn’t arrived sooner to get a “good” spot.

Engage – and ask

Ambitious, possibility-oriented questions are attractors for the emergent change process. They bring together diverse people who care. They disrupt but do so by focusing on opportunities for something better, more meaningful. They help to create a welcoming environment, opening the way to discover what wants to emerge. A useful general question is: “Given all that has happened, what is possible now?”
This question follows life energy toward aspirations. While not denying harsh realities, it shifts a story from problems to the possibility for a better future.

Holman says about leadership: “Systems are failing, and people in traditional leadership roles are stumped. Discord fills the air. What has worked in the past no longer functions. Even if traditional leaders believe they are responsible for the rest of us, given the complexity of today’s world, they have no chance of having all the answers. Leaders are set up for failure when ordinary people expect them to solve all the problems. Leaders who expect themselves to do so shoulder an impossible burden.”
We are trained by school systems that set the expectation that we are supposed to know the answers. No wonder we resist complex situations in which we could not possibly have the answers. Bold, affirmative questions help us enter into mystery. The unknown becomes a source of creativity where together we just might find some answers.

Some questions for Inquiring Appreciatively are:
What question, if answered, would make a difference in this situation?
What can we do together that none of us could do alone?
Given what has happened, what is possible now?
Ironically, “being open,” “letting go,” and “being receptive” are often judged as passive qualities. In practice, what could be more courageous than stepping in, with all of the energies—dissonant and resonant— and everything that emerges is truly welcomed?
At the end of the change event, it’s crucial to make meaning of what happened. Harvest the session with graphic facilitation or shared conclusions.
iterate for change to emerge

Iteration is a repeating process in which the output of the current cycle becomes the input to the next cycle. With each execution, conditions evolve and affect the next cycle. Iteration describes how we learn – and it’s a great way for organizations and people to keep engaging with emergence and to be working with change instead of against it.
It is important to grow your capacity to engage emergence. What do you think?

Journaling Questions

  • How do you listen to yourself and others, without judgment and with compassion?
  • How and when do you step up for what you love? Do you follow your life energy? Are you attentive to the signals in (your) system?
  • Dare you follow the flow? (energy) Or, do you have a tendency to follow the plan?
  • How can you support yourself and others to look for possibilities?
  • Dare you stay in the realm of not-knowing for a while?
  • How can you inquire appreciatively and disrupt gently with your questions?
  • Can you accept whatever energy emerges? Including conflict and upheaval?
  • How to be more open-minded and welcoming?
  • Are you attached to a specific outcome in one of your projects? How can you let it go?
  • What is a topic that would be worth a session?
  • How can you help your clients or colleagues with this mindset and behaviors?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts! Please share them in the comments section below. This is something we all could practice more, in my opinion….

Peggy Holman is a Seattle-based author and consultant who co-authored the Change Handbook and wrote “Engaging Emergence – Turning upheaval into opportunity.” She can be reached through www.peggyholman.com
She shares her book online.

Copyright © Marcella Bremer 2015. All rights reserved.

Illustrations by Steven Wright

Do you like this post? Please help me spread positivity by tweeting, sharing, and liking.
Sign up for blog updates here.

Do you want to read some personal examples of emergence? Read my personal reflection blog post: Dare You Engage with Emergence?

Written by Marcella Bremer, author and culture & change consultant. She co-founded this Leadership & Change Blog and OCAI-online.com.

Comments 5

  1. A great article Marcella. Over the last year my perspective on change has shifted radically away from the ‘illusion of certainty’ & linear management control to one of emergent change. I left a company I loved where I ‘created and delivered’ change to explore other ways of working with change. What I was doing wasn’t working. My focus now is to support and shape leadership to work with the uncertainty of emergent change, http://www.bendtheriver.org. I believe it requires a total system perspective . Developing deep connectedness and receptivity are a couple of the practices I advocate. Maybe because this is now my focus I see and hear of more and more people around the world working in this way. It is already emerging!

    I’m about to start Yr2 of an MSc at Metanoia Institute ‘Leading and Facilitating Change: A Gestalt, Systemic and Complexity perspective. One of the practices of the course is to create a question at the start of the year and to undertake action inquiry. Softly holding the question over every action and area of my life, consolidating journalling into 3 reflective essays over a period of 9 months gave great focus to the pattern of emergence, where I supported it and where I limited it!

  2. Thanks for sharing your experience, Felicity! It is great to be mindful of the pattern of emergence and I agree with you, more and more people are starting to work this way! Interesting Master education, by the way. I think we’re headed for interesting times.

  3. Thank you for sharing your insights, Wonderful topic! In my opinion you have outlined a difficult process in simple words and clear illusstrations. You have adressed persons and organisations.

    Looking forward to 2016 and its affecting me and will do so to organisations in future.
    ‘Disruptive’ economy is sometimes mentioned, well we are heading for new possibilities instead of fear. Focus on happiness and be suprised time to time!

    Merry Christmas and happy and succesfull 2016!

  4. Hi Marcella. fantastic article, thank you. This is very much aligned with the emergence and growth of the dialogic organisational development perspective aimed at changing organisational narratives to drive transformational change. Very interesting indeed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.