Embracing Emergence


John Kania and Mark Kramer’s recent article Embracing Emergence: How Collective Impact Addresses Complexity (Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter 2013) offers clear language and specific examples of what ‘emergence’ looks like in large scale social change.

Kania and Kramer are both managing directors at FSG, the consulting group that has popularized the Collective Impact framework for large scale social change.  Since it was introduced in an SSIR article in Winter 2011 (also written by Kania and Kramer), Collective Impact has become the hot new topic—all about how a highly structured, cross-sector collaboration for social change can work better than any single organization’s isolated impact on change.  The ideas of Collective Impact have been taking nonprofit social sector and philanthropic communities by storm through webinars, seminars, consulting and discussion groups.  The framework is based on five conditions, which you can read more about here.

What’s exciting about this latest article is that it focuses on emergence: a word I’ve come to respect as a piece of jargon for a specialized field of certain kinds of change facilitators; a code word that signals ‘I’ve studied complexity and living systems theory and apply it to my work with groups’.  Despite how fitting the idea of emergence is to describe the kind of evolving, adaptive behaviors we see in change efforts, this vocabulary word is not usually clearly explained and applied as part of the conversation.  Until now.  From the article:

“Taken from the field of complexity science, ‘emergence’ is a term that is used to describe events that are unpredictable, which seem to result from the interactions between elements, and which no one organization or individual can control.

…To say that a solution is emergent, however, is not to abandon all plans and structures.  Rather than deriving outcomes by rigid adherence to preconceived strategies, a key tent of addressing complex problems is to focus on creating effective rules for interaction.  These rules ensure alignment among participants that increases the likelihood of emergent solutions leading to the intended goal.”

The article continues with specific ideas about what it means to work within an emergent context.  It suggests a structure for collective action (cascading levels of collaboration, a high degree of transparency among all organizations, information flows both top-down and bottom-up).  It also emphasizes that in complex systems change work, solutions aren’t often known in advance, and acknowledges that the discomfort most stakeholders have in not knowing solutions immediately.  The authors are quick to point out, however, that ‘emergent opportunities’ appear within Collective Impact initiatives when groups are willing to move forward despite the discomfort.   These lessons from the field are not only consistent with living systems theory, they are illustrating critically necessary ways we need to be thinking about change in our increasingly interdependent, complex world.

photo by flickr/randihausken

As the Collective Impact movement continues to grow in community-wide change initiatives, my hope is that the understanding of emergence will also spread.  It’s an important idea, essential for understanding and working successfully in our ever-changing world.

Collective Impact: The Right Conditions for Systems Change

Photo from Flickr/DubbingHammer

Photo from Flickr/DubbingHammer

Have you heard of Collective Impact ?  If you’re currently involved in any kind of large-scale, community-focused systems change effort, chances are good that you have.  Collective Impact is a compelling framework for real systemic change, made popular after this article was published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review in 2011.  Collective Impact promotes addressing complex social issues (think child obesity or domestic violence or homelessness) through a very prescribed kind of collaboration—including requirements that it be cross-sector, carefully structured and well-supported. If you’re unfamiliar with this framework and want to learn more, I highly recommend reading both their first article and their follow-up article published in 2012.

Collective Impact includes five conditions for success:

  1. A Common Agenda
  2. A Shared Measurement System
  3. Mutually Reinforcing  Activities
  4. Continuous Communication
  5. Backbone Support Organization

I think that the folks who developed the Collective Impact framework nailed it as far as identifying the minimum essential (and challenging!) conditions required for sustainable success.  Not surprisingly, each of the conditions is aligned with the principles and sensibilities of systems thinking.

The first four conditions all have an implicit appreciation of relationships—an orientation to the whole rather than separate pieces of a system.  And each of them encourages that participants take on a systems view.

  1. Developing a common agenda helps different agencies and organizations see themselves as parts of a larger system
  2. Establishing  shared measuring system among organizations allows for apples-to-apples measurements across that system, further reducing ‘silo mentality’.
  3. Mutually reinforcing activities require that the whole group develop a big-picture understanding of the interdependent activities within a system.  This can bring to light not only the service gaps and duplications, but also an understanding of system delays and possibilities of sub-optimizing a particular program—which can lead to helpful conversations about what to do about them.
  4. The continuous communication fuels the all-important need to keep the parts connected through information and feedback.

The fifth and final condition is having a backbone support organization: an entity whose primary responsibility is to make sure that all other conditions are being met.  Backbone organizations are in charge of tracking both ‘The Forest’ and ‘The Trees’: they convene meetings, handle data, and keep communication flowing.  Such a role is usually seen as a luxury, unaffordable for most projects in nonprofit and government sectors.  Having a backbone organization as a required condition represents a shift in mental models about what’s needed for successful, systemic change: a bold and necessary move.

Systems Change through Collaboration


It’s no surprise that many of the people who are drawn to systems thinking conferences are in leadership positions for large-scale, collaborative projects.  Goals to do things like ‘improve educational outcomes for at-risk youth’ or ‘increase access to quality healthcare for the uninsured’ are systemic in nature and require collaborative thinking and action by its leadership and participants.

I’ve been fortunate to engage with many different collaborations over the years–as a participant, as a leader, as a consultant.  While the idea of working together is compelling and often touted in nonprofit, government and philanthropic literature as the solution for handsall of our social ills, the call to collaboration is not for the faint of heart.  It requires that we first deepen our understanding about our systems, and about each other—which requires an appreciation for multiple viewpoints and interests.  We must then create a shared vision for what’s possible, while avoiding the seductive trap of a false sense of like-mindedness.  Third, we need to approach implementation as an adaptive dance of doing, learning and communicating with each other.  Next, we evaluate, or step back to check on results thus far—which looks a lot like returning, at a new level, to deepening our understanding of our systems and ourselves.

If this is challenging, time-consuming and messy, we are on the right track. 

Starting this week, I’ll be writing on topics of collaboration and systems change, and highlighting some promising models and resources along the way.  Stay tuned.

In Praise of ‘GroupWorks’ Cards


One of the most important–and often the most challenging–aspects of systems change work is convening the group conversations (meetings, conferences, other gatherings) where ideas are discussed and plans are made.

Think about the last time you were in a great group gathering: one where you felt engaged and heard; where new ideas and perspectives (including systemic ones!) were valued and considered, and participants ended up satisfied by with both process and outcomes. If you’ve been fortunate enough to have one of those experiences lately, it’s likely that whomever designed/facilitated the gathering knew a thing or two about how groups work.

There’s a collection of very group-savvy volunteers who have put together a remarkable resource in support of such powerful meetings. GroupWorks–a Pattern Language for Bringing Life to Meetings and Other Gatherings–is a set of 91 cards describing all sorts of things to pay attention to when designing and facilitating what I would characterize as ‘the kind of meetings that make a difference’. The alphabetical list of ideas cards begin with ‘Aesthetics of Space’ and ends with the oh-so important idea of ‘Yes, And…‘. (One of my favorites is the card ‘Not About You’– about the importance of facilitators not taking things personally.  That little reminder has saved my backside (and left my self-esteem intact) more than once!

So grateful to my dear colleague  Steve Byers for sharing these cards with me. I’m looking forward to referring to them for an upcoming conversation I’ll be hosting.    If anyone else has experience with them, I’d love to hear about it.

Complicated vs. Complex


My husband is a pastry chef (I know, lucky me) and he often enjoys trying out new recipes.  He occasionally will go for fairly complicated endeavors, like a fancy dessert that includes many ingredients and several steps.

While I enjoy eating fancy desserts, I’m not much for complicated cooking.  I do, however, enjoy working in the world of complexity, which is different from the world of complicatedness.

If you’re unclear of the difference between ‘complicated’ and ‘complex’, I highly recommend picking up a copy of the September Harvard Business Review.  The theme is complexity, and includes an article that touches on the difference between complex and complicated.  Here are some highlights along with my thoughts about them.

  • Complicated systems have many parts but they work in patterned and predictable ways.  Flying an airplane is complicated.  Baking a cake can be.  Complicated systems tend to give you predictable results, as long as you do the same thing the same time, each time.  (i.e., If you beat an egg white long enough with the right amount of sugar, you always get meringue.)  This is in contrast to:
  • Complex systems, where parts are interdependent, often changing, and where outcomes are less predictable.  These include education systems, organizational systems, and pretty much any system with humans involved.  Complex systems are dynamic—that is, they’re constantly changing and adapting to current conditions.  They do NOT necessarily show predictable behavior: you can do the same thing two days in a row but get very different results.

There’s a lot more to say about complexity.  One critical takeaway is that it’s important to the difference between complicate and complex endeavors.

If a situation is complicated:

  • The task at hand is pretty clear, even from different perspectives.  The instructions are not ambiguous.
  • You can see the boundaries of the issue (what’s relevant and what’s not),
  • You can reliably predict how things will go once you get started.

When you work with a complicated system, your focus needs to be on diligence and accuracy when following particular steps in a process.

If a situation is complex:

  • you cannot ‘see’ the whole, but only what’s available from your vantage point.  The ‘big picture’ may not be agreed upon, and thus the ‘right thing to do’ may be unclear.
  • The boundaries of the issue are hard to draw (where does it start? Where does it end?  It’s all connected…)
  • Its outcomes are less predictable.

When you work with a complex system, it’s good to:

  • Work with others from different parts of the system.  This helps you to better ‘see’ the whole, and consider ripple effects of each other’s possible actions
  • Set boundaries–even if they’re arbitrary—for clarity and to avoid ‘scope creep
  • encourage a culture of experimentation and adaptation: try one thing with the system, see what happens, and adjust accordingly.

Every organization, family, community and classroom faces its share of both complex and complicated issues.  What kind of situations have you been working on?  In what ways might  another approach be helpful?


What do YOU mean by ‘Systems Thinking’?


“I’m a systems thinker.”

I hear that a lot when I tell people who I teach systems thinking.  And I’m learning to not accept the assertion at face value, but to find out more precisely what the speaker means.  Because saying ‘I do systems thinking’ means many different things to different people.

It’s no big surprise that even for those who have studied the topic, there is confusion about the definition of the terms.  One reason is the number of similar concepts about systemic thinking that are used in various applications throughout the world.  There are multiple fields of study related to a systems approach to complexity which can come to mind for when discussing systems thinking–i.e., cybernetics, systems theory, complexity science, chaos theory, family systems theory, system dynamics, etc.  (see http://openlearn.open.ac.uk/file.php/3336/T306_2_022i.jpg for a helpful visual depiction of the large web of systems-related approaches.)

In the US, arguably the most popular academic understanding of systems thinking developed out of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where system dynamics was founded by Professor Jay Forrester in the 1950s, and where later systems thinking was made popular by MIT-trained Peter Senge (a student of Forrester’s) in the best-selling management book, The Fifth Discipline, published in 1991.   Twenty years after publication of The Fifth Discipline, an internal debate still festers within the field of practitioners about the history and scope of systems thinking and system dynamics.  For a clear explanation of the distinctions, see Barry Richmond’s ‘System Dynamic/Systems Thinking: Let’s Just Get On With It.

To complicate matters yet further, ‘systems thinking’ as promoted within The Fifth Discipline and similar systems thinking texts associates itself with a large number of related skills, tools and mindsets.  Unlike the short lists of discrete ideas readers are used to finding in texts about business management (i.e., ‘5 Steps to More Efficient Meetings’), the primers on systems thinking suggest using an interrelated set of skills that may or may not include perception, awareness, humility, and reflection, as well as fairly detailed use of mathematical logic and/or a basic understanding of simple algebraic formulas.  Suggestion of these last two skills reinforce the perception that systems thinking exists in the domain of mechanical modeling and engineering–only one of many fields that benefit from systems understanding.

So it’s easy to see why a shared understanding of the phrase ‘systems thinking’ hasn’t yet become widely accepted.

In Washington State, a group of folks is beginning to work on some common understanding of the phrase ‘systems thinking’–at least in the context of how the phrase is used in the new K-12 education standards for science and environmental sustainability.  More on that in another next blog post.

A Sign of the Times


A friend asked me the other day why I don’t have a blog.  “The workload of keeping up a blog is intimidating,” I told her.  “It’s a lot of writing, and there’s pressure for coming up with new posts all the time.”  She reminded me that as a systems thinking consultant, I have plenty of fodder for blog posts.  It’s true: systemic issues are all over the place if you’re paying attention: in a newspaper article about the economy; in dinnertime conversation about my kids’ social lives; in analyzing team dynamics within a client organization.

“OK,” I said, “but if people want to talk about systems thinking with me, they can call me.”  My friend shook her head.  “People are busy and would like a quick dose of the thinking you and your colleagues are doing.  There’s not always time for a workshop or even a coffee chat.  More like a quick read.”

I considered her point–a good one, I thought–and thought of another sign of the times.  With all the tumultuous changes happening in organizations today, there seems to be both less time yet more need for thinking expansively and strategically.  Same for the what I see happening in the local and national news.

“I think you should blog,” says my friend, “just to give short, sweet examples of systems and systems thinking applications to your clients, colleagues and friends.  Things that they can relate to.  They’ll appreciate it, and might even use it.  And isn’t that your goal?  To help others use more systems thinking?”

She may be right.  So for my friend and anyone else who’s interested building his/her systems thinking muscles with some quick reading, I’m following the signs, and starting a semi-regular blog.  The intention is for it to be about systems thinking, ST resources as I learn about them, and observations about how ST is being applied–or not–in organizations, schools and in my own life.  I hope the ideas here help to generate some good thoughts for your own use, and point you in useful directions for your own learning journey.

PS: Like a lot I’ll be posting here, this idea of a systems thinking blog is a good, one and not original!  See the sidebar on right for some of my go-to systems thinking blogs and websites.