Tag Archives: Complexity

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.


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?