Tag Archives: systems change

Embracing Emergence

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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.

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Systems Change through Collaboration

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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.