The Book is out!

9 05 2010

The manuscript has changed significantly from what is posted here.

Visit the book’s new home at



7 11 2009

The voyage of discovery consists not in finding new lands but in seeing with new eyes.

–       Marcel Proust


This book is about finding the gifts and potential inherent in today’s unprecedented turmoil.

We live in extraordinary times.  With financial systems in turmoil, oil prices rising and falling, educational systems failing their students, whole industries like auto manufacturing and newspaper publishing collapsing, it is clear that dramatic change is happening whether we like it or not.  The pathways of the past no longer reliably guide us to understand the needs of the present, much less the future.  All around us, our social systems – organizations, communities, political systems, economic systems, educational systems, etc. – are crying out for radical shifts in how they operate. Leaders and change agents are struggling for a compass to guide them through the major changes they know are needed.  And since their tried and true ways of changing aren’t doing the job, change itself requires an alchemical twist.

This is no easy path.  Conflict and dissonance are squarely in the mix of change today. We’ve maintained an illusion of stability in our social systems for many years by suppressing a myriad of energies such as conflict, despair, fear, and rage, to say nothing of deep aspirations and individual and collective passions and dreams.  These feelings simmer just below the surface for many in our systems.  What will it take to address them and their material fallout as whole industries and social service systems stumble?

Success at such times draws from a different place within us, suggests different choices about who we engage with and how we interact, and even what we value as outcomes.  Choosing to work with upheaval is to seek possibility in the midst of uncertainty, to follow life’s energy, providing the means for working well – compassionately, creatively, and wisely — with whatever comes our way.

Take Chris, a client of mine.  He has accepted a complex and ambitious task: transforming the corrections system in the U.S.  His work reflects the heart of this challenge.  He is exercising leadership not by issuing orders but by engaging in open-ended conversational processes that many of his peers view as risky.  With a board asking legitimate and traditional questions, like “What are you doing?” and  “What do you expect to achieve?” Chris is providing untraditional and courageous responses, saying, “We don’t know.  We are making it up as we go along.  If we had the answers, why would we go to all this trouble?”  While keeping the skeptics at bay, Chris is blazing a path that is taking shape as he and a diverse group working with him walk it.  Together, using an “emergent change process” – a method for engaging the diverse and often conflicted people of a system in conversations that lead to unexpected and lasting shifts in perspective and behavior – they broke through into a powerful question to guide their next step — one that excited them all:

How do we reduce the prison population in half while maintaining public safely in eight years?

No one could have predicted this focus.  It arose out of interactions among deeply caring, knowledgeable, diverse individuals who came together in a nourishing environment around a question that mattered to them.


Is this book for you?

Are you facing upheaval, disturbance, dissonance in some aspect of your work or life?  If so, you’re in good company with automakers, school teachers, bankers, electronics manufacturers, information technology professionals, journalists, etc. who have lost jobs or experienced their industry faltering.  Have you noticed the rich diversity of capabilities, cultures, and aspirations among us?  Have you ever wondered how we can become more capable together than we are alone?  If you are looking for a source of courage, hope, and faith despite the dire warnings of collapse and struggling systems, this book offers a path to a livable future.

  • Engaging Emergence brings both compelling ideas and powerful actions for those who wish to increase their capacity for working with uncertainty, upheaval, dissonance, and change.
  • It is for leaders – both formal and informal – managers, officials, community leaders, opinion leaders, change practitioners, activists and change agents of all sorts – who face complex, important issues, and seek new alternatives for addressing them in these unprecedented times.
  • It provides insight into the intellectual, emotional, physical, and spiritual landscape that upheaval evokes in most of us, fostering compassion with ourselves and others.
  • It offers a framework for understanding the larger forces at play that create the sense of disruption most of us are experiencing and highlights individual and collective practices for working with those disruptions creatively.
  • And it focuses on what it takes to renew ourselves and our systems wisely, conserving what endures as we embrace what wasn’t possible before.

Whether you thrive on theory and having a map of the territory, prefer to focus on specifics you can practice, or favor the combination, this book seeks to equip you for working well with disruption by providing a practical perspective of the dynamics of emergent complexity through which order arises out of chaos. It gives this abstract but useful idea legs, grounding it in stories about how it shows up in our lives and offers guidance any of us can take when faced with the unknown.


Why does it matter?

Emergence is short-hand for “emergent complexity” – novel and increasingly complex order self-organizing out of disorder.  It isn’t just a metaphor for what we are experiencing. The disruptive shifts occurring in our systems are signs of the natural phenomenon of evolutionary emergence underway. While it is possible that today’s unprecedented conditions will lead to chaos and collapse, they also contain the seeds of emergent renewal, coalescing into a vibrant, inclusive society arising from creative interactions among diverse people facing intractable challenges.  In many ways, the path is counterintuitive, breaking with traditional thinking about change, including the ideas that it occurs top-down and that it follows an orderly plan, one step at a time.

Emergence offers no guarantees because we don’t control it and can’t fully predict how it will unfold.  However, it is possible to engage with it with some confidence that wholly unexpected and valuable breakthroughs will occur.  That said, it isn’t for the faint of heart.  Working with emergence involves some unfamiliar notions:

  • embracing mystery — questions in addition to answers;
  • following life-energy — intuition in addition to plans;
  • choosing possibility — dreams and aspirations, not just goals and objectives.

When Albert Einstein observed that enduring problems “cannot be solved at the level they were created”, he was pointing to emergence.  It is our best hope for meeting the complex challenges of our times.

Since emergence is always happening anyway – often in a manner that seriously disrupts what’s familiar – it behooves us to learn how to work with it creatively. As creative partners of emergence, we can ride its rapids into a world more alive, healthy, and interesting than we had before.  By doing so, we improve our collective capacity to meet the needs of individuals, our social systems, and our world.  Not only is our survival in an increasingly unpredictable world is at stake, but when viewed as an opportunity, openings for positive change arise all around us.


How My Perspective on Engaging Emergence Emerged

Since 1989, when I ran into whole system change processes, I have been on a quest to discover what makes possible the dramatic results they produce.  Some might call this a search for theory.  For me it has been simply a journey to comprehend what I’ve experienced in my change work.  I have searched for how to express what works in ways that are easily understood. I am convinced that making visible what is at the core of whole system change processes makes it possible to integrate their gifts widely into everyday interactions.  Because these processes bring us together with people viewed as “the other”, they are often transformative at many scales, in any system, no matter how broken it appears.  But let me back up a bit to say a ward about what shaped my views on this.

I’ve always been happiest when I’m learning, especially when it engages both my head and my heart.  That may explain how I ended up with an undergraduate degree in drama and an MBA with an emphasis in finance.  I spent the first 17 years of my working life in software; as a programmer, project manager, and ultimately managing systems development for a cellular phone company during the early days of the industry.  I also worked for a telephone company, a bank, and a consulting firm.  It was at U S WEST NewVector Group – the cellular phone company – that I was introduced to Total Quality Management (TQM), a system of tools, processes and practices that produce highly efficient and effective results. I was fortunate to have that introduction through Lorne Rubis, who understood the need to work with a whole system.  To develop not just technical skills but the ability to work with processes and people appealed to the part of me that found working with software wasn’t enough.

Total Quality provided a natural segue into whole systems work.  I spent a year bringing whole system change processes – approaches that engage the people of a system in addressing what mattered to them — into U S WEST, finding places to experiment.  It was a turning point in my work. I became part of an emerging movement or field of study and practice that had no name, in which practitioners were discovering how to address highly complex, often conflicted issues and bring forth breakthroughs.  In particular, we were uncovering increasingly elegant ways for engaging whole systems—all the stakeholders, all the parts of the organization or community—in shared exploration of a desired future that moved them to act.

Exhilarated by the work and worn out by the travel, I took a job as the director of quality for the information technology group of the Weyerhaeuser Company – a forest products company.  It gave me a chance to internalize all I’d learned, continuing to experiment with whole system change.  After 2 ½ years at Weyerhaeuser, I was ready for something new. I attended two back-to-back conferences mostly populated by independent consultants.  I thought, if they can do this, so can I.  Two weeks later, I gave my notice.

It was perfect timing.  The consulting market was in a slump and that gave me time to pursue my quest to understand what made whole system change practices effective. I was inspired to create The Change Handbook (1999) with Tom Devane, which explored 18 methodologies for engaging whole systems.  I discovered that when these practices were most effective, they made room for individuals and the system to be and do together, connected through communication practices that no only informed the mind, but touched the heart.

As the market for consulting improved, I was surprised to discover that in addition to corporate clients, I attracted government and nonprofits who wanted to engage civil society to find answers to complex questions.  It taught me a lot about what it takes to reach out into diverse communities to invite participation.  To further my own learning, I joined a band of friends I’d met through Open Space Technology – a process for self-organizing by inviting people to take responsibility for what they love in order to address complex, important issues.  Conceived of by Anne Stadler, a pivotal player in bringing Open Space into wider use, they had formed a learning community that met four times a year in Open Space.  Called Spirited Work, it was a diverse and evolving group of 60-100 people per session who explored the intersection of the material and spiritual world. Ideas like self-organizing systems, complex adaptive systems, spirit, intuition, became central, sparking an ongoing inquiry into what the sciences and tuning into spirit can teach us about change in human systems.

I found myself waiting less for clients to come my way and more willing to pursue what mattered to me.  Because of a racially based shooting in 2001, I joined three journalists to co-found Journalism that Matters (JTM), bringing my understanding of how stories shape our worldview. We have co-hosted thirteen gatherings bringing together people in the shifting landscape of news and information.  Many examples in this book are drawn from JTM as we work with an industry in the throes of emergence, which feels like the death and re-birth of an industry.

Freeing myself from waiting for clients also opened the way for hosting gatherings around topics that inspired me.  In 2003, I received four e-mails in one week with stories about using Open Space Technology in high-conflict zones.  Harrison Owen, creator of Open Space Technology, contacted me shortly after that offering to do a workshop called the Practice of Peace.  Along with my Spirited Work colleagues, we turned the workshop into a conference bringing together 130 people from 26 countries, including such high-conflict areas as Northern Ireland, Nigeria, Burundi, Bosnia, Haiti, and others.  It was life changing for many.  This highly diverse group experienced a shift in what it means to engage with “the other” that ripples to this day in projects like the Global Citizen Journey that led to a documentary of the Niger Delta called Sweet Crude.

In 2004, I received an invitation to a gathering on evolutionary emergence from my colleague and social philosopher, Tom Atlee.  He was working with Michael Dowd, an “evolutionary evangelist”.  Michael is a minister who spent eight years traveling the country with his science writer wife, Connie Barlow, preaching the gospel – the good news – of evolution.  Michael and Tom were planning an “Evolutionary Salon” – a gathering of evolutionary scientists, spiritual leaders, and social activists to explore the implications of evolutionary emergence on human systems.  They asked my help with the meeting.  How could I resist?  Ultimately, Michael, Tom and, I co-hosted four “Evolutionary Salons”, to explore what evolution has to teach us about change in social systems.  Tom and I also spent a year exploring this question in depth.  During that year, I kept asking myself What is the relationship between evolution and emergence?  I came to see emergence as the learning edge of evolution.  It is nature’s way of changing.  Tom and I developed a model of evolution that centered on the role of interaction[1]. It deepened my understanding of emergence and convinced me there was something important to share broadly by recasting what we learned into plain language.

Joined by Steven Cady, the second edition of The Change Handbook was published in 2007.  We expanded (as has the field) the book to include over 60 methodologies.  With Steve Cady and other whole system change practitioners, I co-hosted the Nexus for Change to explore the common essence of these practices.  I continue to host gatherings with my colleagues with names like the “Story Field Conference” and “Leadership in a Self-organizing World”, because they provide the practical basis for my work with emergence.

We are living in times of extremes – of climate, of financial upheaval, of political perspectives.  It is clear we need to act – and quickly – but how?  Change is far too important to leave solely in the hands of experts.  Indeed, the situations we face are complex beyond any one expert’s understanding.   Consciously engaging emergence can help us collectively face extremes and complexity in ways that produce broadly beneficial outcomes. Engaging emergence involves creating a “container” – a meaningful focus coupled with a nutrient space to work with the disturbance, dissonance, conflict and upheaval that accompany bringing together disparate agents.  It is a promising pathway to do something remarkable with both the dangers and opportunities.

Much of what needs to be known about emergence is already part of our experience, although most of us have not put the pieces together in a way we can effectively use it.  This book explores how we can make what we are learning about working with emergence visible so that more of us become conscious of what we already know and apply it in our work and lives.


What’s in the book?

Engaging Emergence turns upheaval into a promising path for change.  It provides a hopeful way to think about disturbance and some principles and practices for stepping into the chaos that envelops many of us today.

The Introduction frames foundational elements of change: a) coherence, or coming together; b) differentiation, or discerning distinctions; and c) their interaction – that put the pain of disruption in perspective.  It gives a taste of the potential for breakthrough that comes from embracing upheaval.

Chapter 1, What is Emergence? defines the term and offers some history of how our understanding of emergence has evolved.  It describes characteristics of emergence and elaborates on its nature.  It speaks to how emergence unfolds and ends with some some simple rules — operating principles — for consciously engaging with emergence.

Because emergence isn’t always sweetness and light, Chapter 2, What’s the Catch? names some of the idiosyncrasies that make working with emergence so challenging.  It provides the first suggestion for working with emergence: inquiring appreciatively by asking bold questions of possibility.

Chapters 3 through 5 dive more deeply into the foundational elements of change — differentiating, interacting, and coalescing — each offering a guiding question for engaging these different aspects of emergence.

Chapter 3:  Differentiating: How Do We Disrupt Coherence Compassionately? speaks to why we might want to disrupt; how it can be a valuable contribution.  It reflects on compassion as a way of disrupting and offers some insight into how to disrupt compassionately by elaborating on two of the operating principles offered in Chapter 1: welcome disturbance and pioneer!.

Chapter 4:  Interacting: How Do We Engage Disruption Creatively? turns the way we usually think about creative engagement on its ear, suggesting a freedom to act from our passions that contradicts what most of us have been taught about selfishness and service.  It uses the third operating principle from Chapter 1 – encourage random interactions – to talk about the how’s of engaging disruption creatively.

Chapter 5:  Coalescing: How Do We Renew Coherence Wisely? reflects on renewal and wisdom.  It elaborates on the last two operating principles discussed in Chapter 1 – simplify and seek meaning – as a means for wise renewal.

Since the effects of this natural cycle are not always immediately visible, Chapter 6.  Emergence in Context: Continuing to Evolve, looks at how emergence works with stability and incremental change as an evolutionary pattern over time.  It considers the frequently asked question of sustainability from an evolutionary perspective.

Chapter 7, The Feel of Emergence, tells the story of journalism’s upheaval through an emergent lens.  It uses the Journalism that Matters story to highlight the underlying dynamics that shape how we experience emergence – the disturbances that move us from habit, the interactions that differentiate and coalesce.

Chapter 8:  What’s Possible Now? envisions what could emerge as increasing numbers of people consciously work with the dynamics of change.  It encourages us to be compassionate disruptors, asking possibility-oriented questions and telling stories of what inspires us.  It invites us to creatively engage, interacting with people different from ourselves.  And it asks that we support wise renewal, seeking more nuanced perspectives that help us see ourselves in context.

The book ends with a Summary of Key Points that highlights some of the ideas it contains.


In a Nutshell

Here’s the marketing pitch: Working with emergence is fast, energy efficient, turns disruptions into opportunities, and leads to highly innovative results with broad support and resilience over time.  The catch:  You have to let go and rely on the people of the system to make it happen.


[1] Holman, Peggy and Tom Atlee. Integral Leadership Review, “Evolutionary Dynamics and Social Systems”  (Vol. VIII, No. 2, March 2008)

Introduction: From Breakdown to Breakthrough

7 11 2009

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

—Buckminster Fuller


What does it take to change our relationship to upheaval?

Change occurs when life energy calls forth something new.  Tensions bring aliveness.  In the old story of change, tensions and disturbances are to be avoided.  They are disruptive and unwelcome.  By suppressing them, they often become fixed, stuck.  Something goes dead.  We learn how to walk around these dead zones, sometimes forgetting they are there.  Such deadening leads to alienation, greed, intolerance, and inaction or violence, characteristics present in many of our current crises.

What if tensions were a source of curiosity, something to be embraced? This chapter offers an answer to this question with a framework of how change unfolds, a map for navigating disturbance, and some potential outcomes from engaging emergence.


Nature’s Way of Changing

Tension inevitably accompanies competing energies: male/female, mainstream/alternative, progressive/conservative.  What if rather than treating these tensions as win-lose conflicts, we treat them as partnerships, each with something to offer?   Framed in this way, such dynamic dances lend themselves to stability, but a resilient stability that is always in motion – alive.  Biology teaches us that when a system reaches equilibrium – static stability, it is dead.  Even body temperature, something ostensibly stable, is constantly in flux.  Chaos and complexity theories suggest that life and learning exist at the boundary between order and chaos.  Needless to say, following the life energy in upheaval requires a different quality of attention.  It develops an understanding that we can disagree AND be connected. In the story of emergent change upheaval plays a central role.

No matter the size or scope of the disturbance, a fundamental dynamic of change influences everything about it.  It is an eternal dance — chaos/order, convergence/divergence, coherence/differentiation — an ever-present, often dissonant interaction, between two natural forces as old as the universe itself.

Every system contains

  • a drive for coherence — for relationship, harmony, unity, bonding, community, shared sense, wholeness, coalescing – a coming together – convergence. Think of atoms forming molecules, people joining into communities, or our longing to contribute to something larger than ourselves.
  • a drive for differentiation – becoming separate, individuality, distinction, uniqueness – a breaking apart – divergence.  Think of teenagers separating from parents to find their identity, a co-worker striking off to freelance, or our longing to be accepted just as we are.



Figure 1.  Coherence-differentiation-coherence

These drives are constantly interacting – mutually influencing each other.  The next time you are with someone, notice the dance you do together.  What you say, what they say, what you do, what they do. The interaction is, in some way, bringing you closer together or sending you further apart.  The metaphor of the pendulum swing is often how we think of this dynamic. Sometimes it favors coherence, for example, cultivating a spirit of community.  Then, if pressure to conform in order to hold together the community becomes too intense, the pendulum swings towards favoring individuality.  Emergence occurs when, rather than another swing of the pendulum, something fundamental shifts the dynamic so that the tension resolves in a novel, sustainable, elegantly simple way.

For example, rather than believing that we have to choose between individuals and the collective, what if we assumed that we can experience both a spirit of community and a feeling that we, as individuals, matter?  What if rather than pressure to conform differences were welcomed as something that could deepen our sense of connection?  What would it take to shift our habitual responses so that when tensions show up, our first impulse is to discover the gifts that could emerge when opposites interact?  Such a breakthrough would re-define who we are as a social system at a higher-order of complexity.

Enter the pioneering work of emergent change practices.  They support discovery of this third way.  The dynamic dance shifts from the back and forth of a two-step to a jazzy spiral that mixes it up in a novel way.  We make room for whatever distinctions are present among us, interact in creatively productive ways, surfacing unexpected and deeper connections that help us coalesce into something new.  Understand this rhythm and you understand something essential about engaging emergence.


Disturbances in Our Systems

Tensions aren’t just between individuals.  Every social system involves give and take between people and the systems they’re in – families, organizations, industries, the environment.  The system influences us and we influence the system and both change gradually.  The community celebrates members leaving to pursue their dreams, carrying with them the cultural narrative that orders their lives.  The prodigal child returns to be embraced by the community, bringing home new ideas that find their way into the community’s fabric.

Much of the angst we face today is because, rather than a gradual evolution as forces interact, the interplay of coherence and differentiation seem to be moving towards their extremes.  We maintain our sense of coherence by drawing boundaries – physical or psychological – to protect those inside our neighborhoods or organizations and to keep the “other” out.  This desire to hold on to how things are, to shelter what we hold dear, is a natural response when our way of life seems threatened.  Ironically, an unintended consequence is a growing feeling of isolation that separates us from others.  After all, if someone holds a different view, it might disrupt my world so I better not let them in.  Or, I may have some doubts about my “tribe’s” stand on an issue and be afraid to voice it for fear of being rejected.  So I hold it in and feel a bit more alone as a result.

When people from the extremes of a particular issue come together to talk, they may come to respect each other but little movement on the issue occurs. When a broader cross-section, including the extremes gather, the nuanced views and doubts of those across the spectrum bring important pieces of the puzzle. Holding extreme positions is a natural but unintended consequence in a system of majority rule, where 51% wins.  To differentiate, party positions tend to move to the margins.  To join with those we most identify with, most of us compromise on our views.  When conditions remove the need to take an either/or position, a much broader and more complex spectrum of perspectives emerges.  Exploring that complexity allows us to uncover what is most essential to everyone present, often leading to innovative solutions that none could have created on our own.  It is a wake up call to the normal functioning of organizations like Congress, where each “side” gets to their answer and then compromises their way to a solution no one likes.

It isn’t just our political system that has embedded such either/or thinking.  This tension between coming together and moving apart also shows up in the squabbling between “silos” in organizations or conflicts between neighbors over seemingly trivial differences because we don’t really know who lives next door.  We pay for it through interactions laden with fear, anger and despair, which simultaneously divide us and influence us to stay silent in order to belong.

The net result is that our assumptions of how things work – our coherent cultural narrative – is no longer playing out as expected.  This narrative — the cultural myth, the larger than life story we tell ourselves about who we are – is in transition.  An increasing number of people no longer feel well served by it.  For example, in the U.S., a growing number of people no longer believe the American Dream is possible for their children or themselves.  When the story of who we are is no longer working, it is no wonder people engage in strategies to disrupt the existing order.

When stable systems that contain something we cherish break apart, it naturally brings grief, fear, and anger.  We feel it because we care.   Those who see potential in the breakdown, find excitement and hope.  This rich stew holds tremendous opportunity for a renaissance – literally a re-birth – of creative endeavor.  Particularly for those in mourning or denial, believing this is an act of faith.  Yet this dynamic is at play all around us.  I see it within journalism. Many in mainstream media — where assumptions about how news is gathered and shared, not to mention what constitutes news, are failing — are filled with fear, grief, and anger.  Those in new media, who are experimenting with novel forms of journalism, are excited and filled with possibility.  Whether facing loss or devising something new, caring people bring their life-energy to create something that matters.  In the rare meetings between these groups, generally stereotypes play out:  traditional journalists criticize the shallow fact checking and lack of quality standards of non-traditional sources.  New media people have little patience with the arrogant gate-keeping attitude of their legacy counterparts.  In contrast, when they meet using emergent change processes, these unlikely bedfellows are creating journalism anew.  From the inside out, a revitalization of time-honored journalistic values within a newly thriving participatory culture is in motion.  When given welcoming working conditions, legacy and new media people collaborate and create.  They dance a jazzy spiral rather than trip over their feet.  On its own, emergent change can go either way.  By understanding the forces at play, we can engage emergence and create conditions for breakthrough rather than breakdown.


A Map for Moving through Upheaval

I was invited to spend some time with a group of journalists who had just “had the year from hell”.  One third of them were in different jobs.  Some had taken buyouts, others were laying off staff.  They were almost all numb from the upheaval in their world.  I was asked to tell them something about emergence, about change that would help them make sense of their experience so that they could return to work more resilient, with more capacity to face the maelstrom they were in.  We called the session “Good Grief: The Pain and Possibility of Change”.

As systems fall apart – either figuratively, as we examine the elements in them, or literally, as the newspaper industry is doing – we can visit the pieces, noticing what still has meaning and what no longer serves.  Is journalism still about the public good?  Is speaking truth to power still part of its ethos?  What about giving voice to the voiceless?  What wasn’t present before that may have a place now?  How does the ability for online conversation or for anyone to publish change the equation?  Social networking supports communities of interest to form around subjects, like photography, or around geographies — local towns or neighborhoods — so that stories are not just reported but engage neighbors in conversation. And I use “conversation” in an expansive sense.  At root, it means “to turn together”.  While words are most common, any medium of interaction – poetry, prose, silence, visual arts, music, and movement can also be a form of conversation.

As elements from the past and present coalesce, through some unexpected leap, they will likely form a new journalism with properties none of us can predict.  For example, there is an emerging role of “community weaver” or host who cultivates a space for people to interact.  These many-to-many interactions are reshaping the nature of news.  Journalists get tips and information, discover subjects to investigate, and have access to local knowledge and expertise.  Neighbors converse, share opinions, doubts, expectations, ideas, and more.  The journalists are not outside as gatekeepers, but inside, a contributing part of the system.  This new journalism is still for the public good and because technology enables a dimension never before possible, it is taking a leap towards its own unique form.

Of course writing about systems falling apart is much easier than living through the experience!  Much of the challenge with emergence is the emotional roller coaster ride that often accompanies it.  If something we love shows signs of collapse, most of us try to hold on.  It is no wonder that embracing emergence is a challenge.  Yet, good reasons exist to do so.

As I worked with journalists and studied emergence, three questions for riding the waves of emergence came to me.  They captured the roller coaster dynamics at play, enabling us to face our situation constructively in the midst of turmoil.  They help us experience and offer compassion in disruption, engage creatively with other people and ideas from parts of the system we usually discount, and ultimately, they help a sense of personal and collective renewal arise as potentially wise answers surface. In other words, these questions support us to engage emergence by creating temporary shelter to consider the challenges of a rapidly changing system. They are:

  • How do we disrupt coherence compassionately?
  • How do we engage disruption creatively?
  • How do we renew coherence wisely?



Three Questions

Figure 2. Three questions for Engaging Emergence

What entry points allow us to disrupt established patterns, explore the diverse, often conflicting, aspects of the system, and discern the differences that make a difference so that harmony arises anew that serves us well?

These questions provide entry points into the dynamic dance between coherence and difference, helping to make visible and work with the forces of change underway.  They provide an interpretive map for engaging emergence, opening the way for some likely outcomes.


The Potential in Engaging Emergence

The more of us who know about turning disturbance into positive possibilities, the better.  As industries, such as autos and journalism, collapse and the past ceases to be a useful predictor of the future, many of us are seeking new ways to make sense of our world.  With President Obama’s election, change and how to do it is moving from the margins — geeks, scientists, and practitioners of edgy change processes – towards the center.

Increasing numbers of us face complex challenges and don’t know how to solve them.  Some of us feel stuck or overwhelmed by the accelerating urgency of the conflicts and challenges facing our organizations, communities, families, or even ourselves.  Some of us have too many choices and neither the time nor expertise to discern among them. Others of us see no choices at all.   Familiar strategies lead to dead ends, leaving many seeking alternatives.

Perhaps you are aware of emergent change practices – strategies that engage the diverse, often conflicted people of a system in addressing their own challenges — but aren’t quite ready to believe that such processes live up to the hype.  Or maybe you have never experienced a group of diverse people accomplishing something useful together and are highly skeptical that it is possible.  For many of us, it is a leap of faith to believe that disruption is actually an indicator of possibility, that it contains the seeds of an answer just as assuredly as an acorn has within it the potential for an oak tree.  Maybe you have experienced a success but don’t know why it worked or where to begin to do it again.

Consider an industry in upheaval: newspapers.  Readership has been falling for decades — a slow, steady decline.  I spoke with a newspaper executive in 2007 about their strategic priorities: reduce costs, increase revenues, and transform themselves.  They had a plan for cost reduction and ideas for increasing revenues.  They had no idea how to begin to change.  Two years later, nothing substantive has happened and rumors are they’ll be out of business by year’s end.  A 2008 article for Editor and Publisher exhorted executive management to “Turn and Face the Change — With Newspaper Industry in Crisis, ‘Everything’s on the Table’.”  It ends “’If this is a seminal crisis, then we have to do some seminal thinking. And it really does have to be radical.’”  Yet the most innovative idea in the body of the article was distinctly small-bore: print less frequently.  With the faltering economy, the increasing rate of decline has turned conundrum into catastrophe.  The 150-year-old Rocky Mountain News printed their final edition in February 2009.  Over the last nine years, roughly 25% of the industry’s news workforce has lost their jobs.  The decline was predictable, yet virtually every newspaper is choosing extinction over experimentation.

And they are not alone.  In a 2007 Fast Company article, “Change or Die” by Alan Deutschman, experts say that the root cause of the health crisis hasn’t changed for decades, and the medical establishment still can’t figure out what to do about it.  The resistance to change in the face of disruption is also true for individuals.  Deutschman cites research into change or die scenarios for bypass surgery patients and other serious diseases that can be mitigated by life style changes.  Even when we know we must change, there’s a 90% chance we won’t.


The Other 10%

In the spirit of turning upheaval into opportunity, I ask, What goes on in that 10% of cases who do change?  They have reframed disaster as possibility and learned to embrace the emotional roller coaster of change, finding fellowship in the process.  In other words, they engage emergence.

Over the last fifty years, a remarkable number of experiments have occurred in businesses, schools, communities and other social systems.  With names like Future Search, Appreciative Inquiry, Open Space Technology, Dynamic Facilitation, and the World Cafe[1], these emergent change processes have brought people together to radically improve their systems.  These efforts have taught us to value participation and that diversity and conflict used creatively lead to breakthroughs.  For example, a two-year conflict between the co-managers of the Pacific Northwest’s marine waterways – four Native American tribes and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) – found unexpected answers from their differences for the benefit of our coastal waters.

When these situations are handled well, everyone, including the change agent, is likely to be transformed in the process of surfacing what has been simmering for so long.   Whether it begins with a broken organization or the crumbling of the financial system, there has been a steady growth in experiments with change processes that engage the people of a system in creating their future together.  They engender skills and attitudes of resilience — “making stuff up” — when facing actual or potential conflict with some degree of confidence that something good will come of it.

After years of working with emergent change processes, practitioners know how to consistently generate some types of outcomes.  While specific results are unpredictable, types of outcomes that dependably occur when hospitable conditions are created include:

  • People come away stretched, refreshed, and inspired to pursue what matters to them, with increased courage to act.

Not only do participants come away with a myriad of new ideas, they find the courage to act on them, confident of mentors, supporters, and fans.  Journalism that Matters began in 2000, bringing together the system of journalism to create a new future.  At an early Journalism that Matters (JTM) gathering, a young woman, recently out of college, arrived with the seed of an idea – putting a human face on international reporting for U.S. audiences.  At the gathering, not only did she find support for the idea, she was coached by people with deep experience and offered entrée to their contacts.  Today, the Common Language Project is thriving, with multiple awards (

  • New and unlikely partnerships form.  When people who don’t normally meet come together, there can be sparks.  When a creative space makes room for their differences, the interactions are lively and productive.

At another JTM gathering, a young Asian woman from New York and an older Caucasian Californian man who had taken a buyout from his newspaper discovered a mutual interest in travel reporting.  They are now at work creating their version of the future of this genre.

  • Breakthrough projects surface, experiments that would never have arisen without the variety of interactions among diverse people.

    The Poynter Institute, an educational institution that serves mainstream media, was seeking a new direction as its traditional constituency is falling away.  As a co-host for a JTM gathering, they had a number of staff participating.  By listening deeply to what people were saying, and broadly to the range of voices present, they uncovered an idea that builds on the best of who they are and takes them into new territory: supporting the training needs of entrepreneurial journalists.  This is just one of a myriad of projects born at the gathering.  Which ones will succeed remains to be seen, but each will leave its experimenters a little wiser in the process.

  • Community is strengthened. People discover kindred spirits among a diverse mix of strangers, forming lasting connections. 

People experience themselves as part of a larger community.  This sense of kinship means confidence to act knowing their work serves not just themselves but a larger whole committed to a shared intention.  As one community blogger who attended a JTM confab put it, “I’m no longer alone.  I’ve discovered people asking similar questions, aspiring to a similar future for journalism.  Now I have friends I can bounce ideas off of, knowing we share a common cause.”

  • The culture itself begins to change with time and continued interaction.  A new narrative of who we are takes shape.

    Journalism that Matters has convened thirteen gatherings over nine years.  In the beginning, we hoped to discover new possibilities for a struggling field so that it could better serve democracy.  As the mainstream media, particularly newspapers, began failing, the work has become more vital.  We not only see an old story of journalism dying – and provide a place for it to be mourned — but we also see the glimmers of a new and vital story being born in which journalism is a conversation rather than a lecture and stories engage rather than debilitate.  Journalism that Matters has become a vibrant and open conversational space where innovations emerge.

Experiences such as these show that working with emergence can create not only great initiatives, but the energy to act, a sense of community, and a greater sense of the whole – a collectively intelligent system at work.

As more practitioners engage with emergent change processes, something fundamental is changing about who we are, what we are doing, how we are with each other, and perhaps, even, what it all means.  As all this changes, it is tearing apart familiar and for many, comfortable notions about how change works.  It is also bringing together unlikely bedfellows.  For example, as the deep divides in the U.S. political system have made it virtually impossible to work across the aisle, a nascent transpartisan movement is bringing together Republicans, Democrats, Greens, Libertarians, Independents, and others to use their differences creatively on behalf of the common good and cherished democratic principles.

The old story of change and how to do it, generally called “change management”, like many stories of our times, is no longer functioning well.  It is time for a new story that works creatively with complexity, conflict, and upheaval.  We need to activate that story in our organizations, communities, and the systems where we live and work – health care, education, politics, economics, and more.  As you read, consider your own next steps in engaging emergence to handle the disruptions you face.  A useful place to begin is by understanding more about the nature of emergence and what it has to teach us about turning upheaval into opportunity.


[1] See The Change Handbook, Berrett-Koehler, 2007.

1. What is Emergence?

7 11 2009

Clouds are not regular but are never a mess. But it is difficult for us to describe that kind of order.

– Alan Watts

Emergence is nature’s way of changing. It is the phenomenon by which increasingly complex order arises from disorder.  Change seems disorderly because we can’t discern meaningful patterns, just unpredictable interactions that make no sense.  But order is accessible, like potential energy, waiting for diverse people facing intractable challenges to uncover and implement ideas that none could have predicted or accomplished on their own. Emergence can’t be forced but it can be fostered.

This chapter grounds you in a basic understanding of what emergence is, what it looks like, what is known about how it occurs, and what we are learning about how to engage it.   Making sense of a situation is tough when you’re in the midst of the storm.  By understanding something about how nature changes gleaned from the work of scientists and others, we are much better equipped to handle whatever challenges we face in the moment.


Defining Emergence

For most of us, the notion of emergence is tough to grasp because the concept is just entering our collective consciousness.  When something new arises, we have no simple, short-hand language for it.  Whatever words we try seem like jargon. So we stumble with words, images, and analogies to communicate this whiff in the air that we can barely smell.  We know it exists because something does not fit easily into what we already know.  It disrupts, creates dissonance.

Simply put, emergence is order arising out of chaos.  What we call chaos is random interactions among disparate entities in a given context.   Chaos contains no clear patterns or rules of interaction.  Emergent order arises when a novel, more complex system forms, often in an unexpected, almost magical leap.  In other words, emergence produces novel systems — coherent interactions among entities following basic operating principles.  Science writer, Steven Johnson, puts it this way: “Agents residing on one scale start producing behavior that lies one scale above them: ants create colonies; urbanites create neighborhoods; simple pattern-recognition software learns how to recommend new books.” (Johnson, 2001)[1] Emergence in human systems has produced new technologies, towns, democracy, and some would say consciousness.


A Short History of Emergence

If we want to engage emergence, consciously apply what we know about its patterns, it helps to understand the origins of emergence.  While much of the work has come through evolutionary scientists, our understanding of emergence is itself an emergent phenomenon, unfolding as people from a variety of disciplines struggled to explain this common and mysterious experience of leaps in understanding.  They have been described in virtually every field, such as medicine, history, biology, social science; anywhere someone has stopped to consider how breakthroughs occur.

Scientist Peter Corning offers a brilliant essay[2] on emergence, pulling together a multitude of sources to provide both a history and evolution in perspectives on this subject.  I have paraphrased some highlights:

Emergence has come in and out of favor since 1875.  According to philosopher David Blitz, the term was coined by the pioneer psychologist G. H. Lewes, writing “…there is a co-operation of things of unlike kinds.  The emergent is unlike its components …and it cannot be reduced to their sum or their difference.”  By the 1920’s, the ideas of emergence fell into disfavor under the onslaught of analysis as the best means to make sense of our world.  As interest in complexity science and the development of non-linear mathematical tools has grown, providing the means to model complex, dynamic interactions, the ideas of emergence – how whole systems evolve has revived.

Emergence is intimately tied to studies of evolution. Herbert Spencer, an English philosopher and contemporary of Darwin, described emergence as:  “an inherent, energy-driven trend in evolution toward new levels of organization.”  It is the sudden changes in evolution – the move from ocean to land, from ape to human.

When experts from different fields talked with peers about this odd phenomenon of some unexpected leap in their work, order arising out of chaos, it seemed isolated, elusive.  They didn’t have the word “emergence” to describe it.

The Santa Fe Institute was born out of a hunch that brought together biologists, cosmologists, physicists, economists and others to explore these odd notions all pointing in similar directions.  Though the language of their disciplines was different, it was close enough that they knew they were on to something.  They were no longer alone with their questions but found others exploring the same edges.

As they met, they started to give language and a name to their experience: emergent complexity, emergence for short.  They called it into being, midwived its birth.  While it has aspects of the familiar – mom’s nose, dad’s eyes — it is its own being, with properties that didn’t exist in its parts.  It isn’t just the integration of the best of the past and best of what’s new.  It is something more – and different.  Baby’s one-of-a-kind face.


Evolving Wholes

In a sense, emergence is a perspective that tracks the evolution of systems – how wholes change over time.  Single cell organisms increase in complexity and multi-cellular creatures emerge. Humans have an emergent capacity of self-consciousness and are now tracking evolution.  And our evolution seems to be moving towards increasing self-management.  Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States indirectly tells this story.  Zinn paints a depressing picture of the forces of wealth and power crushing the rise of ordinary people throughout history.  Yet, in stepping back from his account, it is clear that our social systems are slowly, steadily moving towards increasing numbers of people taking responsibility for the choices that affect their lives.

One other aspect of emergence: scientists distinguish between weak and strong emergence are different.  Weak emergence describes new properties arising in a system.  A baby is wholly unique from its parents, yet is basically predictable in form.  Strong emergence occurs when a novel form arises that was completely unpredictable.  It has qualities that are not deducible even in principle from the properties of the individual agents.  They can’t easily be traced to the system’s components or their interactions.  With strong emergence, the rules or tenets that shaped a system become unstable, creating a chaotic period.  “Rules” doesn’t quite capture the situation.  Rules imply an external authority, not the internal operating principles that guide individual agents.

In weak emergence, rules or operating principles act as the authority, providing the context for the system to function.  They eliminate the need for someone in charge.  The upheaval of strong emergence occurs, in part, because the operating principles break down.  In human systems, perhaps a situation’s complexity surpasses the capacity of traditional hierarchies to address the situation.  So who makes up and enforces new rules?  In essence, they emerge.  Through trial and error, as the diverse individuals of the system interact around an intention, guiding tenets arise that shape a system anew.  This is the dynamic at the heart of emergent change processes, enabling them to surface innovative solutions in a wide range of settings – solutions to MRSA in hospitals, schools that graduate and send to college the children pronounced unteachable.  This strong form gives emergence its reputation for unnerving leaps-of-faith.

As the notion of emergence makes space for uncertainty, it begins to evoke new ways to think about change.  Our traditional story does not disappear, rather it expands into a larger context:

(in no particular order)

Traditional Ideas about Change Emerging Ideas about Change
Difference and dissonance as problem Diversity and dissonance as resource, with problems inviting exploration
Restrain, resist disturbance Welcome and use disturbance in a creative dance with order
Focus on the predictable, controllable Focus on the mysterious, surprising from a foundation that’s understood
Ensure no surprises Experiment, learning from surprises
Focus on outcomes Focus on intentions, hold outcomes lightly
Focus on the form Focus on the unfolding, working with forms as they arise and dissipate
Hierarchy Networks containing natural, often fluid hierarchies
Charismatic leadership Shared, emergent, flexible leadership
Top-down or bottom-up Multi-directional
Work solo Work in community and solo, bringing our unique gifts
Pay attention to the mainstream Pay attention to the dance between the mainstream and the margins
Build/Construct/Manage Invite/Open/Support
Follow the plan Follow the energy, using the plan as useful information
Manufacture Midwife and cultivate
Assemble the parts Interactions among the parts form a novel whole
Design Processes Cultivate nutrient environments and design processes
Handle logistics Cultivate hospitable conditions, including logistics
Strive for Sustainability Sustainability exists in a dance of dynamic tensions
Incremental shifts Periodic leaps and incremental shifts
Classical Jazz/improvisation, valuing classical skills and intentions
Declare/Advocate Inquire/Explore, using what is at the heart of your advocacy as a resource to the exploration


Steven Johnson speaks of how our understanding of emergence has evolved.  In the initial phase, seekers grappled with ideas of self-organization without having language to describe something they could sense was there.  This phase was much like the surprise that indigenous people experienced when Columbus’ sailing ships landed.  The ships’ shapes had no meaning for them because they were outside of their world-view.[3] As language emerged – complexity, self-organization, complex adaptive systems – a second phase of understanding emergence began in which people started coming together across disciplines to understand the nature of this pattern.  The Sante Fe Institute was central to this phase.  Sometime during the 1990’s, we entered a third phase in which we “stopped analyzing emergence and started creating it.” (Johnson, 2001)[4] This book is all about what it takes to create conditions for “applied emergence” – consciously working with the dynamics of emergent complexity so that the outcomes are more life serving.

Characteristics of Emergence

Emergent systems increase order despite the lack of command and central control[5].  In other words, useful things happen with no one in charge.  They are open systems that extract information and order out of their environment, bringing coherence into increasingly complex forms.  This occurs through some alchemy among diversity, organization, and connectivity[6].  In human emergent change processes, this is accomplished by bringing together diverse people, setting clear intentions, creating hospitable conditions, and engaging them in interactions that foster a variety of connections.  Think of it as an extended cocktail party with a purpose.

While the conversation continues in the scientific community, scientists generally agree on these qualities of emergence:

  • radical novelty — at each level of complexity entirely new properties appear (e.g., from autocracy- rule by one person with unlimited power to democracy – government in which the people are the ultimate source of political power)
  • coherence – a system of interactions having a sufficiently persistent stable form over time that we name it (e.g., elephant, biosphere, Sally, agreement)
  • “wholeness” – not just the sum of its parts, but also different and irreducible from its parts (e.g., humans are more than the composition of lots of cells)
  • dynamic – always in process, continuing to evolve (e.g., the US Constitution and its amendments)
  • downward causation – the system organizing and shaping the behavior of the parts (e.g., roads determine where we drive)

The phrase the “whole is greater than the sum of the parts” captures key aspects of these ideas.  Birds flock, sand forms dunes, and humans create societies.  Each of these pairs names related but distinct systems, one composed of, influenced by, but different from its mate.

As with all change, emergence occurs through interactions of diverse agents as they come together and break apart to form a novel system.  The two most frequently cited dynamics are:

  • No one is in charge. No conductor is orchestrating orderly activity.  (e.g., spontaneous responses to crises like hurricane Katrina)
  • Simple rules engender complex behavior.  Randomness becomes coherent as individuals, each following a few basic tenets, interact with their neighbors.  (e.g., birds flock, traffic flows)

Twelve step programs are a great example of these ideas at work.  Most participants I’ve met are fiercely independent people, not prone to following those in authority.  Yet with the guidance offered through twelve statements, these programs are highly complex, world-wide organizations that have influenced the lives of millions.

No doubt the simplicity of these two dynamics may leave many senior executives and government agency heads skeptical.  No one is in charge?  Not likely.  Isn’t it interesting that we use the word “order” as a term for issuing instructions?  What happens when order comes from the top rather than arising from within?  If they are not congruent with the existing functions of the system, they disturb.  Sometimes that disturbance is useful and moves a system in novel directions.  And sometimes it produces entirely unexpected – emergent – outcomes.  Further, if managers say, “we’re too complex for simple rules”, chances are they’re conflating complicated and complex.  Humans often find ways to make things far more complicated than they need to be.  Anyone who has filled out a form in a bureaucracy knows the truth of this.  Complexity is entirely different. Complexity has elegance; it is as simple as possible but no simpler.

Of all the means of accomplishing a given purpose, emergent complexity engenders the most energy efficient approach. Total Quality contains this lesson: if something gets fixed by adding another step, chances are it added a complication and missed the opportunity for a solution that uncovers simplicity in the complexity. Or consider the different cost of achieving agreement between conflicted parties through conversation versus war.

How Does Novelty Emerge?

Two dynamics shape how emergent phenomena arise, how systems learn and adapt.  Increasingly complex and novel forms emerge from interactions among autonomous, diverse agents through:

  • Feedback among neighboring agents; and
  • Clustering as like finds like.

Feedback. Systems grow and self-regulate through feedback loops – dynamics through which output from one interaction influences the next interaction.  We talk to a neighbor, share some of it with our friends and suddenly everyone in town knows Sally had a new baby.

Disruptions usually signal a focus on the symptoms, the visible outcomes. A fight breaks out and we concentrate on who is winning and losing.  What about the interactions that produce those outcomes?  What caused the fight?  How else might the dispute have been resolved?  Cybernetic systems theory uses feedback loops to understand this important way interactions influence each other.  It names two types of feedback loops:  reinforcing and balancing loops.

Perhaps this is how the fight erupted:  I speak my mind.  It pushes your buttons, you get mad and push back.  Even if I hadn’t intended to irritate you, now I’m on the defensive and to protect myself, I attack back.  And things escalate.  This is a reinforcing feedback loop, in which the output reinforces an action in the same general direction – sometimes towards more, sometimes towards less.  They are sometime called vicious or, when in a healthy direction, virtuous cycles.

Feedback also comes through balancing feedback loops, in which opposite forces responsively interact, as needed, to counter each other.  The separation of powers among the executive, legislative, and judiciary branches of government are a form of balancing loop, each keeping the other in check.  In healthy systems, those that continually learn and adapt, reinforcing loops are periodically balanced by interactions that interrupt their perpetual growth.  Without checks we get climate change, economic meltdowns, and cancer.

Clustering. As diverse agents interact, feeding back to each other, like attracts like and some individual agents bond around a shared characteristic.  We both like the same candidate for office.  Small groups begin to form: parents advocating a new style of school.  With continued interaction, small groups form larger groups or networks that are increasingly complex, yet with something in common that binds them together.  Parents, teachers, and small businesses for new schools.  At some point, a complex and stable cluster arises that has unique properties unlike its individual elements – a national movement for charter schools.  Something novel has emerged.

Humans are great at pattern matching – clustering like with like.  We even do it unconsciously.  We see it indirectly in how towns and cities form –Asian districts in San Francisco, New York, Seattle; all of the auto dealerships in the same part of town.  As maps of the Internet are created, clusters of highly interconnected sites are starting to appear.  We are experiencing emergence in process.  It is how we learn, adapt, and grow.  Through our increasingly sophisticated technology, we can track the complexity of networks forming, whether the neural networks of the brain, the ecosystems of nature, or social structures in cultures.  New tools that let us see complexity forming is re-invigorating interest in the idea of emergence.  We finally have the means to study how life unfolds over time and space.

North American Internet Backbone

Figure 1. North America’s Internet Backbone[7]

The Nature of Emergence

While emergence is a natural phenomenon, we don’t always think of it as a positive experience.  Erupting volcanoes, crashing meteorites, wars, and other such events have brought about emergent change, such as new species or cultures to fill the void left by those made extinct.  Wars can leave exciting offspring of novel, higher-order systems.  The League of Nations and United Nations were unprecedented social innovations from their respective world wars. Emergence is always happening; if we don’t work with it, it will work us over. So emergence has a dark side. In human systems, it will likely show itself when strong emotions are ignored or suppressed for too long.

Still, people often speak of a magical quality to emergence, in part, because it is impossible to predetermine outcomes. It can’t be manufactured.  It is filled with surprises, frequently producing unexpected results. It often arises by drawing from individual and collective intuition.  It tends to be fueled by strong emotions – whether excitement, longing, anger, fear, or grief.  And it rarely follows a logical, orderly path. It feels much more like a leap of faith.

When sponsors experience an emergent change process for the first time, they often don’t sleep well the last night before it ends.  They look for signs of the answers they seek in the day’s work and find none.  I can hear their unspoken thoughts:  “Will I have wasted money and the time of a group of caring, committed people?”  Yet at the end of the gathering, I often hear a different message, as they giddily exclaim, “I never could have imagined this great result!”

This points to a key insight that makes working with emergence possible:  Just because specific outcomes are unpredictable, doesn’t make working with emergence impossible. It just requires shifting attention from doing something to creating conditions for something to emerge.  The primary work is no longer “taking charge”, acting from certainty.  It is hosting, creating a “container” for something novel to happen.  With clear intentions and a well-set context – framing what is relevant to the situation, including the physical, emotional, intellectual, and even spiritual aspects – we can engage creatively with emergence and generate terrific results. An intention provides direction, invokes an aspiration, without tying it to specific results.  This distinction between intentions and outcomes helps handle some of the anxiety many of us feel when facing the unknown.


How Do We Engage Emergence?

Interesting abstractions, but what does all this say about turning disruptions into opportunities?

These ideas point to some useful considerations for facing upheaval. They just need some translation to apply them. Think of them as operating principles – simple rules – for engaging emergence.

Welcome disturbance. For starters, isn’t it useful to know that order actually can arise out of chaos?  In fact, when faced with seemingly intractable problems, conflicts, or differences, disruption is a great indicator that it is time to consciously engage emergence, because something new is trying to surface.  Knowing this provides a reason for optimism, not to mention untying a knot or two in one’s gut.  It means that rather than throwing up your hands not knowing what to do, you can apply practices that lead to higher-order solutions that are radically novel, coherent, persistent, whole, dynamic and positively influence individual behavior.

With practice, it becomes easier to see opportunity in disruption, to choose possibility in the face of chaos and disruption. By doing so, opportunities are more likely to surface out of or instead of disaster.  In other words, attitude matters.  Focusing on possibilities is a choice.  Isn’t that useful to realize when faced with challenges that stop us in our tracks? The angst that generally accompanies upheaval is life-energy laden with potential.  When focused on possibility, it flows with excitement.

Pioneer! Seek new directions. Think different.  Act courageously.  If you are holding on, let go.  If you are going with the flow, step out of the stream.  If you are focused on the inside, see what’s happening outside.  If you are working downstream, check out what’s going on upstream.  It takes courage to pioneer, to step away from the familiar interactions that define our habits and make up our lives.

Pioneering involves breaking habits, doing the unexpected, breaking a well-worn feedback look.  This in no way implies habits are bad.  In fact, habits are useful!  Remember learning to drive a car?  It took tremendous energy and concentration.  Once we learn the pattern – once it became a habit — we could focus our energy elsewhere.  Reliability has value, so arbitrarily doing the unexpected is less than desirable.

Still, when change is needed, habits can get in the way.  Healthy change requires dynamic tension between our habits and our pioneering spirit.  Without habit, function can’t be sustained.  But without disturbance, no learning or adaptation happens.  We need the familiar and the strange, the comfort of repetition and habit, as well as the excitement and mystery of invention.

The art is in knowing when to disrupt — and how – and when to stay with the flow.  The environment is actually quite good at giving us signals.  We just need to listen and follow the energy.  When all is harmonious, proceed.  When it is dissonant, interrupt the habitual with something counter-intuitive. That said, sensors matter.  Who and what we listen to matters.  How diverse are the perspectives we hear?  People on the front line have access to different information than those in the boardroom.  How many ways are we tuning in?  There’s what we see, hear, taste, touch, and smell as well as subtle senses of intuition and other ways of knowing.  And signals at a scale beyond our frame of reference made visible via computers.  Delays in understanding climate change’s signals challenge our ability to address its root causes.  To do so requires massive changes of behavior.  So how to begin?

Where there’s disturbance, there’s opportunity.  And it’s a good bet that considering a response that takes us outside our usual habits may be just the thing.  Here’s a radical way of thinking differently about a signal: What if we viewed a terrorist attack as the system shouting at us with a message that actually is useful to our well-being?  While not an excuse for vicious acts, given the reality, if terrorism is a voice of the system with something to tell us, what might it be?

Engaging emergence develops flexibility, responsiveness, and resilience to ask such questions and hear the answers because it teaches us to see disruptions as possibilities.  It also helps us learn to disrupt the status quo compassionately, since tuning in to signals others may not see may mean acting in unexpected ways unsettling to others.

A state agency I worked with wished to engage the public in setting its strategic direction.  They wanted to go well beyond a one-way public input process.  Their board of advisors worried that individual agendas would prevail: rural versus urban, big versus small, eastside versus westside.  If they opened the way for individual expression, what would prevent the process from becoming a free-for-all, everyone battling it out for themselves?  Ultimately, they engaged several thousand people.  They did it because they knew business as usual would produce more of the same.  By the end of the first of eighteen gatherings they were so thrilled with the spirit of cooperation that they completely forgot they’d ever been afraid.

Encourage random encounters. Remember the idea that no one is in charge?  This typical characterization misses an exciting truth about emergence.  What if rather than no one is in charge, this quality was described as everyone is in charge, including the overall system?

Have you ever played soccer?  It is fluid, ebbing and flowing, highly interdependent and cooperative.  It requires trust and respect.  Everyone matters. And the flow of the ball, the state of the field, the sounds of the crowd, all play a role in how it unfolds.

While this metaphor of everyone in charge is closer to the truth than no one in charge, it still isn’t quite on the mark.  This may be the conundrum at the heart of emergence that frustrates many and tickles some:  we don’t know which interactions or mix of interactions among diverse agents in what sequence catalyze emergent change.  Perhaps there will be a time when that is predictable, but not today.  An ancient rabbinic teaching story states that since we can’t recognize the messiah in advance, it’s a good idea to assume that it could be anyone.  What a life-affirming stand! No matter what we plan, the magic of emergence arises from the unlikely encounters among us.  And it could be anyone of us who makes the difference, a difference then magnified and evolved by the rest of us.

Let me hasten to say that trust, respect, and cooperation are not necessary preconditions, though they are frequent outcomes.  In fact, conflict, distrust, people locked in their positions are all sources of life-energy for consciously engaging emergence.  If your only experience of conversation among people with conflicting perspectives is that it disintegrates into a shouting match, then encouraging random encounters is likely to cause heartburn.  That’s where good hosting – clear intention and cultivating a productive container — set the stage for something different, and where knowing how to disrupt compassionately opens the way for creative engagement, in which passionately held differences fuel invention, allowing Intention to draw change towards us.

At a Journalism that Matters gathering focused on news literacy, we brought together a mix of mainstream journalists, academics, students, and media literacy activists.  We discovered that the term “news literacy” was a trigger; a term invented by recently arrived mainstream media people who seemingly ignored the long-time work of media literacy activists.  As the group interacted, largely through an agenda they set themselves, the mood began to shift as ideas coalesced.  By the end, the group created a consensus statement all were willing to sign:

News surrounds us and as such news literacy is an essential life skill for everyone. To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson: Knowledge of current issues is essential to informed citizenship in a democracy. We are concerned about the effects of media messages on children and others. Modern participatory culture makes every citizen a potential creator of news in social media, blogs, email and the web. We believe a literate citizen understands the purposes, processes and economics of news.

Therefore, it is time for American education to include the acquisition of 21st-century, critical-thinking skills for analyzing and judging the reliability of news, differentiating among facts, opinions and assertions in the media we create and distribute. News literacy standards can be research based in multiple content areas. They can be taught most effectively in cross-curricular, inquiry-based formats at all grade levels. It is a necessary component for literacy in contemporary society.

The group’s unguided interactions had generated a more inclusive, powerful way to frame the ideas and possibilities that had brought them all together.


Simplify. Simplicity is design’s holy grail: aesthetically pleasing, energy efficient, broadly effective.  And when we’re dealing with change in complex systems, as appealing as it would be to tell a system what to do, where do you begin?  Imagine commanding the health care system to be accessible and affordable.  Even a CEO who gives an order that isn’t congruent with expectations may wait while to see it executed.  Certainly newspaper executives are learning the painful truth that they are not in charge!  Changing systems, no matter the scale – families, work groups, organizations, economies, even our own behavior – is indirect.  Emergent dynamics, with its insights into the role of simple rules offers some guidance on how to approach it.

Emergence involves order arising as individual agents follow simple rules or organizing assumptions: Drive on the right side of the road (or the left if you’re in the U.K); raise your hand and wait to be called on to speak.  Rules provide structure and boundaries. To a surprising extent we don’t have to articulate the rules.  As we seek simplicity, we find that initial conditions tell us a lot about the current guiding assumptions.  Think how differently we feel when we walk into a softly lit room, the scent of flowers present and music playing quietly in the background.  Now think about entering a sterile meeting room with chairs all facing the front of the room.  With no explanation, each situation sets up a different emotional response and tells us a lot about what is expected of us.   Now that’s simplicity.

Given the complexity of human beings, how can we possibly know what sort of rules will create the desired changes to a system? Emergent change practitioners have been experimenting for more than fifty years to uncover answers. Finding simplicity is an art of discovery, continually doing one less thing while seeking the heart of the matter.  Getting to fundamentals is vital: What is our purpose in seeking change?  Who needs to be involved?  How do we approach it?  Finding such answers is still far more art than science, and yet we do have some knowledge.  We know, for example, that most of us take our cues from a mix of the environment, what others are doing, and our internal guidance system — shaped by our consciousness and our habits.

Those who wish to change a system have access to the environment, their own behavior, and their own internal guidance system.  These elements provide all we need to begin.  Starting within, tuning in to our own motivations, aspirations, dreams for the system opens the way to an initial clarity that shapes our approach.  Inviting others into the inquiry allows a guiding intention to emerge.  Our work becomes that of a good host, sharing an intention for coming together and cultivating an environment in which what you do is congruent with the expectations you set.

The environment speaks volumes about who and what are welcome.  It is rife with implicit rules that shape individual behavior.  The art of hosting involves creating  “containers” – energetic and psychic spaces that support people in learning and working well together with the resilience to be present with the chaos of discovery.

It may seem remarkable, but the simple elegance of a clear focus and thoughtfully prepared container sets the stage for engaging emergence.  Of course, finding a clear focus can involve continually stripping away many layers of complexity. Oliver Wendell Holmes said: “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”  We don’t want to oversimplify in ways that deny the real complexity we’re dealing with.  But we do want to find simplicity that gets right to the heart of the matter, that taps fundamental truths underlying the complexity we face.

When Journalism that Matters began, it was four people, each with slightly different needs and motives in conversation about something to do with changing journalism.  As we got to know each other, the aspects that mattered most began to surface:  What is the nature of stories that serve the public good?  How can journalism thrive as audience falls away?  How will changes in technology affect the field? We struggled for a name, ultimately settling for Saving Journalism.  And then September 11, 2001 happened.  We were planning our first event five weeks later at the national conference of the Associated Press Managing Editors (APME).  September 11 stripped away all but what was most important to us.  When we met a few weeks after that fateful day to prepare for our session, we found that the simple truth was that we were committed to Journalism that Matters.  This name has continued to guide our intentions, keeping us focused and energized, and attracting others who care.

Seek meaning. Have faith that meaning arises.  Be receptive.  Suspend the desire for closure. Given time to reflect, humans have a natural capacity for recognizing patterns, discovering coherence where none previously existed. But which patterns matter?  Engaging emergence hones the skill of surfacing the ones with legs.  For many, entering the chaos, the mystery, the unknown of emergence is akin to experiencing a dark night of the soul.  Why do it without believing it will lead to something useful…more than useful, something deeply meaningful?

When emergent change practitioners bring together diverse, conflicted groups around subjects that matter to them, it is like watching evolution through time-lapse photography.   People may enter angry or confused, full of distrust, holding firm to a position.  Good hosting creates conditions that encourage authentic encounters.  Perhaps a conversation happens among a small, random cluster. Cued by implicit or explicit tenets that welcome different perspectives, the exchanges grow in civility.  Participants become more curious about each other.   As they open up, they may share what they love or what hurts, what makes them angry, what they fear.  Once emptied, they speak of what they long for, their hopes and dreams.

At some point, there’s laughter – a sign that the energy shifted.  It is like a chemical phase transition, from ice to water.  It takes less energy to tend the whole as people begin taking responsibility for their own behavior.  They even start caring for each other. Groups separate and re-form, each member carrying seeds of their encounters, many permanently changed by the experience.  They mingle with others and something remarkable begins to happen.  They connect with others around a few key ideas.  They might even discover they like each other, or at least respect each other.   They begin to notice that the same themes are surfacing everywhere.  Before they know it, without ever attempting to reach widespread agreement, a sense of commitment to a shared whole, of being a social body with common cause, while maintaining each person’s distinctiveness arises.  It is a network growing in real-time.  No one orchestrates who connects with whom.  It is just neighbors interacting around what they find meaningful.  Some feel so attracted to the cause that they become hubs in a network.  As they do so, they attract others to them, each of whom has their own connections.  And then they connect with another hub and something coalesces into a recognizable pattern with hundreds, thousands, perhaps even millions of people involved.  Spirit is renewed, wisdom emerges that was wholly unpredictable.  Some deep truth is re-ignited, yet the form is novel, elegant, dynamic, yet stable, more complex, and more inclusive.  Such is the potential when engaging emergence.

Consider the implications when technologies like Twitter support spontaneously organizing crowds with a cause.  Retrospectively, Twitter may be cited as the reason protests following Iran’s June 2009 election did not go the way Tiananmen Square did two decades earlier.   Activists on the ground in Tehran used Twitter to interact with each other and with the world outside, pressuring a repressive regime from within and without.  They are in a life and death struggle for the soul of a nation.  Whatever happens in Iran, the trajectory of such events is clear: as increasingly complex order is enabled by social network technologies, governments that don’t reflect the voice of the people will have a tough time maintaining control.

When people experience emergence, they are transformed in some way.  They may have more faith in themselves or more compassion for others.  They are likely to be more resilient, more tolerant of the unknown.  They become a living part of a larger whole, a feeling difficult to forget and almost impossible to describe.  Once having experienced the magic, they may go seeking it again.  If this sounds a bit too mystical, I invite you to try it.  Because with repetition, while it may become familiar, when something you have faith in can happen routinely, I doubt you will take it for granted.

We are in the midst of a remarkable shift.  Everywhere I turn, individuals, companies, and social systems, like health care, are struggling to survive.  At whatever scale you are working – families, organizations, social systems, random interactions going on in all of these systems matter.  None of us know which will be the catalyzing events that help us see that we are changing, maturing, becoming a more conscious social organism.

Our attention shapes the nature of what emerges by naming what is unfolding.  Did the industrial revolution – an emergent stage of social evolution – exist before it was named?  What do we call the era we are in now?  We seem to be on the verge of something with even greater self-organizing tendencies.  It doesn’t yet have a name to catalyze it.  For now, and with great hope, I call it a renewal.  This act of naming is a pattern of emergent change – as something is named, it increases its potential to be realized, so it makes sense to choose a possibility-filled name.

The story of emergence is still early in its unfolding. We have struggled with its existence, described some of its properties and given it a name.  We are in the earliest of stages in understanding what it means to social systems – organizations, communities, and sectors such as politics, heath care, education – and how to apply it to support positive changes and deep transformation.

In social systems, when life-energy flows, it moves us toward possibilities that serve enduring needs, intentions and values.  Forms change, conserving essential truths while bringing forth novelty that wasn’t possible before; innovations serving those enduring needs, intentions, and values more fully.  I see this in journalism, as traditional values of accuracy and transparency make their way into the blogosphere.

Emergence is a process – a continual, never-ending unfolding, a verb.  It places as much emphasis on interactions as it does on the elements interacting.  Most of us focus on what we can observe – the animal, the project outcome, the noun.  Emergence involves paying attention to what is happening – the disturbance when two people interact, the stranger arriving with different cultural assumptions that ripple through the organization or community.  Emergence is a product of interactions among diverse entities.  And since interactions don’t exist in a vacuum, the nature of the context also matters.  That is why just bringing diverse people together won’t necessarily lead to a promising outcome.  The initial conditions that set the context – how the invitation is issued, the quality of welcome, the questions posed, the physical space – all influence whether a fight breaks out or warm, unexpected partnerships form.

In truth, working with emergence can be a bit like befriending Kokopelli, Loki, or some other mischievous spirit.  And working with a trickster always has some catches.


[1] Johnson, Steven.  Emergence: The Connected Lives of ants, brains, cities, and software.  New York: Scribner, 2001, p. 18.

[2] Corning, Peter.  “The Re-emergence of ‘Emergence’: A Venerable Concept in Search of a Theory”, Complexity, 2002.

[3] Zinn, Howard.  A People’s History of the United States.  New York: HarperCollins, 2003.

[4] Johnson, pg. 21.

[5] Emergence,

[6] Emergence,

[7] Ever imagine how vast the Internet really is?,

2. What’s the Catch?

7 11 2009

Chaos is found in greatest abundance wherever order is being sought.  It always defeats order, because it is better organized.

–       Terry Pratchett, science fiction author

If emergence holds so much promise, why isn’t it more widely embraced?  First, we are just beginning to understand its dynamics so that we can successfully engage with them.  More, working with emergence has a catch.  In fact, it has several.  In the pages that follow, I’ll share six catches and a practice that helps when faced with the disruptive forces of emergence.


Catch 1.  Getting started is a leap of faith

When breakthrough initiatives – the fruits of emergence — begin, there’s nothing particularly spectacular about them.  Quite the opposite.  The seeds of most great ideas are misunderstood, dismissed or discouraged by friends of the initiator.  David Bornstein, author of How to Change the World, observed that most successful social entrepreneuring projects begin small, slow, and underfunded[1].

The beginning of “green jobs” highlights a common experience of how new initiatives get their legs.  I heard Van Jones, human rights and clean economy activist tell this story in 2007.  He described his early years as an activist who eventually burned out.  As he put it, he hit his head against the wall of injustice over and over.  He broke and the wall wasn’t even dented.  He needed a to get away and decided to take a spiritual retreat, something completely outside his normal experience.  The retreat left its mark, along with some new friends from a different community.  He found himself traveling between two worlds just 20 minutes apart: Oakland, California, where there wasn’t a grocery store in the impoverished community to Marin County, where people worried about their carbon footprint while driving their hybrid cars and eating their organic foods.  At some point, the dissonance coalesced into inspiration: green jobs.  Retrofitting buildings to higher environmental standards – jobs that can’t be taken offshore – married the employment needs of Oakland with the ecological sensibilities of Marin. He brought the idea the board of the organization he founded – the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights.  To say the support was underwhelming is kind.  No one “got” the idea.  They had other, more pressing issues with policing and incarceration.  Self-doubt was a constant companion.  He was responsible not just for himself but the staff and supporters of the Ella Baker Center.  But the call was strong and not to be ignored.  With time, ideas like eco-capitalism and environmental justice started to take hold.  The Ella Baker Center brought along other agencies into the Oakland Green Jobs Corps, a job-training and employment pipeline providing “green pathways out of poverty” for low-income adults in Oakland[2].   In 2007, a call came from Capitol Hill.  Van was invited to a meeting called by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.  Sitting at a table of 30 people, each with two minutes to share an idea, he knew he needed to make his point fast and sharp.  When his turn came, he said he had four words: green jobs for all.  It stuck.  Fifteen minutes later, he was standing behind the Speaker as she talked of a future with green jobs.  The term has become a rallying cry for environmental jobs to lift people out of poverty and has gone around the world.

Novel ideas are tough to communicate because they have no models.  They start as seeds, intuitive hunches; easy to ignore, challenging to embrace.  Like Van, moments arrive when each of us finds the courage to take the leap.  Where the calling is strong, the guiding image so compelling that we have no choice but to follow it.  With each tentative step, given tenacity and persistence, experiments can test the glimmer of an idea, support can grow, and eventually, those outside perceive the innovation as an overnight success.


Catch 2: What’s emerged can be elusive to recognize

At first it seems to be just something we already know.  When encountering novelty, our first impulse is to try to fit it into our existing frame of reference, the forms we already know.

A gathering of journalists explored the question: What is our work in the new news ecology?  What they uncovered was both ordinary and revolutionary, fitting existing assumptions, but not quite.

For two days, about 80 people from the whole system of journalism engaged in intense conversation.  On the last morning, people spent some time in quiet reflection, paying attention to the patterns that mattered to them in their own life and work.  They shared stories in groups of three or four, listening for what had meaning to them all.  Then, as a whole, they surfaced the ideas that resonated most in the room.  Among the insights, two were most heartily embraced:

  • If it serves the public good, it’s good; and
  • Journalism is now entrepreneurial.

No news there.  Or is there?  As I watched these seemingly obvious notions sink in, I could feel the wheels turning for many in the room.  These simple statements contained important and liberating truths for this moment in time, for this group on the edge of journalism’s rebirth. Legacy journalists, who thought they needed the name of their news organization behind them to be credible, realized they can make their voice count as an independent.  New media people were affirmed in their wide-ranging experiments into new forms of serving communities and democracy.

At some point, it flips.  What seems familiar and easily integrated into existing ways of thinking suddenly becomes a new organizing idea.  Rather than trying to fit serving the public good into business models that are leading to ever greater pressures to produce content that doesn’t matter, the journalism is liberated from its existing shackles, free to find new ways to survive. It becomes entrepreneurial.  It is clear the path won’t be easy.  It is also clear that journalism is alive and well, simply shedding the sources of funding that made for a happy marriage for many years.  And with this realization, whole new forms appear, aspects made possible by technologies that support communities to co-create, to trigger society-wide action, to develop new forms of expression that meet its core intention of serving the public more effectively than ever.

What about communities of journalists, who come together in novel ways, creating a network of coverage; an idea embodied in an experiment called “Representative Journalism”?  Or crowd-funding, in which people post story ideas and attract pledges for small amounts of funding that add up to sufficient funds to launch an investigation?  Called, this is another idea born at a JTM gathering that has received foundation funding.  The implications for a vibrant, albeit chaotic renaissance in journalism are exciting as this simple realization that journalism is now entrepreneurial and serves the public good gains traction. What was outside the realm of imagination – entrepreneurial journalism – becomes part of the system, novelty is born, and journalism itself is renewed.


Catch 3: Outcomes can be virtually invisible

Certainly home runs happen, projects so spectacular they can’t be ignored.  More often, the outcomes can be difficult to spot.  Journalism that Matters has been a seedbed of innovation.  It has generated hundreds of projects that we’ll never know originated through JTM.  In part, we don’t have the resources to track all the ideas, small and large, that people pursue.  Even if we did, sometimes the people themselves may not make the connection.  A few years ago, we interviewed some of our alumni.  It was only through our inquiry that people realized the initiating spark of a major project they were doing happened because of a chance encounter at JTM; perhaps even meeting their working partner.

So how do we know we’re being successful?  People keep coming back.  They tell us how stimulating the experience is, how many ideas, friendships, partnerships, and how much energy they take home with them.  More, others recognize something about the people.  Five of the six fellows in the inaugural class of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism were JTM alums.

Journalism that Matters has been quite diffuse, since it brings individuals from many different systems together.  When an intact organization or community engages with emergent change processes, or in a community with sufficient infrastructure (e.g., easy communication, access to resources and support staff, etc.), it is easier to notice tangible outcomes.  Even then, it can be elusive.  Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff, creators of Future Search, a process for experiencing a whole system by exploring its past, present and possible futures in order to evolve a “common ground” future, began bringing together the people they worked with six months after doing a Future Search.  There was a typical story:  Well, not much has happened since the event.  But we did this thing in my department/neighborhood. When thirty or fifty people each name the little something they did and hear each other’s story, they realize that remarkable change is underway.  It energizes and amplifies their work.

This is the nature of emergence: occasional big, discontinuous leaps — usually creating major disruptions – and years of many small, incremental changes integrating those shifts into a new context, a new story of who we are together.  By bringing these patterns to consciousness, we can work with the elegance of change, its rhythm and pace, to move with it towards new possibilities.


Catch 4: What’s most important is likely not on your radar screen

It is often the unexpected consequences that are the most vital.  We tend to look at what projects were initiated as a measure of success.  Or, if we’re looking longer term, what projects were successfully implemented.  While these are good and important outcomes, the real treasures are often more subtle.

Over many years of watching temporary communities form and disperse, I have observed an exciting trend.  Emergent change practices create a context in which trust and friendship grow, networks form – communities of friends.  Perhaps the gathering launches a few projects, but the network contains capacity for continuous learning and experimentation.

With little or no seed money, the networks surrounding Journalism that Matters, or the communities of practice surrounding different emergent change practices – Future Search, Open Space, World Café, Appreciative Inquiry – are slowly growing.  In the change practice communities, literally thousands of practitioners around the world could be catalyzed into action should an intention of sufficient magnitude call them to act.  In the meantime, they share stories and questions, mentoring and being mentored, researching and learning together, evolving the practices that enable them to do their work well.

This nascent understanding of how systems can organize themselves quickly – to behave with collective intelligence — holds great potential for new forms of organization.  What if we took seriously the idea that all systems are self-organizing?  By consciously working with those dynamics, we could free tremendous life-energy that serves both the individuals and the systems that we form. Just imagine: self-organization of our social systems becoming conscious of themselves.  In other words, the systems learn to manage themselves without guidance from above.  They operate as an ebb and flow of network connections, regulated by an emergent collective intelligence. No one is in charge.  Everyone is in charge.  Or each one is doing what matters to them, coordinating with others as they go, collectively adding up to a smoothly running venture. Of course, it does take some support and news ways of thinking, as I learned with some colleagues while on retreat.

A group of us gathered at Channel Rock, a retreat center on Cortes Island in British Columbia.  Channel Rock was built with a low-carbon footprint.  It is designed to accommodate about 30 people, as long as they are conscious of their energy and water use.  We were 10 people who put the systems supporting us seriously at risk.  Why?  While we knew in the abstract that we should turn off lights or in other ways be mindful of our power use, in practice, we were creatures of habit.  When our host saw that we were close to maxing out the system, he took us on a tour of the power plant.  There we could see the gauges that told us the effect we were having on our environment.  Until then, our power usage was an abstraction, the reality invisible to us.  What an interesting insight:  it is virtually impossible to understand our carbon footprint because the feedback is far removed from our actions.

As this story illustrates, we are babies in understanding the potential of working with context and feedback, creating containers for working with emergence!  With iteration, people who experience emergent change processes are growing more resilient, becoming comfortable with mystery.  Their ability to work with life-energy, whether it shows up as joy and excitement or fear, anger or grief, is increasing.  They know that focusing on possibility draws them towards what the system and the people in it need.  In effect, a virtuous cycle is unfolding in which emergence brings forth greater capacity for consciously self-organizing, which brings forth emergence and so on. Still, for many, it is a challenging journey.


Catch 5.  Not everyone takes the trip

Most of us have experienced a situation in which others have dived in, but we’ve chosen not to play. Perhaps the venue didn’t suit us, the energy was wrong, or it wasn’t what we thought we’d signed up for – a party that a friend talked us into attending, a workshop that’s different than advertised, or a church service with unfamiliar customs.  Everyone around us is transported and we are not moved.  Sometimes we wonder if something is wrong with us.  Or perhaps we think everyone else is running headlong into disaster and holding back will vindicate us.  Is it Wonderland – a magical mystery tour that changes us and our relationship to our world or is it a Jonestown – with poison-laced Kool-Aid?

Often, it is people from the margins of a system, perhaps the young, or culturally different, who feel unwelcome.  While practices for engaging emergence increase a group’s capacity to be with difference and stay connected, sometimes stuff happens that test individual and collective edges. The dynamics of emergence still apply: welcoming disturbance in the form of their withdrawal, creates the potential for a non-habitual response.  I worked with a group in which everyone was trying hard to convince one hold out to change his mind.  I stepped back from the situation and asked him to speak to why he felt so strongly.  We all listened without trying to change his mind.  And then, he joined in.  We didn’t even change the proposal.  All he needed was to be heard.

It isn’t always that easy.  Unspoken energies are hidden in every group.  Creating conditions for them to surface is a key challenge when engaging emergence.  Perhaps someone brings a piece of the puzzle they deem critical and has no confidence others can “get it”.  Compassionate disruption may look like honoring their decision to hold back.  As with the man who just needed to have his say, meeting resistance by respectfully acknowledging their authentic voice increases the likelihood for a shift.  Still, if someone chooses to stay outside, it is an indicator that something they value hasn’t yet been acknowledged.  Or perhaps they do not have the capacity or skill to express it so that others understand it.  Or maybe it has been heard and they are so used to being invalidated that they can’t tell that their message got through.  I was working with a planning group made up of people who were used to being marginalized.  The group had split into two factions, each adamant about their perspective.  As someone unattached to the outcome, I knew they were in “violent agreement” – passionately advocating for the same outcome.  Yet, they were so used to having to fight for their beliefs, they couldn’t hear the common threads.  It took setting conditions for each to tell their story, without interruption – to feel heard – for a shift to happen.

Sometimes, those of the dominant culture choose not to engage.  In 2007, I co-hosted a gathering that had a few people wondering if they had come to the wrong party.  It offered some major lessons about disruption and compassion.  We – the conference organizers – brought together eighty-three storytellers of all stripes – writers, activists, futurists, visual artists, academics, musicians, documentary makers, advertising people, philanthropists, and others who shape the “story field” – the cultural narrative that defines how we collectively order our lives. During the gathering, there was something to trigger just about everyone.  Tensions surfaced that usually remain invisible: male/female, people of color/white, indigenous/Western, young/old.  And yet — thanks to the process and hosting team – for most, the experience evoked curiosity rather than polarization, resulting in deep connections and a sense that diverse communities can develop increased capacity to create a desirable future together.  As differences surfaced, people spoke their angst, or fear, or pain.   An indigenous woman expressed her anger about stolen stories when an anthropologist offered a Maori story, intending it as a sacred offering.  It opened the door to a conversation about copyright, what different cultures hold sacred, and what that means cross-culturally.  The compassion for and from both the storyteller and the woman objecting kept them engaged and connected with each other and those witnessing the exchange.  Most people left the gathering understanding that the seemingly monolithic narrative of the dominant Western culture is actually many-storied and experienced radically differently based upon race, age, gender, sub-culture, class, and life experience.  As one participant said:

I came to Storyfield 2007 tracking capitalism and its ecological side effects. I expected to come away with ideas and inspiration about the transition to a sustainable human civilization.  Once in the field, what captured my attention was diversity and social justice issues and what I came away with was mostly organized around tears – being frequently, unexpectedly moved to tears. Up to now, my attitude toward social justice issues could be summarized as – I’m all for it, but it is not my cause, not my passion. I have seen what activist burnout looks like, and the sustainability strand of the new story seems like more than enough to work on.

I got it that we can’t get away with leaving the justice work for others to do. As long as the justice strand gets the least of our attention, it will continue to limit how deeply we can speak for sustainability.  We will become more effective in addressing sustainability issues to the extent that we invite diversity into the conversation, and do our work around it.

This response was typical.  Based on a post-conference survey, virtually every participant found the conference “mind and heart blowing”.  Many spoke of having come through the dissonance with a more complex understanding of their world and the relationships among the diverse people in it.  We experienced a wise renewal of our collective narrative, one that made room for a multiplicity of stories.

And yet, after the gathering, on the conference forum site, one man was moved to say:

I don’t get it.  A group of eighty-some adults are attempting to conduct a conference without structure, and without facilitation.  It is a disaster (in my humble opinion), but some participants seem to love it – as if there isn’t enough chaos in daily life.  I’ve been immersed in business for 30 years, where progress is easily measured and carefully planned.  In a corporation, the difference between a bad meeting and a good meeting is palpable to everyone in the room. Give me a structured process where everyone knows what’s going on, and everyone agrees to the ground rules.

To him, most of us had drunk the Kool-Aid. Yet his message seemed to be asking for help to understand what he had missed.  His authenticity attracted a compassionate response from others.

Just as those, like Van Jones, who take initiative experience self-doubt, so do those who stay behind.  Yet, they, too, play a critical role.  Sometimes, those who choose not to engage are the ones most successful in the current system.  Ironically, they may be powerful and successful voices for the initiative because their presence attracts others who are changed by the experience.   In the Old Testament story, Moses led the Israelites as they traveled in the desert for forty years and the generation who experienced slavery died out. Moses never set foot in the Promised Land.  I recall a Sunday school interpretation: He was of another time.  It wasn’t for him.  But without him, no one would have made it to a new life.  Which brings me to one last catch.


Catch 6.  Death or Loss are usually part of the mix

Without death, there is no room for birth. Just think of the overcrowding if ideas, structures, animals, and people never died!  Death opens the way for something new to emerge.  Without the death of stars, there would be no planets.  Without the death of the dinosaurs, the small mammals that survived the meteor crash ending the reign of dinosaurs would never have evolved into us.  Without the collapse of newspapers, we wouldn’t be seeking online, interactive forms so diligently.

Perhaps fear of death, or more broadly, loss is the biggest reason that we resist the adventure emergence offers. Loss brings grief to those who loved what is passing.  I doubt many of us choose to experience the emotional turmoil if we think we can avoid it.  So we invent strategies that bury the root causes of disturbance instead, perhaps inadvertently setting up a system to die.  Through an emergent lens, the seeds of the current collapse of the U.S. newspaper industry were clear long before it occurred.  Readership has been declining since the late ‘40’s.  The rise of TV was considered the primary reason.  To stem the tide, publishers listened principally to the needs of their primary revenue source: advertisers.  By the 1970’s and ‘80’s, many newspapers made a strategic decision to focus on the readers most attractive to advertisers — people who could buy stuff.  When our primary identity became consumers, the essential purpose of newspapers to ensure we had the information we needed as citizens began to muddy.  And circulation took a deeper dive[3].  Making choices that hastened their own demise is frighteningly easy if we close the door on disruptions, ignore the voices outside.  Such is the beginning of the death of a social system.

We can delay the emotional toll – our natural responses to disturbance — behind defensiveness. In 2001, I attended a conference of the Associated Press Managing Editors.  One breakout session shared results of a newsroom culture study done by professionals who had researched organizational cultures for 30 years.  They reported that newsrooms were the most defensive culture they had ever researched, more than the military or healthcare, their closest cousins[4].  Defensiveness creates resistance.  When resistance is high, the system is closed to change.  Disruptions are suppressed, ignored, and rationalized away — a far cry from being welcomed with a pioneering spirit.  While many point to the Internet as the beginning of the end of U.S. newspapers, it simply accelerated a trend well underway by giving a discontent public the ability to experiment with new forms that return to the core purpose of journalism – providing the news and information we need to be free and self-governing.

As U.S. newspapers are discovering, we deny disturbances at our peril.  Disruption has an interesting way of becoming more extreme when not adequately addressed.  Ultimately, it forces our hand and we begin to acknowledge that business as usual is over.   We let go of the operating rules from the past and admit we don’t know what to do.  Some even ask for help.

This is a special moment.  Letting go of how things were opens the way for creative engagement. What does it take to find the potential in the mess, to make it through the fear of loss or other emotional turmoil?  A good first step is to get curious about what is inside the dissonance.  No matter the catch, great questions help us enter the fray by surrounding us with a spirit of possibility that carries us through the angst.


Inquiring appreciatively: asking bold questions of possibility

How do we inspire explorations that lead to positive action?

If your first impulse when faced with disaster is to ask a question that surfaces an image of a possible future, you are unusual.  And your chances of making it through increase.  An extreme example, it kept Victor Frankl alive, as he continually sought meaning even in a concentration camp during the Holocaust.

Ambitious, possibility-oriented questions are attractors, bringing together diverse people who care.  They disrupt, but do so by focusing intentions towards opportunities for something better, more meaningful.  They help 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 acknowledges the present without making it bad or wrong yet it focuses on the future.  If we don’t know the answer and are genuinely curious, we’ve got the beginnings of a great question.  Here’s a question about great questions:

How do we shape inquiries so compelling that they focus us towards the best of what we can imagine, attract those touched by the questions, and bind us together to realize what we most desire?

Bold, affirmative questions bridge chaos and creativity.  They mobilize change by helping us envision and realize what we most desire.  They activate the relationship between positive image and positive action by guiding us towards possibility and attracting people from the multiple facets of a system.  Such questions bring together those who care making it possible for the tensions and conflict among them to surface creatively.
One idea arising from Journalism that Matters is “Possibility Journalism”.   In a sense, it codifies possibility as an operating assumption.  Think of it as a sixth “W” added to journalism’s traditional who, what, when, where, why, and how.  The sixth “W”: what’s possible now?

Common Language Project co-founder and reporter Jessica Partnow provides an example:  I was working on a story in little Pakistan in Brooklyn, hearing about the experience of families of deportations, mostly young men. I was talking to that community and to the non-Pakistani community and people felt strongly on different sides of same issues. This was the first time that I asked “what’s possible now”.  It may have come out of frustration as it is hard to have conversations and not get anywhere. I threw my hands up and said ok, “what is your ideal solution?” And everything changed. My contact began speaking of what coming to the U.S. had meant to Pakistanis prior to 9/11 and what he hoped it would someday be again.

Her partner Sarah Stuteville offered a second story:

We – Jessica and I – were in the Middle East, talking with a Palestinian about frustrating, polarizing material. He kept repeating the same ideas over and over so we asked that magic question: “given what’s happening, what’s possible now?” It shifted the interview completely, as our contact began envisioning the situation in a completely new way, sharing his commitment to live a life with meaning in spite of the dangers.

As the Common Language Project people discovered, possibility oriented questions don’t avoid the pain of current reality.  They help us face it.  The stories we tell ourselves shape the way we see the world. And that shapes our behavior.  Asking “what’s possible now?” follows the energy towards hopes and aspirations.  While not denying harsh realities, it shifts a story’s center of gravity from hopelessness and despair to possibility for a better future.

Great questions help us face what we resist, creating room to be curious, to engage, contribute, and learn.   Unapologetically affirmative inquiries orient us so that we can face the unknown with a strong spirit.

Picture the scene: filled with discord, upheaval, what has worked in the past no longer functions.  Systems are failing and people in traditional leadership roles are stumped.  Even if they 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.  It is a setup for failure when ordinary people expect their leaders to solve their problems and when those leaders expect themselves to shoulder an impossible burden.

In truth, we’ve been acculturated to this trap, trained by a school system that set an unspoken expectation that we are supposed to have answers.  No wonder we resist the complex situations in which we could not possibly, particularly on our own, have the answers!

Yet, when facing intractable issues, ultimately a turning point comes, often accompanied by a crisis.  It may initially feel like defeat, when we acknowledge that we do not know what to do.  This moment is both terrifying and liberating.   Into the chaos of not knowing, asking a question that invites others to join together in a search for answers provides a light in the darkness.

Bold, affirmative questions help us enter into mystery, creating some sense of safety through which the unknown becomes a source of creativity, where together, we just might find some answers.  When we reach the territory of “there be dragons” at the edge of the map, a powerful inquiry orients us for the adventure ahead.  It creates a safe haven so that when we step into terrain with angst or fear or despair or upheaval, we enter with our dreams and curiosity intact, able to stay in the fire with what needs to be surfaced.

Emergence brings us disruption, forcing engagement, ultimately leading to loss or renewal.  Compassion, creativity, and wisdom can help us find our way through.  In the next three chapters, I’ll elaborate on practices that help to disrupt compassionately, engage creatively, and renew wisely, using the “operating system” for engaging emergence from chapter 1 as a framework: welcome disturbance, pioneer!, encourage random encounters, simplify, and seek meaning.  Just as you have in these opening chapters, you’ll see appreciative questions posed throughout, guiding us through what is emerging.



[1] Bornstein, David.  How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas. Oxford University Press, Updated edition, 2007.

[2] Green Collar Jobs Campaign.

[3] The State of the News Media 2004:  An Annual Report on American Journalism, The Project for Excellence in Journalism,

[4] NAA/Northwestern University Readership Study, 2001, Readership Institute, Media Management Center at Northwestern University.

3. Differentiating: How do we disrupt coherence compassionately?

7 11 2009

You’ve got to be careful if you don’t know where you’re going because you might not get there.

—Yogi Berra

Systems are disrupted in a myriad of ways, some caused by us, some caused by conditions beyond our control.  We leave a marriage, the auto industry collapses, a hurricane comes through our town.  Even loving acts – asking a partner to stop smoking, getting a promotion — disturb the current state.  Disruption, upheaval, conflict, and disturbance reveal unexpected aspects of a system.  They differentiate some element or elements that were previously invisible.  Perhaps it is an issue of civil rights: people of color or those with disabilities saying we have a place too.  Or it is nature reminding us that we are not as independent from our environment as we thought. Disruptions help us discern differences that are untended facets of our system.

This chapter clarifies disruption’s role in emergence – as a means for discerning useful distinctions.  It introduces compassion – the open-hearted capacity to enter into and be moved by another’s experience  — as an attitude that helps us face disruption, whether we cause it or are on the receiving end.  It explores one approach to handling a common experience of disruption – when it looks like one person is the cause. With compassionate disruption as a means to surface useful distinctions as context, ideas are translated into action by introducing some practices for addressing two operating principles for engaging emergence: welcoming disturbance and pioneering.  By introducing three useful practices: embracing mystery, choosing possibility, and following life energy, we take a stand for welcoming emergence.  That stand prepares us to pioneer, equipped to engage others by focusing intentions and cultivating hospitable space. By then, a sound foundation for creatively engaging disruption is in place.


Facing Disruption

Disturbance generally brings a response that either closes us to what is being revealed or opens us to its possibilities. Usually it does both.  How we react depends on where we are in the system.  For example, while everyone involved would agree that journalism is on an emotional roller coaster ride, the response varies through the experiences of different people:

  • The Seattle Post-Intelligencer has closed its doors, part of the wave of newspapers folding.  Who’s next?
  • I’ve taken a buyout and have done public relations work for a year.  How can I find my way back into the journalistic work I find meaningful?
  • With journalism in such upheaval, what do I tell my students?
  • If not gatekeepers, what is our role?
  • As a reporter, how do I interact with audience?
  • With ad revenues falling, what is the business model that can sustain journalism?
  • The Huffington Post just established an investigative unit.  What’s next?
  • How do I connect my community in civil conversation so that news engages more than just professionals?

Whatever your opinion of journalism as we’ve known it, there is little debate that good information – and conversation — is essential to democracy.  These different perspectives surface aspects of journalism to explore as people make sense of the shifting landscape.  Inherent in people’s responses are the differences that make a difference:  organizational resilience, the journalist’s role, educating the next generation, revenue sources, meeting the investigative needs of communities, the relationship between journalist and audience.  All of these and other operating assumptions are being revisited.  What endures?  What changes?  Disruptions help tease out distinctions so that we can see them more closely.

The current journalism model has been stable since the 19th century.  No wonder those who grew up inside it are disoriented, angry, fearful or grieving as it falters. Yet it is hard not to be swept up in the enthusiasm of new media people who are inventing its future – turning the old operating assumptions on their head.  The interplay between those in mourning and those inventing creates a wild mixture of pleasure and pain.  To borrow a phrase from Margaret Wheatley, we are hospicing the old and midwiving the new.

Since disruption is to be expected when engaging emergence, knowing whether to disrupt – and how to do it well – as well as how to respond when it occurs are essential skills to develop. Wherever we sit in a system in upheaval, the good news is that we have a choice in how we respond to it.  Because we are not independent of our environment, how to interact looks different when we’re inside a system than when we feel we are outside of it.

You might ask, “With so many disruptions coming at us, why disrupt anything?  Why don’t we just figure out how to respond?” In fact, where there’s a natural or man-made disaster – a tornado, the financial crisis, something outside our control, most of us spend little time finding someone to blame and just get on with doing something about the situation.  When we surface from the immediate danger, we can contemplate prevention of or preparation for a recurrence. Consider the newspaper editor who, because his paper is dying, is laying off forty people and wonders how to do that well. He’s in the midst of creating upheaval, however reluctantly.  Or what about the situation a friend described:

One faculty member is so overwhelmed that he is calling meetings at the same time as a regularly scheduled all-faculty meeting.  The temptation to disrupt back is high.  So how do you avoid escalating into mutually shared disruption?

Bringing Compassion to Disruption

Disrupting compassionately is an aikido strategy that grows our capacity to deal with difference, upheaval, conflict, and the unknown.  Whether we are outside a system wanting in, inside the system wanting to change it, or even faced with an unexpected event, like a hurricane or an accident, bringing compassion into the equation shifts our focus and our options. Compassion, at root, means to suffer together.  It asks us to honor our common humanity.  So whether we cause or simply get caught in a disruption, bringing compassion into the equation means we face the situation together.  Comfort, strength, and courage are available by choosing compassion, even if we are in conflict. Compassion helps us speak our truth, connecting us even as it differentiates what matters to each of us.  With practice, such expressions become gifts.  Our individual voices matter, helping discern meaningful aspects of the emerging system.

If we are outside a system and disrupt, we can set the tone of the interaction.  If we are inside the system, we have the same choice.  Imagine if the World Trade Organization protests had taken a compassionate approach.  Either side could have taken a first step, creating a different sort of disruption by suggesting interacting with the “other” to their peers.  Just think, if protesters and participants were to interact constructively, might we have both free and fair trade?

When we disrupt a system from the inside, it is usually easier to be compassionate.  Like the editor laying off 40 people, we likely already have a sense of the humanity of those we are disrupting.  Even if we feel we are hiding an invisible difference, perhaps a gay man or woman hearing insensitive jokes from co-workers, we have a choice on how we engage should we wish to use the opportunity to disrupt the status quo.

When dissonance becomes an indicator of new and better possibilities, it is easier to get curious rather than resist or defend.  What if compassion were a guiding ideal for those plotting revolution?  Mohandas Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. understood this principle.  While the systems they faced were hostile, their strategies for engagement were compassionate, applied with clear intention and commitment.  And they changed their worlds.  Such can be the power of compassion for disrupting rigid systems.


What if the Disturbance Is “Just One Person”?

In organizations or communities, often disturbance shows up as someone who just doesn’t seem to fit.  They are always objecting or complaining or in some way undermining the spirit of the group.  Likely we have already tried reasoning with them, ignoring them, or marginalizing them.  And they definitely can’t be managed.  So now what?

Most of us think, “if the ‘problem’ person would just leave, everything would be fine.”  While sometimes that is true, more often, if they leave, someone else takes their place.  Consider it a sign that something deeper is going on.  Perhaps a value or perspective is currently not welcome in the system and this person sees it as vital to the system’s health and well-being.  While their actions may create dissonance, their intention is to bring value, to surface a useful distinction.  If we simply react to the behavior, we miss the opportunity to learn what gifts the dissonance might contain.

Years ago, I was part of a management team in which one member was always the holdout for any decision.  It drove the rest of us nuts.  For the longest time, we couldn’t figure out what value he brought.  He just got in the way.  One day, I overheard some of the people who worked for him talking.  I was amazed at their loyalty, their respect for him!  As I pointed this out to some of my colleagues, our attitudes started to shift.  He distinguished himself with a skill we all admired and many of us wished we did as well.  Now that we knew his staff loved and respected him, we had to admit he was doing something right.  We began to feel a little compassion for him.  Yet on department-wide issues, we would spend precious time trying to convince him that he was wrong.  At some point, I started spending time with him one-on-one.  We talked about his world – he was Latino and had grown up in a different culture than my everyone-is-Jewish-until-proven-otherwise world.  As I listened, I began to respect the wisdom in his ideas.  And my compassion grew.  I, too, became a loyal fan.  At staff meetings, when he would object, rather than joining my peers, I started to draw him out, to seek the gem of truth, the difference that made a difference, that I knew would be there.  We became allies, as I would ask questions that helped the rest of us hear what he was struggling to say.  Over and over he saved us from overselves because he just knew how the staff would respond to the choices we made.  We became a more compassionate management team.  When disruptive decisions were necessary, we were far more conscientious in how we communicated and implemented them.

My colleague, Mark Jones, offers the simplest practice I know for handling disruptions that seem like one person. He calls it HSLing (hizzling).  It is a practice grounded in compassion, with roots in an audience with the Dalai Lama, who told him that we call need to be heard, seen, and loved or mischief occurs.  HSLing stands for hearing, seeing, and loving everyone, including yourself.  Mark developed a simple and elegant diagnostic: when people don’t feel heard, they shout or shut up.  When they don’t feel seen, they get in your face and turn into bullies or they become invisible.  When they don’t feel loved, they do a dance of approaching and avoiding – coming closer to you then moving away.  In all cases, the remedy begins with listening. HSLing can actually be used on any scale.  It just helps to learn at the scale of one to one.  The next time you face a disturbance in the form of one person, I invite you to join the hizzle experiment.


Practices for Disrupting Compassionately

What is it like when our world is disrupted?  How are auto workers feeling, not just about losing their jobs, but losing a way of life that has shaped their lives, their children’s lives, their community’s lives?  It is easy to say, “serves them right for making an inferior product” in the abstract.  I dare any of us to say it face to face to a grieving member of the industry, someone who sees their work as an important contribution that helps our society run well.  How we welcome disturbance and pioneer helps us attract others into the compassionately disturbing work of engaging emergence.


Preparing to Welcome Disturbance

How do we equip ourselves to engage?

Since disruption is a given when something is differentiating, we might as well learn to do it well.  While we may not know the specifics, it is possible to cultivate a capacity for resilience – to be calm in the storm or at least bounce back when hit. More, most people take their cues from those around them.  When we show up centered and calm, assuming something useful can happen, it brings others with us.  The more each of us can face whatever shows up with equanimity and possibility, the more we send others the signal that they can too.

Here’s a story that highlights three practices for welcoming disturbance: embracing mystery, choosing possibility, and following life energy.

I periodically offer workshops on Appreciative Inquiry (AI), a practice based in asking possibility-oriented questions that focus on what is working and what is possible to inspire collaborative and wise action.  The most challenging workshop I have done was with Palestinian teachers in Ramallah.  As I prepared, I asked my host to suggest a subject we could use for participants to experience the process.  She told me that all Palestinians struggle with living with the occupation.  I gulped when I got her message; how could I write appreciative questions about living with the occupation?  It was beyond my experience.  We settled on leadership as the topic.  This first exchange was a hint that things might not go as expected as I headed into the mystery of working in an unfamiliar culture.  I went with my ears and eyes wide open, to receive what came my way.

By the end of the first day, the group had used AI to identify characteristics of great leaders.  I was troubled because they were qualities external to themselves; it was like they were trying to define a better Yassir Arafat rather than finding insight into their personal power as leaders.  As day two dawned, I was not sure how to bring more of the spirit of possibility into the room.  I just knew that was my intent.  We began in a circle.  I asked people to reflect on the previous day.  A few minutes in, someone began talking about how difficult her life was.  Now difficult has a different meaning for someone who spends hours waiting to get through a checkpoint, or is separated from family by a wall, or who has seen houses destroyed or loved ones maimed or killed.  Others started to join with their complaints.  These folks lived with disturbance all the time!  I took a deep breath, aware their complaints were an opening, and asked if they would be willing to apply what they were learning about Appreciative Inquiry to their lives.  They said yes.  And I breathed a sigh of relief.  They chose possibility.  They split into four groups and picked a topic to develop two questions — a personal story question and a future question.  It was wild!  They were working in Arabic, I’d check in, and they’d switch to English.  Each group struggled to shift topics like “resisting the wall” or “fighting the check points” to “Working with the Wall” and “Useful Checkpoints”.   Turning bitterness into productive questions was quite a reframing!

The group who chose Useful Checkpoints found a novel way to test this theme.  They brainstormed a list of ways they had found checkpoints valuable.  Mind you, this is a HUGE contradiction.  I experienced a young Israeli soldier, just doing his job, pointing a rifle at my head (from a distance) while his partner checked my papers.  Many Palestinians do this every day.  Their list of benefits was amazing!  It included: getting to know your neighbors; learning respect for elders (as they help them to the front of the line); meeting new people.  I could tell something important was happening because their laughter was contagious.

As participants interviewed each other using their questions, I could feel the energy in the room shift.  When we debriefed their insights from the interviews, their responses were profound.  No longer the monolithic cause of anger and despair, they had teased out distinctions of the occupation that gave them confidence and strength.  These folks, who began the day feeling powerless, found answers for retaining their dignity and power in an impossible situation.  Life-energy emerged for living creatively with the occupation, perhaps even for harvesting the seeds to end it, as they engaged their reality head on.

Had we not welcomed the angst into the room, participants would likely have left their authentic experiences outside.  Had they left their authentic experiences outside, we would not have embraced the mystery of applying AI to a subject that mattered.  Had we not applied AI to a subject that mattered, we would not have uncovered the possibilities in the differences that surfaced.  Had the possibilities in the differences not surfaced, we would not have sparked the life-energy that fueled the emergence of new attitudes.  Because we welcomed disturbance by embracing mystery, choosing possibility, and following life-energy, we surfaced the means to meet upheaval with compassion, finding power over their own destiny.  What a lesson to take back to their students, equipping them to face disruptions with more compassion for themselves and for the Israelis with whom they are intertwined in a toxic situation.

Let’s dive more deeply into these practices.


Embracing mystery:  Seeking the gifts hidden in what we don’t know

What does it take to be receptive to the unknown?

Perhaps knowing the potential hidden in the dark provides the reason to open to unfamilar.  Turmoil is a gateway to creativity and innovation.  Just as seeds root in rich, dark soil, so does emergent change require the darkness of the unknown.  After all, if we knew how the outcome and how to create it, then by definition, nothing unexpected arrives.  Even knowing its value, embracing mystery, being receptive to not knowing takes courage.  Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön speaks eloquently of this:

By not knowing, not hoping to know, and not acting like we know what’s happening, we begin to access our inner strength.

Mystery is essential to our well-being.  Without the unknown, we have no learning, no creativity, no life.   We feel it’s absence manifest in disease, disorder, violence, depression and other unpleasant and unintended consequences.

We cannot avoid a fundamental truth no matter how thorough we are: holes always exist in wholeness.  Some idea or group is always outside our frame of reference, mostly unseen. Because unknowns are always present, we are better served striving for excellence rather than perfection.  Accepting this and getting curious is a compassionate way to direct life-energy towards what possibility.   The more I am at peace that the unknown is a given, the more I enter with a spirit of adventure. I won’t be the first nor the last in the territory.  At some future date – a day, a week, a year, a century from now, if something still matters, what I know about it now will seem quaint because of the discoveries we’ve made following the trail of our curiosity. It is a great reminder that while certainty has it’s merits, the more comfortable I am with uncertainty, the more I act with humility, taking myself – and others – with a compassionate grain of salt, the more equipped I am to uncover the distinctions that matter in the dissonance.

If we aren’t playing at the border between the known and unknown, we are standing in the way of our own evolution.  Culturally, we celebrate perfection – perfect athletic performance, musical performance, total quality in production.  I’m glad we do; I have felt the inspiration of experiencing a virtuoso performance.  And I sure don’t want airplanes, bridges, and cars built any other way.  Still, mystery is a companion to this perfection that is equally essential and struggles to find its legitimacy.  It tends to happen at the margins, where something doesn’t yet have a form or a name, where it is seeking to come into being.  David Gershon, author of Empowerment, calls it the “learning edge”.  To be pragmatic, no learning or transformational change happens without mystery; if you already know the outcome, then no transformation is involved!

Just as embracing mystery opens the way to discover hidden treasures, choose possibility shines the light in promising directions.


Choosing Possibility: Calling forth “what could be”

What do we want more of?

Mark Twain once said, You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.  When people tell us what they don’t want, what they’re against, it’s a good time to ask compassionately, “What do you want?”  If it has been so long since they dreamed that the question stumps them, perhaps they can tell us about a time when something worked.  So many societal cues focus us on what’s broken, why we can’t, what’s wrong.  It takes commitment and lots of practice to choose possibility, to attend to our aspirations.  Asking possibility-oriented questions is a profound act of compassion as it invites us to dream, to lift our spirits to the best in ourselves.

Whatever the circumstances, how we relate to them is up to us.  Geneva Overholser, Director, School of Journalism at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication, introduced herself at a 2006 Journalism that Matters gathering saying:

“I had been depressed. A couple of years ago, I resolved to find hope. When you open yourself to possibility you are willing to experience stuff you haven’t experienced before.”

To be clear, I am in no way advocating ignoring problems.  To do so simply causes them to show up more destructively elsewhere in a system.  Rather, our relationship to problems radically shifts when viewed through an increasingly clear vision of what we want to create.  Problem solving engages us in two core questions: What’s the problem? and How do we fix it?  It contains an implicit definition of what things are like when everything is working.  Our task is restoring the situation to a past state (or imagined past state).

Think of Sisyphus, carrying his rocks up the hill again and again.  He echoes the energy of problem solving: hard work and discipline and often little joy.  In contrast, asking: What is working? What is possible? and How do we create it? mobilizes us, filling a vacuum of possibility with joyous engagement because we have had the opportunity to discern what matters to us.  Ironically, the work may be as hard or harder than solving the problem, but it is infused with life-energy that compels us forward.


Following life energy: Trusting deeper sources of direction

What guides us when we don’t know?

Life energy exists at the intersection of what we know and don’t know.  It fuels engagement to make sense of mystery.  Following the energy of an aspiration, bringing it to life feeds us.  Just as food fuels our bodies, life-energy nourishes our soul.  We know it is present because excitement, laughter, joy break out.  People are awake, alive, aware of their feelings, willing to be compassionate with themselves and others.   In contrast, angst, pain, discontent are signs the energy is stuck.  The feelings are present because someone cares.  When we are stymied about what to do with our passion, it can sour, becoming a source of disruption.  Welcoming that upheaval frees that energy so that it is available to engage.

These practices for welcoming disturbance cultivate a disciplined equanimity, helping us face whatever comes our way.  As we prepare ourselves, we are better equipped to engage with others.  After all, pioneers rarely travel alone.


Preparing to Pioneer

How do we steward what is unfolding among us?

No pioneer begins the journey into the unknown without marshalling resources and support.  Preparing to enter into the chaotic space that contains aspects of the past and the seeds of the future so that we can explore what serves now involves getting focused and doing our best to set up conditions for success.  Because the territory is often fraught with the conflicting emotions of letting go and discovering what’s possible now, compassion matters.  Pioneers are best prepared when they hold their intentions clearly but lightly, able to travel without attachment to the specific form outcome takes. Compassion helps keep us going as we stumble through the many experiments that elate and frustrate along the way.  Here’s a story about embarking into the center of a controversy that involved some twists and turns to clarify intentions and ensure hospitable conditions:

A colleague, Sono Hashisaki, contacted me to work with her in a challenging situation.  Four Pacific Northwest tribes and NOAA – the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – have joint management responsibility for Pacific Northwest waters.  They were in the midst of a two-year dispute between the local NOAA office and the tribes.  The tribes finally contacted NOAA’s Washington, DC office with their issues and a meeting on “working together well” was scheduled.  The tribes chose Sono to facilitate because they trusted her.  One challenge:  No one thought anything useful would come of the meeting.  A second challenge: We knew that behind the scenes, both groups were preparing to argue their positions.  What could we do that would make a difference?  Sono contacted me because she had been through an Appreciative Inquiry workshop and thought it would be a good approach to the work. As she painted the scene, it was clear that “working together well” wasn’t what was “up”.  The official reason for meeting and what they really wanted to accomplish weren’t the same.  We needed to create the conditions for them to address the conflict between them productively. Since the topic was officially set, we finessed it, characterizing it as

How can we strengthen tribal and sanctuary working relationships and increase understanding of the issues and opportunities of interest to all parties that arise from the sanctuary’s endeavors so that productive agreements can emerge?

With our implicit and explicit sense of the intention, we turned to how best to cultivate conditions likely to surface the conflict productively.  We chose to use Open Space Technology because it provides the lightest of touches, posing a question and inviting people to follow the energy of what matters most to each of them.  We knew both sides were preparing for the worst, so creating conditions with as much flexibility to move with what surfaced seemed critical.  While Sono had never experienced Open Space, she trusted me, as the tribes had trusted her.  We arrived at the site as people from the tribes were doing the last of firming up their positions.  They were ready for a fight. And we knew the NOAA people were equally prepared. Still, the formalities began as an elder from the tribes welcomed about 20 people to the space.  He then apologized saying he had another commitment and would need to leave.  One of the key players was taking himself out of the room!

So we began, inviting people to organize their agenda.  Sono and I got out of the way.  That’s when the fun began.  We sat on the sidelines as the first round of breakout sessions started.  She briefed me on the relational dynamics at play – who sat with whom, who was left alone.  As the second round of breakout sessions began, the elder who had left early was suddenly in the room again.  Sitting with him was the NOAA official from Washington.  They were surrounded by most of the other participants.  After twenty minutes, the two men stood and shook hands.  They had reached an agreement.  The group cancelled their final round of breakout sessions and we moved into a closing reflection.

During the closing, several people thanked their counterparts, saying it was one of the most respectful meetings they had ever had.  A representative from the Bureau of Indian Affairs complemented all of them on the most productive meeting between federal officials and Native Americans he had ever witnessed.

We did so little, yet got such great results!  What was going on?  By paying attention to two essentials, we set the stage for pioneering: focusing intentions with the organizing question and cultivating hospitable space through the simplicity of Open Space.  We set the conditions for compassionately disrupting the anticipated fight.


Focusing Intentions: clarifying our calling

What purpose moves us?

Pioneers are known for the clarity of their quests.  Balboa sought the fountain of youth; Columbus a passage to India.  Watson and Crick aspired to unlock the secrets of DNA.  Single-minded determination strips away all but the essence of a calling.  The strength of their questions fills pioneers with the courage to act, making everything else simply a challenge to be overcome.  While this has often led to less than stellar practices, a clear intention can move worlds.  It just needs the moderating force that comes from cultivating hospitable space – more on that shortly.

The work begins the moment an intention is named. It sets direction, surfacing a sense of purpose and envisioning new possibilities.  While a myriad of books exist on defining purpose, of creating a mission or a vision, ultimately, what moves us to act comes from some inner call that awakens both our head and heart.  Tune in. Listen to your own voice, that of others, and your environment.  What are you sensing in and around you?  What matters?  What does compassionate disruption look like in this circumstance?  As you get clear, invite others, particularly those different from you to weigh in. Intention can deepen and clarify as others engage.  Ask questions that draw out the deepest longings among you. Remember how emergence occurs as common threads cluster?  Through surfacing individual intentions, different callings can coalesce into an expanded coherence that serves all.   By stewarding this unfolding, without attachment to the outcome, our capacity to hold difference and be connected grows.  And we increase the likelihood of finding answers in which we can all come home to what matters to us.


Cultivating hospitable space: continuously clarifying who, what, when, where, why, how, and — given all that — what’s possible now

How do we cultivate conditions for the best possible outcomes?

While clear intentions give us focus, cultivating hospitable conditions ensures our methods are civil.  This partnership supports compassionate disruptions.  It is far simpler to engage a diverse mix of people when the cues they get are that they matter right from the start.

Complexity scientists tell us that initial conditions are crucial.  They make the difference between a screaming mob and a circle of peace. Emergent change practitioners use the term “container” to describe the type of space that fosters the circle. You might call it the “vibe”, the energy of a space or a group. Though we can’t see it, we can sense it.  Think of that small voice that informs you when you enter a place or get together with others whether to relax or watch out.

The broader the diversity of people and perspectives, the deeper into the subject you wish to go, the more important a healthy container is.  Well-tended containers are grounded in clear, focused intentions, engage a relevant diversity of participants, and involve mindfully chosen processes and environments that serve the purpose and people well.[1] Such containers “create circumstances in which democracy breaks out, environments in which it just happens.”[2] When the environment supports compassionate disruptions, as we share what matters to us, disturbances tend to show up as far less toxic.  We are cued both consciously and unconsciously about how much of ourselves to reveal, how deep we are willing to go together.  People to take charge of their situation, compelling facilitators and traditional leaders to move more and more out of the way.

Cultivating great containers is a both a natural capability and a learned skill.  It is a bit party host, stage manager, den mother, and yet none of these.  Like many relationally oriented skills, when well done, it is invisible.   People feel welcome to bring all aspects of themselves present – not just their mind, but their feelings, their energy, their commitment.  They know why they’re there and what to expect – even when it is the unexpected, and what they are welcome to say and do.  Paying attention to the quality of the experience provides what people need to know to fully participate.  It makes the difference between a room filled with silent hostility and one buzzing with hopeful anticipation.

Creating a container for the work is as important as determining the content of an agenda.  How do we make our intentions clear?  Who do we invite?  What is welcome?  What of our history needs to be shared?  What of our aspirations?  How about the physical space – what messages does it send?  The questions are endless and all we can do is our best to discern the aspects that matter in any given situation. The good news:  what we miss will show up as a disruption.  By embracing it, we learn, adjust, and continue to evolve.


[1] Holman, Peggy, Tom Devane, and Steven Cady.  The Change Handbook, Second Edition, pg. 44.

[2] Ibid., pg. 44.

4. Interacting: How do we engage disruptions creatively?

7 11 2009

Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing.

– Warren Spahn


The room is aswirl with activity.  A question has been posed:

What is our work in the new news ecology?

A diverse mix of mainstream journalists, technologists, new media people, educators, reformers and others are setting their agenda:

  • Who funds investigative reporting?
  • What do we teach our journalism students?
  • How does social media affect journalism?
  • What’s the role of humor in journalism?
  • Are we having fun yet?

People self-organize around the topics they have chosen, pursing the conversations that matter to them.  An activist expresses her frustration with finding investigative reporters willing to listen.  The reporters coach her on how to get their attention.  By the end of the conversation, they each see the other differently, appreciating the challenges and constraints of each other’s world.

Angst and fear of what will happen as newspapers die begins to give way to an undercurrent of excitement and possibility.  Opportunities are showing up everywhere.  Stories surface of community-hosted sites where audience is part of the investigative process and journalists are “writing in public”.  Journalism curriculum is re-imagined to include media literacy for everyone, traditional values and craft, and the emerging art of engagement – how to cultivate civil conversation online and face to face in a geographic or subject-oriented community. A myriad of possibilities are explored, ideas surfaced.  A sorting takes place, as aspects of the past, present, and future are tasted and embraced or discarded.  Through random engagement, following the energy and passion of the people present, the system is examined in depth.  Questions are asked, debated, mourned and celebrated: What still has meaning that we wish to conserve?  What do we wish to embrace that is possible because of changes in technology or attitudes?

As the old stories of journalism die and new stories are born, the renaissance in media becomes visible through conversation and experimentation.  It seems more resilient, with room for more voices.  Its shape isn’t clear and probably won’t be for a while. We are between stories, transitioning from old forms to new, more adaptive forms.

Like the journalists in the story above, we’ve jumped in.  Having prepared to pioneer, with intentions clear and conditions cultivated for possibilities to emerge, it is time to engage.  Interacting is the heart of engaging emergence, connecting with all aspects – ideas, each other, the system as a whole, the context in which it lives, the natural world, even ourselves.  The conditions are ripe for creativity — the open-ended flow that brings novelty into being — enticing us to explore both the familiar and unfamiliar with new eyes or a beginner’s mind, as Buddhists might say.

This chapter explores the nature of creative engagement, offering some practices for the third operating principle: encouraging random interactions.  What does it take to invite the diversity of the system?  How do we open, be receptive to who and what shows up?  What does it mean to take responsibility for what we love as an act of service?  What does it teach us about connecting and listening?  These questions point the way to the exhilarating work we encounter once we’ve leapt into the unknown.


Engaging Disruptions Creatively

When disturbed, most of us would rather hunker down someplace safe bringing what we wish to protect with us. .  Yet this kills creativity – the open-ended exploration of alternatives and possibilities that brings novelty into being. I have a journalist friend who has never attended Journalism that Matters.  A group of us were exploring the idea of a radio show segment bringing together people with different points of view in civil conversation.  My friend was instantly resistant.  Her only experience of conversation among people with conflicting perspectives is that it disintegrates into a shouting match.  She had no image of a creative conversation among people in conflict.  And she is not alone.

We all have the experience, people interrupting each other, no one listening, everyone striving to top the other with their point of view.  Nothing creative happening in that setting.  If that’s the only experience we have in interacting with “the other” of course we’d rather find a place to hang out with our own kind.  Yet we do so at the peril of our future because it ignores the need for creative solutions to intractable challenges.

Rather than creating a space to keep us safe and keep the “other” out, creative dissonance calls for just the opposite.  Deep and essential truths often hide in dissonant behaviors like shouting or silence, bullying or invisibility.  It is our challenge to create conditions welcoming enough to surface these gifts.

With practice, our capacity to embrace the chaos that comes of not knowing the operating principles at work when facing the unfamiliar expands. Think about driving in an different part of the world, say India.  The assumptions about how traffic works are unlike the US.  It takes 360º vision to navigate among the chaotic flow of cars, bicycles, mule-drawn carts and other vehicles. Horn honks become friendly signals meaning someone is behind you, rather than the angry sound of “get out of my way”.  Driving in another culture requires letting go of familiar rules of traffic flow and opening to discover driving anew.  I loved discovering new meaning in old aspects, like horns and unfamiliar aspects, like mule carts backing up on a main street.

If differences are overwhelming, step back and breathe.  If you can’t see the guiding patterns, listen, observe, be receptive to what surrounds you.  Notice what is meaningful; make an intuitive inventory of what is happening.  Get creative: look at the familiar with new eyes.  Is it still meaningful?  Is it something to conserve?  What is new and unexpected?  Look through the eyes of someone who finds excitement in it.  Is it something to be embraced?

As different perspectives rub against each other, a burnishing occurs.  Together, we make meaning, surfacing patterns that draw from all aspects of what is present. Expressing differences is critical because it carries the seeds of what might be.  Each unique perspective matters.  Where space exists for all of us to show up and engage fully, warts and all, what is most meaningful shines through over and over.  It creates a “differentiated wholeness” in which our unique gifts weave together in a coherent tapestry that honors each of us and all of us.  They discover they are not alone but part of a larger whole.  Hearts open and we know we are connected.  In truth, even when we can’t feel it and our hearts are closed, we are still connected.  Just as head, heart, and hands are essential parts of one body, so our unique gifts connect us as parts of a larger, creative social system.

Creative engagement isn’t without angst.  During a Journalism that Matters gathering, I sat in on a deep conversation about what mainstream journalists cherished.  I finally understood that some of the fear and grief many expressed was over the possibility that enduring values of journalism, such as accuracy and transparency would be swept away.  What, in fact, became clear during the session is that such values are something to be conserved as so much else changes.  Ironically, new technologies provide tools for even greater accuracy and transparency.  What matters endures.  Given a chance, new forms can amplify deeper intentions.  As we discover our place in the mix, excitement builds, possibilities abound, and we creatively find answers together.  As one journalist put it, When systems break down, you gather up the pieces and make something new.  Simple, though not easy.  The operating principle, encourage random interactions, sheds light on how.


Encourage random interactions

Isn’t it exciting that we never know what mix of knowledge, skills, and relationships will make a difference?  Given an intention and hospitable conditions, what attracts a diverse group to let loose and go for it?  As the following story shows, creativity involves inviting people to show up with what matters to them, attracting them to open as they feel heard.


In 2003, a coalition led by the U.S. Forest Service convened 175 diverse participants from a cross section of the San Bernardino mountain communities. Trees were dying and they knew fires were coming.  Having prepared for the fires and while they had the public’s attention, they invited residents, community associations, environmentalists, off-road vehicle association members, businesses, ranchers, federal, state and local government.  They gathered to envision the future, asking “What do we want the forests to look like in fifty years?”

It was no easy task to bring together such a diverse mix.  We formed a working group that included someone from each community we hoped to reach.  As they interacted, they discovered the creativity and value of working together and became our voices in their communities.  I suspect none anticipated the time they would spend getting their friends and colleagues in the room.

When day one of the event dawned, we – the conference organizers – looked at 175 people from different walks of life sitting at round tables of 10, all of whom cared about the future of the forest.  Did they trust each other?  Not likely.  Did they hope to have their agenda win the day?  It wouldn’t have surprised me.

Within the first hour, we invited people to pair up with someone different from themselves to interview each othe.  We gave them a set of questions designed to draw out stories of what they loved about the forests and what they hoped would be there for their children.  They spent the entire morning with their partner.  Most came back inspired.  As one man said, “I am the president of an off-road vehicle association and I just spent the last two hours with an environmentalist.  We discovered that we come to the forest for the same reason.”  Our sense of accomplishment was almost immediately dampened when an older man in a cowboy hat – a rancher – stood up and essentially said that the answer to the forest’s future was obvious: clear the land, sell the lumber, and let cattle graze.  Even as we caught our breath from this callous declaration, no doubt intended to disrupt, we knew he was speaking for an important subset in the room that had little patience with our possibility-oriented approach.

We did a lot of soul-searching that evening, given our plans for day two.  We redesigned using an analytic, left-brained activity and called it a night.  At breakfast, I spoke my lingering doubts, that to back away from our original right-brained, creative activity was a mistake.  We needed to trust that imaginative energies would be stirred by getting out of our heads, that continuing to engage a rich mixture of people and modalities – art, poetry, or whatever form they wished to use – would lead to the best possible outcomes.  My partners agreed.  With trepidation, we asked people to form groups with a mix of people from different backgrounds to create models of the forests of their desired future.  We gave them crayons, small plastic toys, such as trees, people, and assorted other items and encouraged them to use whatever creative forms they wished.  To our surprise and relief, the “men with hats” jumped in with both feet, joining with others to envision multi-use forests that had something for everyone.

In the end, we didn’t abandon our commitment to creativity. We trusted the flow of life-energy, even when it surfaced as derision.  By moving away from words, a playful activity brought together these diverse, usually conflicted parties.  The toys helped them explore what mattered most, surfacing their differences and in the process, creating a cohesive community that made room for their competing interests.  The three-day summit resulted in an agreed upon vision and principles to guide long-term decision making, a preliminary set of projects, and an ongoing committee co-chaired by a government official and a community member to keep the work alive.

Here are the principles they named:

  • Key factors in land management decisions for Healthy mountain ecosystems are:
    o       Sustainability
    o       Biological diversity
    o       Productivity
    o       Indigenous species
    o       Resource conservation and restoration
    o       Acknowledgment of fire as a natural component

  • Responsible, efficient use of natural resources promotes improved air and water quality and water quantity for the communities and natural environment.

  • An open forest with healthy tree spacing supports wild lands and mountain communities that are ecologically resilient and at low risk of catastrophic wildfires.

  • Care and stewardship of our mountains and forests requires education, conservation and community involvement.

  • Based on peer-reviewed science, environmental laws are streamlined, balanced and designed to sustain a healthy forest.

  • Capacities of the mountains are recognized and understood, established and supported.

  • Funding and other resources integral to the implementation our plans are identified and available.

  • Decision making is timely, inclusive, collaborative, informed, delivered and implemented through coordinated governance.

  • Responsible behavior contributes to a multi-use forest in which all living systems experience an enhanced quality of life.

So this diverse group of strangers, who came together because they cared about the future of the forests, found creative answers to meet their different needs.  Personal agendas gave way to common dreams of mixed-use forests that could serve today’s needs and still be there for their great-great-grandchildren.

The innovations that arise through random interactions benefit from inviting diversity and letting go, opening to what wants to emerge.   Acknowledging that we don’t know which interactions matter invites an entirely different ethic for how we interact.  Perhaps the most important shift we can make in how we organize ourselves to do creative, meaningful work is to take responsibility for what we love as an act of service.  What follows elaborates on these practices.


Inviting the Diversity of the System

How can we include the true complexity of the situation?

Inviting diversity stretches us, broadens our understanding of our world.  Think of protesters outside the doors of power.  What would happen if, rather than shouting their messages, they were invited into the room for an exploratory dialogue? Making space for the many different perspectives in a system opens the way for creative engagement, uncovering the essence of each unique contribution so that it finds its place in a more coherent and inclusive whole.

How do we decide who to invite? The simple answer is: those who care; those with a stake in what unfolds.  Marv Weisbord and Sandra Janoff, creators of the Future Search process, offer useful guidance based the principle of getting the whole system in the room.  They say invite all who “ARE IN”:  those with authority, resources, expertise, information, and need.

As with the Forest Service example, I find inviting is the most time consuming and often most challenging aspect of bringing together the many aspects of a social system.  It requires being receptive to unfamiliar perspectives, being willing to go to unfamiliar places, cultivating relationships with people different from you.

My colleague, Heather Tischbein, took on this type of challenge when she accepted the job of Executive Director for an environmental group in the western slopes of Colorado – the heart of oil and gas drilling in the Rockies.  She was hired to change a combative, activist group into an entity that could work creatively to bring viable solutions to the region.  She spent a year reaching out to her conservative counterparts, attending meetings with the Chamber of Commerce and other places she knew they would be, with little to show for it.  They didn’t welcome her.  The history of her organization told them she wasn’t to be trusted.  Still, she hung in, listening, asking questions, learning about their perspective, while feeling the pressure from her staff and board who couldn’t figure out what she was doing.  And she was filled with plenty of doubt.  Certainly nothing in her environment was affirming her choices.

One day, the phone rang.  It was one of her conservative adversaries calling to suggest a dialogue!  What happened?  In Heather’s words:

I had introduced myself to the public relations person for one of the biggest energy companies doing business on the west slope at a community luncheon and acknowledged that our organizations were considered to be enemies, but that my desire and intention was to make peace not war. I hoped we might at least begin talking to one another.  To explore the possibility that we could find common ground from which we could work together on behalf of the community, rather than perpetuate the polarized public conversation that was shredding the fabric of our community.  She called me because no one from Western Colorado Congress had ever reached out to attempt a dialogue before…because I was “different” than the “others” she’d met.  She invited me to lunch, with the public relations person of the another big energy company and we talked about what it might look like to co-host a public dialogue about how the development of energy resources could be done compatibly with the preservation and protection of the environment, public health and legacy landscapes—what “we” all treasure about Colorado.  A dialogue that transcended or evolved beyond jobs vs the environment.  Then she took me on a tour of a gas drilling rig—right into the heart of “enemy territory’!

Some people assumed that her motivation was to co-opt me or try to create some good public relations smoke and mirrors. They took me to task for getting “sucked in” by her public relations expertise.  I responded by suggesting that it couldn’t possibly hurt to try to engage in diplomatic relations and to trust “good intention” until proven otherwise.

While a change in the political climate prevented this dialogue, Heather and her counterpart continue to explore possibilities behind the scenes. Her story reflects a common challenge when the habitual response is to make the other wrong: getting people together takes patience and practice.  Heather continues living the spirit of invitation, holding an intention for new, creative engagement when there’s an opening.


Opening:  Being receptive to what’s present

How do we make space for the whole story – good, bad, or indifferent?

Being willing to be more in questions than answers is a good place to start.  Possibility oriented questions contain a spirit of invitation, attracting those who care.  They are both focused and open-ended.  But asking questions?  What a stretch, especially for those in traditional leadership roles.  Most of us have been trained that we are supposed to have answers.  That is a sign of strength and leadership.  To say we don’t know, to ask a question is to be vulnerable and generally perceived as weak and unsafe.  Welcome to the counterintuitive work of engaging emergence.  Be a pioneer and take the leap of faith.

“Open”, “let go”, “be receptive”.  These qualities are often judged as passive.  In practice, what could be more courageous than stepping in, with all of the energies – dissonant and resonant – that appear when difference is truly welcomed?  Letting go can be a major hurdle.  Yet without it, creative engagement has no space to flourish.  Consider this:  the scale, scope, complexity, and speed of the disturbances facing us collectively is dizzying.  Our world-wide economic system is in crisis, the U.S. auto industry is on life-support, the newspaper industry is dying, U.S. health care continues to be less affordable for more people, and the list goes on.  Business as usual is over.

We are facing change of a magnitude that requires radically different beliefs and skills to succeed because the landscape is filled with such uncertainty that virtually every effective action is counterintuitive.  It is time to let go of current assumptions and framings.  Authentically saying “I don’t know” and “We’re making it up as we go along” are today’s forms of courage and strength.  Standing on the shore of the known world and stepping into the creative waters of the unknown takes both exuberance and mindfulness.  Pioneers thrive in this territory, exploring differences, passions, perspectives, ideas, and dreams among us that make for creative engagement.

Ironically, once in the waters of difference, most of us find it exhilarating.  We revisit old ground with a fresh eye and visit new ground with the enthusiasm of discovery. Challenge and opportunity abound.  Once unfettered from the “way things are”, creativity surfaces in abundance. When invited to engage, random interactions sometimes take on an almost mystical quality as chance encounters lead to unpredictable breakthroughs.


Taking responsibility for what you love as an act of service

How can we use our differences and commonalities to make a difference?

Discovering the gifts that live in our differences and the commonalities that arise from our needs and longings is a useful place to start.  Most of us have been taught that pursuing what we love is selfish.  We are to put aside what makes us different, unique and sacrifice ourselves for the common good.  In practice, this often leads to unfulfilled, unhappy people who surreptitiously take their resentment out on others.  In contrast, when we embrace what we love, ego finds itself superseded by a source of deeper meaning, inevitably connecting to something universal.  To act responsibly from a personal place of caring is to discover that it is possible for both the good of the individual and the good of the collective to be served.  In fact, this is a measure that higher-order coherence is emerging.  It makes the gifts of our uniqueness creative contributions to the whole community. Another counterintuitive twist: to withhold our uniqueness becomes the selfish act. This invitation to take responsibility for what you love as an act of service can change deeply ingrained cultural behavior.  It cuts through the unspoken ethic of conforming to belong because, given the chance to follow the energy of caring, it becomes eminently clear that our uniqueness matters, that it is a source of tremendous creative potential.  Time after time, unexpected and creative coherence emerges when people show up bringing their full, differentiated voices.

Just consider the power of this notion: paying attention to what we love. It is a call to freedom; to interact in whatever way we see fit, to express our individuality fully.  It is a challenge to rise to the best in ourselves. It is a summons to sense within, to bring our passions and gifts front and center, and to use them responsibly, come what may. When was the last time we were invited to do that?  The invitation is essential every time we consciously engage emergence.  It is expected when people gather for Journalism that Matters.  And it does keep the atmosphere hopping:

During the opening of a Journalism that Matters gathering in Washington, D.C., a thirty-year veteran made his irritation with the state of “citizen journalism” known.  Through the rest of the gathering, there were fierce conversations between long-time journalists and newcomers.  During the closing, that same veteran, with the same intensity told us that the lively exchanges made it clear that the primary difference between pros and serious amateurs were (1) who gets paid; and (2) professionals COVER stories, citizens SHARE THEIR stories.

One cranky journalist raised the bar on speaking authentically and passionately by insisting on discovering the difference that makes a difference between professionals and amateurs.  He helped us all discover a simple insight about the changing relationships because he dared speak what was real for him.  He helped everyone present experience the richness of creative engagement in its full voice.

I often introduce the idea of taking responsibility for what you love as an act of service by saying that when we stay somewhere out of obligation, while we may be physically present, chances are we’re absent in all other ways.  We stay because we think it is the polite thing to do.  When taking responsibility for what we love as an act of service becomes our guiding ethic, polite behavior becomes taking the rest of us along since we’ve checked out anyway.

Taking responsibility for what you love as an act of service is a great life practice.  The next time you notice yourself acting from obligation, test it out.  Maybe you really don’t want to join the family dinner at Aunt Mabel’s.  What matters to you? Perhaps when you stop to think about it, the smile on her face or the sense of family you crave makes the questions you know you’ll get about when you’re going to get married worth it.  Or not. You are free to choose.  If you do end up going to Mabel’s, guaranteed you will have a different attitude.

I’ve struggled for a shorter phrase than “taking responsibility for what you love as an act of service” and have given up for now.  It is the essence of engaging, of taking initiative, but until we’ve got some practice with the idea, without the reminder of the whole phrase, chances are we’ll stay in our seats waiting for someone else to take the lead.

Taking responsibility for what you love as an act of service is powerful because it is that simple rule, that operating principle that makes visible in social systems the idea that no one is in charge, or more accurately, that we don’t know which interactions among what agents make the difference.  It is a powerful catalyzing agent of transformation.  And it makes it clear that formal leaders and facilitators are just people who may know how to initiate, to pose a good question.  In truth, any one of us can take initiative by taking responsibility for what we love as an act of service.

When invited to do so, people consistently rise to the occasion.  It may well be messy because many haven’t been trained to take responsibility for themselves.  Yet, over and over, people from all backgrounds develop the internal guidance to take responsible action and in doing so, discover their connection to themselves, others and the larger whole.  It is sacred territory.

Most formal meeting facilitation channels the energies of participation.  Perhaps circumstances exist where this is useful, but the most creative, energized, committed results occur when people are invited to initiate from this operating principle.  The interactions follow the threads of passionate intention, helping those with shared aspirations discover each other.  Nuggets of truth often hidden in anger, fear, and grief, and joy surface as creative innovations.  We find our places of common cause, and discover a deeper sense of self, a more human “other” and a sense of belonging to a greater whole.  In particular, two capacities develop when people pursue what matters to them: connecting and listening.


Connecting: Bridging differences and bonding with others

How do we link ourselves and our ideas with others similar to and different from ourselves?

Surprisingly similar ideas surface over and over when people with different perspectives creatively interact.  People discover what is most personally meaningful is universal.  And more, they discover they are not alone but part of some larger whole.  Just as head, heart, and hands are essential parts of one body, so our unique gifts connect us as parts of a larger social system.  As we begin to experience this first hand, something shifts and “I” begin to see myself as part of a larger “we”.  In this marriage of “I” and “we”, something else emerges.  We begin to relate not just to each other but also to the whole.  Some novel social system, a community has emerged.  It has it’s own presence and we know we are part of it.  We now share a common story, common intentions.  Because we know, at essence we want the same things, our differences cease to be obstacles and become creative pathways to unexpected innovations that contain what is vital to each of us and all of us.  Our capacity and desire to listen to each other grows.


Listening: Sensing broadly and deeply, witnessing with self-discipline

How do we more fully understand each other?

As Heather demonstrated through her clear intention to work with “the other”, listening cultivates a sense of connection.  It helps us answer How am I like this other person?  At other times, when we’ve explored our connections widely and deeply, we naturally move to listen for an emerging coherence, seeking the threads that unite us.   With practice, we can listen not just with our ears, but all of our senses, with our heart, our intuition, and with technology that amplifies our abilities to sense larger patterns.

Listening develops self-discipline, the ability to be with difference while maintaining common bonds.  With practice, we learn to moderate our responses, increasing our capacity to witness without the need to judge, fix, blame, correct, applaud, cheer, shout or say or do anything.  Unquestionably, times exist for all of these actions, and still, isn’t great to know you can choose your response?  The quality of our listening changes the conversation, surfacing meaning that none of us could have found on our own.

One of my favorite stories about the transformative power of listening comes from my friend and colleague, Mark Jones, the creator of HSLing (hearing, seeing, and loving everyone, including yourself):

In the summer of 2001, while I was living and working in the city of New Orleans, I spent every Saturday morning in a small and secluded park to practice classical guitar. I rarely saw anyone else.  One Saturday morning, I heard aggressive voices echoing across the park. The voices got louder as six young white men emerged from the trees and walked towards me. I tracked them discretely as I heard highly inflammatory racial epithets referring to me. They had apparently decided that I was an African-American. (I am.)  They were verbalizing an intention to do me considerable bodily harm, if not commit downright murder.

As they got closer I estimated their ages as 22 to 27. And they looked healthy. I put away my guitar and slowly stood up. (I’m tall and healthy myself.)  When they were eight feet away, they began to fan-out to surround me. I quietly said, “don’t do that”, and became very calm. Now my mind was processing two different streams of thought. One stream said that I needed to be prepared to die, kill, or both. And the other said that there must be a creative, peaceful solution available from the insight that everyone wants and needs to be heard, seen, and loved.

The young men informed me that they belonged to a group of like-minded individuals that found my existence to be an affront to their personal sensitivities and to their god. They let me know that they had been monitoring my appearance every Saturday for weeks and had determined that I was needed as an object lesson so that people would respect place and decorum. And they prepared to pounce.

I turned to directly face the “mouthiest” of the group. I had determined that he was the leader, and he was the one that I would attack if I decided on an aggressive response.  In a friendly and interested tone of voice, I asked him to tell me his personal story about why he wanted to harm me, how I was an affront to him. I told him that regardless of the outcome of the day, it was important to me to understand him, his life, his suffering, his frustrations, and his dreams.

For the next forty-five minutes, he and his colleagues explained to me their dreams and aspirations, values, beliefs, norms, proclamations, behaviors, essential conditioning and experiences that led them to this moment. It was a powerful and enriching dialogue. I was gifted many insights about their conditions and conditioning that I was not aware of before. And they learned things about me that had them intensely curious and thoroughly amused. I asked them if they felt “heard” by me? They said “yes” and expressed appreciation for the opportunity. I asked them if they felt that they knew me. They said yes.

I then asked them “now what?” Six pairs of downcast eyes, and one voice saying that it was too bad that I had not shown up today, or they might have killed me.

I told them that I was going to show-up the next Saturday, and wanted to know if they would kill me when I showed-up. The leader said, “yeah, we will kill you, but I don’t want to; but we have to”. Three of his colleagues blanched and said that they would not participate in it.

The leader asked me not to show-up. I asked him, that from what he understood of me, what was I going to do. He said I was going to show-up. I asked him what he was going to do. He laughed and said he’d get back me on that one.

I did show-up at the park the next Saturday, and for most Saturdays until the weather precluded it. I never did encounter that group of young men again.  But I learned an important lesson about people needing first to be heard — in order to be seen. And that lesson probably saved my life.

Like all mammals, we have an innate need for belonging, being part of a coherent whole:  a family, a nation, a place.  As Mark’s story poignantly shows, often fiercely holding on to an identity produces the disturbances that divide us – one color oppressing another, nation against nation, religion versus religion.  Even within a shared identity, we seem to have forgotten that it is not only possible but healthy to express anger or dismay to someone or something we love. With Mark’s story as a taste of what’s possible, such unexpectedly creative encounters can lead to deeper bonds, bringing about a more complex coherence, a “differentiated wholeness” in which our distinctions contribute to a spirit of unity that allows us to be more than the sum of our parts.

5. Coalescing: How do we renew coherence wisely?

7 11 2009

The act of sense making is discovering new terrain as you are making it.

– Brian Arthur

Remember Humpty Dumpty’s fall?  The pieces didn’t fit together again.  Emergence is like that.  What arises from creative interactions is not a return to former times. It is more of a spiral, a re-newal – new again, with some elements circling around from the past, others completely original, together forming something novel and of a higher-order complexity.

This chapter sheds light on coherence, the last aspect of emergent change’s fundamental pattern — differentiating, interacting, and coalescing. It opens with a story of differences cohering. It offers reflections on renewal and wisdom.  It talks of the nature of networks, which are showing up as a repeatedly emerging form for organizing in social systems. Then it delves into the last two operating principles: simplify and seek meaning, sharing stories and practices: reflecting, naming, and harvesting.  It ends by describing an emerging form of harvesting, the macroscope, as a potential means to reach a turning point in the larger emergence we are collectively experiencing.

The Spirit of Renewal

When we’re in the midst of engaging disruptions creatively, what helps it land, what enables a higher-order understanding to coalesce?  It is a good time to reflect, to invite people to share their stories, naming of what has heart and meaning.  Beginning with individual energy, the path towards coherence grows from the inside out.  Coherence emerges through noticing differences.  As people share what matters, as they interact influencing each other, a handful of themes invariably surface.  Something is named that lands deeply and broadly.  It has legs as people carry it with them to others struggling to find their way.  While it may be days, months, or years before it is widely embraced, something is different, something new has been born into the world.  Perhaps it is a U.S. prison population reduced by half while maintaining public safety.  Or entrepreneurial journalism that serves the public good.

It is the last day of a gathering with 80 people sitting together.  They arrived as strangers – mainstream media and new media journalists, activists, educators, students.  Now they sit comfortably with each other, joking over the angst that surfaced more than once during their two and a half days together.  They glimpsed the future and find it promising.  Most feel full, inspired by ideas they are taking home.  They know they are in good company with kindred spirits, others who care about the future of journalism.  They have partners in shaping that future.  They are part of something larger – the rebirth of an industry, a calling that serves the public good.  They begin telling a new story of journalism, more conversation than lecture, more entrepreneurial and nimble.  Cooperation increases, knowing they are connected, part of the same system, each pursuing what matters to them, sharing what they learn, figuring it out together.

In some ways, nothing has changed.  The economics of journalism are as murky as when they arrived.  They may be going home to lay off people or to take a buyout.  In other ways, everything has changed.  Most are feeling more at peace with not knowing the answers.  Joan Baez is quoted frequently:  “action is the antidote to despair.”  No longer victims of the unknown, they see their own first next step.  And they now know others traveling a similar path, partners in exploration and learning.  A network of pioneers is forming.  At root, journalism’s fundamental purpose endures – to inform and engage for the public good.  New technology makes innovative forms possible, increasing the ability to involve more people in serving this mission.  So something novel and of a higher-order form is emerging.  Clearly, journalism is no longer in the hands of a few people.  Complex networks of professionals and an engaged public are part of the budding scene.  The holy grail of a sustainable business model may not yet be known, but they are now pioneers on the trail, inventing the future.

Journalism is in the midst of renewing itself, finding its way to what matters now.  Each time JTM gatherings, more experiments are seeded and more people catch glimpses of what is unfolding, accelerating the process as they carry the harvest home with them.

A turn on a spiral of change happens as something thoroughly original and elegantly complex also embodies enduring needs and values.  It defies tidy descriptions as new and old aspects intertwine in the dance of differentiating and coalescing.  It is evolution itself unfolding, sometimes incrementally, sometimes making unexpected leaps.  Renewal contains what endures, a return to our deepest needs, intentions, and values.  Renewal also holds what wasn’t possible before, the “-new” of novel forms.  Innovations, like social networks or Twitter are find their relationship to existing forms of journalism.  Every once in a while something flips, becomes a new organizing principle: Journalism is entrepreneurial.  It begins the process of re-organizing everything.  Just as the printing press opened the way to a 19th century mass literacy movement[1], today, media literacy follows the need to discern quality from the multiplicity of sources that come from entrepreneurship.  Such is the nature of renewal arising as coherent operating principles emerge at a higher-order complexity.

Cultivating Wise Renewal

Does it mean that something wise been realized?  Chances are we won’t know for a while.  At root, wisdom means “to see, to know the way”.  It is knowledge or knowing that arises from and serves the whole; knowledge and knowing deeper than the rational mind, intuitions forged through experience.  While it may be voiced through an individual, it is a capacity that lives in the collective.  In a wise society people continually grow their capacity to care for themselves, each other, and the whole.  Its institutions are designed to support this growth.

The U.S. constitution as a living promise, an elegant set of operating principles exemplifies wise renewal as what “we the people” means continues evolving Sometimes through violent disruption, sometimes through more compassionate disruptions that influence changing social attitudes and legal action, women got the vote and African-Americans became whole people in the eyes of the law.  More recently, Ecuador has led the way to including nature’s rights in its constitution.  As nature’s needs find their way into the renewal of such a foundational document, some innate wisdom seems to be coalescing.

Wisdom seems to be emerging more often as evolution itself evolves towards increasing complexity, diversity, and awareness at an increasing pace of change.  Whether Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa or peace in Northern Ireland, intractable challenges settled peacefully are appearing.  Perhaps wise renewal moves us towards increased energy efficiency.  Emergence through creative engagement no doubt uses far less energy than war.  The capacity to engage diverse perspectives creatively may be the evolutionary leap our current social and environmental crises are forcing.  Handling so much complexity wisely means we can’t do it alone.  Increased awareness of how to bring together difference and stay connected is one vital aspect of this current time.  Hosting productive conversations among increasingly diverse people is part of a new story of who we are as a society.  The Internet gives us an unprecedented lens into other cultures.  Social networking capabilities are rapidly increasing our ability to interact.  How we use these opportunities is up to us.  It makes it a good time to learn more about wisdom.

Wisdom knows to sense in many directions – inside and outside the boundaries of a system, from the tangible and intangible, from the individual and collective.  It uses many ways of knowing – listening to the mind, the heart, the body – including the social body, and the spirit.  What seems wise in one age or circumstance may seem foolish in another. There is a Taoist story: One day, a farmer’s horse ran away, and all the neighbors gathered in the evening and said ‘that’s too bad.’ He said ‘maybe.’ Next day, the horse came back and brought with it seven wild horses. ‘Wow!’ they said, ‘Aren’t you lucky!’ He said ‘maybe.’ The next day, his son grappled with one of these wild horses and tried to break it in.  He got thrown and broke his leg. And all the neighbors said ‘oh, that’s too bad that your son broke his leg.’ He said, ‘maybe.’ The next day, the conscription officers came around, gathering young men for the army, and they rejected his son because he had a broken leg. And the visitors all came around and said ‘Isn’t that great! Your son got out.’ He said, ‘maybe.’  And the story continues.

So wisdom knows patience, staying open as others rush to judgment.  That said, since humans are involved, we’ll undoubtedly try a wealth of experiments, some wise, some not so wise.  If an innovation creates disruption, then we have indications that something is evocative enough that it attracts interest and that someone or something excluded cares enough to make it known.  And so we circle back to disrupting compassionately, knowing now that welcoming in outside voices brings treasures.  And in this way, perhaps a bit more wisdom endures.

Networks Emerging

It is a good time for wisdom because we are, in fact, in the midst of a great renewal of how we organize ourselves for just about everything we do.  Technology and changing perspectives make hierarchies and rigid structures less critical.  The leader as heroic individual is losing its shine.  Networks, more adaptive and resilient, are slowly taking their place, along with the understanding that leaders are everywhere, in each of us.

For example, the Wikipedia is a terrific place to follow breaking news.  As a story unfolds, those closest to it add or correct information, link to photos or sites for people to locate loved ones or for other relevant details.  Filtering facts happens through self-correcting crowd-sourcing.  We no longer depend on a few professionals for all aspects of the story.  Leadership arises from within the situation coalescing into an orderly shape as individuals answer some internal call to serve, taking responsibility for what they love.  The renewed affirmation of the need for information is served through an original means that engages a network of strangers.

In all sort of systems, the old forms – ink on paper, gatekeepers telling us what we need to know – are being replaced by networks of conversations, and emergent leadership. In spite of itself, journalism is leading the way, providing hints of what’s to come for a variety of social systems.  News and information is now delivered to a variety of devices – computers, televisions, ipods, and perhaps a bit of ink and paper.  As hierarchies give way to networks, single points of control for story ideas, follow-up information, accuracy, and other aspects yield to networks that can handle complexity that is simply impossible to address any other way.  Habits from one form are revisited both practically and emotionally. Technology helps us operate more fluidly.  Yet for those of us who didn’t grow up as digital natives, it can be daunting!

What does it take to function well in a network?  We are novices at this.  Increasing numbers of people are experimenting, most without consciously knowing they are part of a great re-ordering.  Some disrupt more compassionately, use their differences creatively, and renew wisely.  They are sharing the results in creative ways – through Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and other forms that make visible our interconnectedness.  A virtuous cycle is forming in which more and more of us can see our place in a multi-storied world that has room for us all.  Perhaps the seeds of wisdom live in that more nuanced view.

We know networks are more collaborative, with leadership shifting fluidly as work groups form and disperse as needed.  They also provide a different relationship with context  — knowing how we fit with others and our environment. When we experience ourselves as part of a larger system, something profound happens.  Our behavior changes.  This turning point is a crowning moment of wise renewal, when we realize that to ignore or harm another part of our “social body” – or our ecological body – would be like cutting off our own arm.  Disruption is an indicator that something we thought was outside the system wants in.  A bit wiser, we may even start meeting the situation with curiosity.

Whether as a network or in more traditional organizational settings, two operating principles for engaging emergence are particularly important underpinnings for distinguishing what is arising.  They bring wisdom when diverse energies coalesce:

  • Simplify, and
  • Seek Meaning.


Harrison Owen, creator of Open Space Technology, introduced me to an elegant design question:  What is one less thing to do and be whole and complete?  It is a disciplining question, always seeking the simplicity on the other side of complexity.  Uncovering that simplicity is the essential work of renewing coherence wisely.  An inspiring example of what is possible occurred in a South Africa still under the shadow of Apartheid.

In 1991-92, when Apartheid was the law of the land, Adam Kahane worked with 22 prominent South Africans from across the ideological spectrum — politicians, activists, academics, and businessmen — to develop and disseminate a set of stories about what might happen in their country over the next ten years. The “Mont Fleur project” started shortly after Nelson Mandela was released from prison and the African National Congress (ANC) and other organizations were legalized and before the first all-race elections in 1994.  In Kahane’s words[2]:

During these years, dozens of “forums” were set up in South Africa, creating temporary structures that gathered together the broadest possible range of stakeholders to develop a new way forward in a particular area of concern. The Mont Fleur project was one type of forum that, uniquely, used the scenario methodology [a process for generating stories of alternative plausible futures to arrive at a deeper understanding in order to improve current and future decisions].

The scenario team met three times in a series of three-day workshops. After considering many possible stories, the participants agreed on four scenarios that they believed to be plausible and relevant:

  • Ostrich: a negotiated settlement to the crisis in South Africa is not achieved, and the country’s government continues to be non-representative
  • Lame Duck: a settlement is achieved but the transition to a new dispensation is slow and indecisive
  • Icarus: transition is rapid but the new government unwisely pursues unsustainable, populist economic policies
  • Flight of the Flamingos: the government’s policies are sustainable and the country takes a path of inclusive growth and democracy

The group developed each of these stories into a brief logical narrative. A fourteen-page report was distributed as an insert in a national newspaper, and a 30- minute video combined cartoons with presentations by team members. The team then presented and discussed the scenarios with more than fifty groups, including political parties, companies, academics, trade unions, and civic organizations. At the end of 1992, its goals achieved, the project was wrapped up and the team dissolved.

The ideas in the Mont Fleur team’s four scenarios were not in themselves novel. What was remarkable about the project was the heterogeneous group of important figures delivering the messages, and how this group worked together to arrive at these messages.

Mont Fleur did not resolve the crisis in South Africa.  The participants did not agree upon a concrete solution to the country’s problems. The Mont Fleur process only discussed the domain that all of the participants had in common: the future of South Africa.

Among the four scenarios, only one story led to a sustainable outcome:

The simple message of Flight of the Flamingos was that the team believed in the potential for a positive outcome. In a country in the midst of turbulence and uncertainty, a credible and optimistic story makes a strong impact. One participant said recently that the main result of the project was that “We mapped out in very broad terms the outline of a successful outcome, which is now being filled in. We captured the way forward of those committed to finding a way forward.”

A similar effort, with Kahane’s support, is now underway in Israel.  May it bring similar success.

In part, what is striking about Mont Fleur is that they faced one of the most complex social challenges of modern times and catalyzed a shift through a simple process: a group embodying the whole system engaged in creative conversations about possible futures for three days.  Additionally, they agreed to share the message: four stories that “gave vivid, concise names to important phenomena that were not widely known, and previously could be neither discussed nor addressed.”[3] Wise renewal, a nation returning to itself and the embrace of the international community coalesced when the scenarios were broadly shared.

The power of scenario work involves reflection and imagination.  It explicitly does not directly link to action.  For Western culture, which sets a high value on action, cultivating the capacity to reflect is key.  It supports us in uncovering the inherent simplicity of emergent complexity.

Reflecting:  Sensing patterns

What is unfolding now?

Reflecting is listening’s mirror, making visible what we sense.  It helps us step out of the flow and see the larger patterns in which we are embedded. Reflecting tests whether we are ready to come together by asking: What are we learning?  What surprised us?  What is meaningful?  What “simple rules” — patterns, assumptions, operating principles – are surfacing?  What can now be named?  Buddhists say that you cannot predict enlightenment, but practicing meditation prepares the way.  As both solo and collective acts, practicing reflection prepares us to notice what is shifting even as we experience it.  It invites coherence to emerge.

Years ago I was on the faculty of a women’s leadership program.  The women had an assignment to choose a service project to do together.  They were given no more guidance; their selection process and the nature of the project were up to them.  At the time, I was living with a question of how collective decisions are made.  Watching this group do its work taught me about reflection’s role in how wise coherence arises.

Over the next few weeks, the women identified possible selection criteria.  They researched and shared ideas.  And then they got stuck.  As they contemplated their options, they were polite with each other, no one wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings.  After several weeks of little action and the clock ticking, someone had enough.  She took a stand and made a clear, authentic statement about the project she wanted them to do and why.  Once she spoke, another stepped in, speaking her truth.  And another.  The group listened to each other’s heartfelt expressions.  As they reflected on their exchange, their decision was clear.  Only one project had characteristics that met some need each one had expressed.  Out of passionate individual expression, collective commitment surfaced.  Later, I spoke with the woman who jumped in first to learn what had prompted her action.  She told me that it had been an important moment of letting go.  She decided that making a meaningful choice was more important to her than maintaining her image.  So she took a risk.

When the way opens for expressing deeply felt differences, coherence is not far behind. Collective reflection makes space for our uniqueness to shine through, to name what matters to us. It is one of the most magical and transformative aspects of this work to me: that what seems a contradiction – expressing individual desires when collective action is called for — is a pathway to coming together in a new, likely wiser, higher-order coherence.

Reflecting is listening going deep, taking itself seriously, witnessing ourselves, others, and what’s emerging among us.  It sets a high bar, challenging us to “take all sides” by valuing every contribution.  It makes the rich tapestry of different ways of perceiving available to us, getting past triggers that usually block our hearing.  It helps the listener get underneath ineffective expressions – shouting, whining, bullying – to the deeper longings buried in the angst.  And it supports the speaker in hearing themselves more fully, perhaps making what is at the heart of their cry visible to themselves for the first time.  Such is the transformative power of reflection.  It helps us see differences and stay connected.  Feeling fully heard frees us to notice the larger, more complex picture painted by our diverse views. That bigger picture is often an unexpected, coherent pattern that could not possibly have arisen without the deep expressions at the heart of our differences.  Reflection prepares the way for wise renewal.

It is impossible to know what interactions will actually engender breakthrough.  If we’ve done our homework in creating a healthy environment, with clear intention, rich with diversity, welcoming conditions, and the space to explore, the chances are excellent that the interactions will lead to something useful.

The Art of Reflection

Because reflection is a skill not widely practiced, I offer some tips of approaching it:

Pay attention to the timing. Are conditions hospitable for expressing diverse perspectives?  Has there been time to explore without the demand for a coherent response?

Ask questions that test for understanding and patterns.  It is an art to know when the time is ripe for such inquiries.  Too soon, such questions frustrate.  Too long, fragmentation – the shadow of differentiation in which we feel our separateness – sets in.  I often test readiness by casually asking a converging question, for example:  What are we learning?  If people aren’t ready, the question is soon forgotten in the flow of interactions.

Get curious; listen without judgment.  Most of us treat disagreements as a reason to debate, to convince the other that we’re right.  Listening becomes a strategy for discovering arguments to undermine the other rather that a means to understand them more fully. When I first discovered dialogue, I found a question that served me well whenever I disagreed.  I’d say, “that’s an interesting perspective.  Tell me more.”  It always took me deeper into someone else’s world.  It also works well when I’m at odds with myself, uncovering deeper and sometimes contradictory assumptions that I hold.

Let of go the need for immediate decisions. Allow time for ideas to percolate and relationships to form.  It helps prevent overwhelm from expecting immediate answers when exploring the depth and breath of diverse perspectives. Sleeping on open-ended inquiries is a useful practice. Social psychology offers a body of evidence that a night’s sleep supports our ability to sort through complexity.  Called the Zeigarnick effect, it shows that people continue processing uncompleted or interrupted tasks.  Their unconscious helps new patterns form that are too tough for our analytic mind. We have all experienced the effect of “sleeping on something” and having it come into greater clarity in the morning. So even in our sleep, we reflect.

These actions help us surface the wisdom that lives in a collective, to help coalesce our needs and longings as we embrace new forms.  Just as reflecting surfaces deeper, more coherent, truths, finding meaning moves us to act on those truths – to make them part of the “simple rules”, the collective operating system that guides us.

Seek Meaning

Without meaning, nothing gels. Oren Lyons of the Iroquois nation states it eloquently: “we talk until there’s nothing left but the obvious truth”.  Such is the threshold for action arising from a system coalescing into a wise renewal.  When we can all find ourselves in what has emerged, something palpable shifts in our relationship with ourselves and each other.  Our perception of the whole of which we are a part is more nuanced, more richly textured with different perspectives that no longer separate but connect us more deeply. We experienced this magic at the end of a Journalism that Matters gathering.

On the final day of an early and pivotal Journalism that Matters gathering, people spent about thirty minutes by themselves, reflecting on questions intended to uncover what mattered to them:

What did you learn?

What project do YOU want to pursue as a first next step?

Who would you involve?

When they shared their reflections with each other, a pattern emerged that guided our work for years.  It was remarkably prescient of what is happening in the field of journalism now:

The future of journalism centers around the power of storytelling to create healthy communities. Specifically:

Cultivating “healthy journalists”, renewing the inner life of the journalist;

Preparing the next generation, with an eye towards the emerging citizen journalist; and

Inventing a new economic model. As one participant put it, “Rather than further compromise the work, it’s time to separate journalism from its current funding sources and find a new model.”

While far from complete, in a complex picture still unfolding, these ideas provided a guiding image to light our way, affirming we were on a productive path

This was a baby step, one small cluster of people from different parts of the system uncovering something meaningful for the future of journalism. They felt renewed by their work together, sensed a deeper wisdom none had previously experienced as they had individually grappled for answers to the changing shape of their work..

Because the story of what we are becoming is always unfolding, naming and harvesting what we also part of finding wise coherence.

Naming: Making meaning

How do we call forth what is ripening?

Names can appear in a leap of insight, utterly unexpected and yet holding what is essential to all. Naming something into being inspires us to act. It is the denouement, the moment of birth, the arising of emergent complexity that we’ve been mid-wiving throughout.  It can be a sacred act.  When the colonies named themselves the United States of America, a new form of governance was born that rippled throughout the world.  Such is the power of names.  They embody wise renewal as they bring coherence to life.

Such acts can seem like magic.  In practice, they are the culmination of all we have been doing: opening to explore what has meaning, noticing what endures from the past, what to embrace that wasn’t possible before.  Reflecting as we go, discerning what is ripe, breathing life into it with a word, a phrase, a name that distills meaning. With a name, a story can be told.

Harvesting: Sharing Stories

Once named, how does meaning spread?

Stories help us transition, supporting us in making sense of what has died and what is being born.  The arts – music, dance, poetry, film, painting, sculpture, theatre, etc. – are powerful carriers of meaning, assisting in taking wise renewal to scale.  With rare exceptions, every movement has songs.  Anyone present during the civil rights movement recognizes We Shall Overcome, a song that instilled commitment to keep going even in the darkest times.  Phrases like the industrial revolution, the information age, the civil rights movement, each speaks volumes about the accumulated moments in time.  They are a shorthand that tells a story.  Tom Atlee coined the term, “story field” to describe the cultural narratives that shape our lives.  How we tell stories matters.  Is the glass half empty or half full?  Is the dying of newspapers a disaster for democracy or an opportunity for some new and better possibility?  Since great stories have dynamic tension, it is likely both.

Harvesting stories helps us share meaning, carrying the seeds of renewal beyond those who engaged in a pivotal experience.  Given the magnitude of the challenges we face, how can we possibly name and harvest meaning on a scale and at a speed that can make a difference?

The Promise of the Macroscope

A turning point occurs when we experience ourselves as part of something larger.  Our voice rising in harmony with others; an obstacle overcome because our different skills and abilities pulled us together to accomplish something none of us could have done on our own.  We change through such experiences.  It breaks through habits of separation that keep us fragmented, apart. Our stories become a doorway into the universal and we find ourselves undeniably interconnected, even with those we never saw as part of “us” before.  When people all over the globe saw our world from space with no boundaries, we experienced ourselves anew. For many of us, this first sight of Earth from space made visceral what we all knew in the abstract: political borders are an illusion.  Slowly, quietly, this insight triggered an inexorable journey towards a more respectful relationship among people of all cultures and with the Earth.


Figure 2. Earth from Space

Emergent change processes create this experience of being of a larger whole for tens, hundreds, sometimes thousands of people.  While it may change those directly involved, how does it scale?  How can we reach that turning point with millions?

Technologies – from meditation to the Internet – can amplify our ability to sense how we belong and to harvest the stories in novel, creative ways.  They provide the means to bring what we are learning about working well with disruption and difference into broad awareness, to take to scale what turns the tide when facing human-caused upheaval.  Joel DeRosnay, author of The Symbiotic Man, introduced the notion of the macroscope[4].  Macroscopes are tools for sensing the information, ideas, experiences, maps, stories, art, and media that help us see ourselves in context.  Just as microscopes opened the way to the infinitely small and telescopes to the infinitely large, both sparking innovation, macroscopes have an even greater potential today. While microscopes and telescopes turn us outward, macroscopes help us see ourselves in relationship, how we fit with each other and our environment.  Because this experience changes our fundamental sense of who we are, macroscopes could be instrumental in helping us coalesce wise collective meaning out of the disruptions plaguing so many of our systems today.

DeRosnay Macroscope Image

DeRosnay's Macroscope

Figure 3.  From Joël de Rosnay’s The Macroscope

In the spirit of the macroscope, people are creating a myriad of approaches to harvesting that enable us see how our diverse cultural stories fit together.  These web sites, movies, games, and other media help us see complexity, changing our understanding of who and what is outside and inside a system.  The tools are young but taking shape quickly.

As change accelerates, we are well served to understand the effect of our human footprint in both space and time. What would it mean if we could see the speed with which we are using the natural resources of our planet? Would we behave differently if we experienced how interconnected we really are?  Creating such contextualized views, seeing coherent maps of how we fit together engages us deeply, mentally, emotionally, even spiritually.  It helps us act locally both informed by a higher order, more global perspective and energized by gut understanding that we are all in it together.  The tools can provide faster, more visible feedback loops to understand the consequences of our choices. New forms of journalism and other types of storytellers are just beginning to experiment with these capabilities. For example, Minnesota Public Radio created an online game for the public to balance the state budget.  Not only did people learn more about the challenging trade offs, legislators were able to see what mattered to their constituents.

The more stories we harvest that make sense of how our different perspectives fit together, the more we will start internalizing a “macroscopic” view — acting as if we are the complex relationships that make us a system.  We coalesce at a higher-order of complexity, network upon network of interrelated individuals who, together, form a differentiated, yet coherent, whole.  As we get better at experiencing our interconnectedness, our sense of who is our community expands.  The conditions for more trust and courage emerge.  We take action knowing something about the collective assumptions and intentions we share.  We become clearer about our own work, and how we connect with others.  New insights, partners, and initiatives emerge. Ultimately, we may experience ourselves as of the Earth, not just on it, catalyzing a radical shift in the story we tell ourselves about our place in the universe.

When we harvest shared stories big enough to contain us all, then something quite new will have emerged on this planet.  We are calling into being our collective soul so that our many-storied world can find its way and each of us our paths through it.  And a new cultural narrative re-shapes who we are.

[1] Eisenstein, Elizabeth, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communcations and cultural transformations in early-modern Europe, Cambridge University Press, NY, 1979, p. 130.


[2] Kahane, Adam. . “Learning from Mont Fleur: Scenarios as a tool for discovering common ground” Deeper News, Vol. 7, No. 1, Global Business Network, Emeryville CA, pp. 1-3.

[3] Ibid., p. 3.

[4] DeRosnay, Joel.  The Macroscope.

6. Emergence in Context: Continuing to Evolve

7 11 2009

Though history doesn’t repeat itself, it does tend to rhyme.

– Mark Twain


Something subtle often happens after an experience with emergence.  Whether it is living through the September 11,2001 attacks, or coming together with a diverse group to address an intractable challenge, life returns to normal.  But not quite.  Old habits seem strange.  Normal activities seem more like walking through a dream. There is a Zen saying: before enlightenment, the dishes.  After enlightenment, the dishes.  Though we may look the same, the experience changes us.

While emergence is how nature takes great, discontinous leaps to create novel forms, it leaves many ripples in its wake to be integrated into our assumptions about how our world works.  Understanding emergence requires not only grasping the dynamics of breakdown and breakthrough, it also involves understanding emergence in context: how we weave together what’s new and what we know, establishing new operating principles that create newly predictable patterns of interaction.  This weaving is an iterative process – as we do something again and again, shifts take place over time.  These dynamics shed light on an important and elusive challenge of change: sustaining the gains – finding a new stability.  By the end of this chapter, you should have a much better sense of how to work with the aftermath of emergence.


Internalizing What’s Novel Into What We Know and What We Know Into What’s Novel

Not only are we changed when we experience emergence, but so are our relationships, how we interact with each other and how we relate to our environment.  Business as usual has been interrupted, compelling us to revise our understanding of who we are and what cultural assumptions – the “simple rules” or invisible tenets that guide our actions – we wish to embrace.  We generally become more resilient, with increased capacity to work with differences and the unpredictable, to sense in ways that weren’t previously part of our makeup.  We, individually and collectively, become more complex systems.  It takes time to assimilate the new story of who we are, who “they are”, how we fit together, what it means for our ourselves, our relationships, our society, and how it shapes our actions.  I had a personal taste of this shift following a trip to Russia.

In 2000, I spent a month in Siberia.  The group I traveled with had been advised to bring toilet paper from home.  It was a good idea because public rest rooms had none.  Mid-way through our trip, we hosted a week-long leadership workshop for women starting social service organizations to replace social system infrastructures that collapsed during Perestroika.  The U.S. team was given a shared space at the conference facility and we were constantly running out of the half-used rolls of toilet paper they supplied each time we requested more.  Three days in, I came into our room during a break to discover four unwrapped rolls.  I was elated! I thought, “maybe I should take some with me in case my supply from home isn’t enough for the rest of the trip.”  And then it hit me: the reason public places had no toilet paper is because if everyone followed my impulse and took a little home, public institutions would become everyone’s TP suppliers!  In the U.S., we have a story of abundant toilet paper.  In Russia, there was a story of scarcity.  My story became a cultural metaphor for understanding the invisible assumptions that shape our lives.  I shared it with workshop participants and one of our translators told us that during her first trip to the U.S., she thought she was in toilet paper heaven.

As our travels continued, I noticed the napkins in most places were one-ply thick and small.  Other cultural differences also caught my eye: converting dollars to rubles illegally on the streets was the norm; periodic and unpredictable power outages were frequent; indoor plumbing was non-existent outside the cities; apartment buildings had no common areas.  I remember my judgment over a government that spent more money on the nuclear arms race than basic infrastructure for its citizens.  And that when a government doesn’t want people to organize, it designs buildings without a place them to gather in community.  Were these accurate interpretations of my observations?  I don’t know.  I do remember on the plane home going into the rest room and being overwhelmed by the variety and abundance of papers: toilet seat covers, tissues, toilet paper, paper towels.

As is the case after encountering emergence, I was changed by my experience.  My habitual patterns had been interrupted.  With my re-entry to the U.S., I was more awake.  I understood that many assumptions I took for granted had different meanings to my Russian colleagues.  I assimilated a new guiding principle:  do not assume I know what’s going on based solely on my observations; things are not always what they seem. Since the trip, I am less likely to jump to conclusions without checking with others on their perceptions.  My toilet paper epiphany caused me to revisit some mundane assumptions.  I hadn’t noticed the abundance in my ingrained routine until it was absent.  I am both more appreciative of the abundance in my life and more mindful of choosing less wasteful alternatives.

My trip to Russia is an example of weak emergence; I was different, perhaps more capable, but still able to assimilate these new aspects into my basic cultural narrative.  With strong emergence, the novelty is of a magnitude that everything we know is re-ordered around new organizing principles – the simple rules that order our lives.  I have a colleague who grew up in East Germany when it was still behind the Iron Curtain.  We were walking along Unter den Linden (Berlin’s equivalent to Paris’ Champs-Elysees) to the Brandenburg Gate.  She told me that this used to be the end of her world.  It was where the Berlin wall divided the city.  She went on to tell me that she was in college when she emigrated to West Germany.  It was tremendously disorienting.  She came from a society that, once she had chosen her college major, selected every other aspect of her education.  Her new university gave her complete freedom to choose her course of study.  She told me she was so overwhelmed that she couldn’t act.  She had no preparation for making such decisions.  Nor did she know how to face all of the little choices that are normal for Westerners.  How do you choose among dozens of brands of toothpaste and everything else both large and small?  What differentiates one type from another?  It took her years to learn how to function in her new home.  She revisited virtually everything she knew about how things work, slowly integrating assumptions new to her that emerged as she learned how to fit into her new environment.

If one person freezes when faced with such change, imagine the effect when whole societies make such a shift, as East and West Germany did when they re-united.  I had the privilege of witnessing a conversation among East and West Germans during a workshop in Berlin introducing Future Search, a process that seeks common ground by exploring the past, present and future.  I came to understand that while West Germany “won” with the dominant economic system, everyone lost because they came together without the sort of creative engagement through which East Germany’s close-knit family and community relationships might have been valued as a gift to their re-knit society.  East Germans integrated new operating rules while West Germans provided the context.  Perhaps a container that allowed East and Westerners to explore the best of both cultures might have led to a novel outcome with the economic vibrancy of the West and the community vitality of the East.

These stories highlight that time to assimilate is essential.  Perhaps that explains why it often seems that after a powerful collective experience, nothing else happens for a long time.


Doing it Again…and Again

Repetition and iteration are two forms of doing something over and over.  In repetition, the same act occurs over and over.  I have heard insanity defined as doing the same thing over and over expecting different results.  This type of static stability is useful for making widgets that have to fit with little tolerance for variation.  In human systems, while the predictability may be nice, over time, such rigidity can contribute to collapse.  Just think of the images conjured by the organizational phrase “but we’ve always done it that way”.  Iteration, by contrast, is a repeating process in which the output of the current cycle becomes input to the next cycle.  With each execution, conditions evolve and affect the next cycle.  This cycle also describes how we learn.

While straightforward on paper, in practice, several challenges arise when attempting to understand how change unfolds. First, changes may be virtually invisible in the beginning, accelerating with continued iterations.  Secondly, emergent change unfolds in an almost untraceable flow, not the easy to follow cause and effect we tend to track through “managed change”. Lastly, there seems to be a spiral to change, with aspects long discarded re-emerging in a later iteration.


From Invisible Beginnings

While the first time we pursue an intention, we may do it alone, if we keep at it, it can gain traction.  The initial inquiry may not attract anyone.  My colleague, Michael Dowd, is an evolutionary evangelist.  Ever heard of such a role?  If not, you probably will soon.  He has a book, Thank God for Evolution, on its way to the bestseller list.  To trace the path of his work, one could begin with a unique voice, Teilhard de Chardin, who introduced the noösphere in the 1940’s and 50’s.  Many have read de Chardin but who could have predicted that one of them, theologian Thomas Berry would dedicate his life to furthering these ideas?  Or that Berry would attract a young cosmologist, Brian Swimme, into his world ultimately resulting in a brilliant, poetic book that marries science and spirit called The Universe Story.  Or that others would read de Chardin or Berry and Swimme and seeking more inspiration would find each other, reinforcing the merit of the ideas and the sense of companionship on the journey.  The number now working at the crossroads of science and spirituality is growing.  In addition to Michael, for dozens of scientists, spiritual leaders, and social activists a sacred telling of the evolutionary story is part of their life’s work.  As they share their views of the universe story as our sacred origin, the ideas themselves get clearer inspiring novelists, artists, poets, and musicians to tell the story through different modes of expression.  As the story goes multi-modal, it takes off.  These ideas are everywhere – in songs, novels, on the news, re-integrating views split when Western culture organized science and religion as incompatible ways of understanding our place in the universe.

With iteration, as different people and groups experiment, we experience a turn of the spiral, recapturing an old way of knowing as different aspects coalesce into something new.  Science has helped us learn so much more about cosmological, geological, and biological evolution that we discover a richer, more complex of sense of how we fit in the cosmos that is both scientific and spiritual.  Perhaps the universe story as a collective creation story is emerging now because we need it.  It not only helps us understand our place in the universe, but also makes it clear that we are part of the same family.

From one voice to many, starting almost undetectably small, changing slowly and incrementally, then taking off.  The cycle of change is a lot like growing bamboo.  You water it every day for four years and nothing happens.  Then suddenly, it grows sixty feet in ninety days.  Since the 1940’s, we’ve moved from an occasional voice to a few pioneers to many people making sense of how we relate to the sacred and scientific story of the birth of our universe.  Michael Dowd may be the one who breaks through to popular culture finally putting to rest the war of words between science and religion that has gripped so many in the U.S.

This pattern of change over time is visible in the power curve:



Time –>

Perhaps understanding that most of us only notice a shift well after it is underway may help keep some of us going through the early, invisible times as we pursue our own initiatives.  It is an act of faith when we have just the whisper of an idea. If we don’t see results from our efforts, most of us tend to move on, look elsewhere to make a difference.  Appreciating our effect is difficult when we can’t see it.  Most of us do better joining with others already in process on something we care about.  For those called to initiate: consider staying with it even when faced with little or no visible results.  The breakthrough may be just around the corner.

Ironically, sometimes the more radical the shift the more innocuous the results seem at first.  Integrating novelty takes time for new forms to coalesce because it requires bumping into our old assumptions and behaviors, noticing they no longer work and remembering to try the new assumption or behavior in its stead.   How long did it take e-mail to replace snail mail as our primary means of correspondence?  The red ink in the post office and rising stamp prices are showing effects that have been in the making for years.  How long will it take us to collectively sort out what technology to use when?  I can’t say how many times I leave voicemail, email and a text message when trying to reach someone in a hurry!  And of course, these communication tools are a tip of one iceberg of that mammoth emergent agent of change called the Internet.

Emergence starts slowly and by the time most of us notice, it is a whirlwind that we can barely grab.  One need only listen to scientists continually revising their estimates of the speed of melting Arctic ice to understand the pace is not linear.  When we consciously work with change, it helps to remember that going to scale begins with a single step and then another and another.  As energies ripen, the pace accelerates.  Starting small, we learn the skills and presence to work with the unexpected.  As capacity grows, we can take on more complex systems with more diverse participation reaching greater numbers. Journalism that Matters has been doing its work since 2001, including a three-year gap between the first three iterations before it took off.  Now the demand is accelerating.  And we’re better equipped to handle it.


Walking Randomly Towards Coherence

Change is rarely a predictable progression.  A random walk describes it better, with sparks appearing at unexpected moments, first forming small clusters, then larger ones, coming together through interactions that seem to magically lead to increasing connections.  Such is how networks grow.  The leap in personal communications from letters to email tells the tale.  Correspondence used to be personal, a letter penned from one person to another.  Carbon copy paper made business communications a bit more convenient but personal letters remained just between friends.  When email arrived on the scene, it became so much simpler and faster to drop a quick line to a friend.  Or two.  Or twenty.  The one-to-one barrier was broken and we could keep our friends tuned in as long as they, too, had an email address.  Pretty soon grandparents were logging in to connect with the grandkids.  And acquaintances across oceans became friends without ever meeting face-to-face.  One unintended consequence: the hold-outs who opted not to go online find themselves increasingly outside the stream, isolated on the dry banks of an almost defunct and quaint form of communication now commonly called snail mail. Another unintended consequence: personal communication has a radically different meaning as it continues to morph, perhaps both less personal and less communicative.  Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking tools have let us connect not just to our friends but our friend’s friends.  With the addition of fans, groups, and other ways of clustering, we are meeting up, linking in, and becoming increasingly connected with each other.  Our connections may have greater reach and less intimacy.  It is too soon to understand the many consequences.  In the meantime, we are weaving a web of relatedness that circles the globe at an accelerating pace.


Change as a Spiral

Another notable aspect of change is characterized by the phrase “the more things change, the more they stay the same”.  Change spirals over time, cycling through interactions that differentiate and coalesce guided consciously or unconsciously by some intention.  The core intention of health care is to ensure our well-being.  This purpose led to practices for doing whatever it took to keep people alive.  Technologies changed.  Now we can keep the body breathing even if the mind is gone.  Social, emotional, economic, and other ripples from this shift affect individuals and society.  The Terri Schiavo case pitted government and spouse against parents over whether to pull the plug on this young woman in a coma and spurred us to collectively re-examine what it means to ensure well-being.  The hospice movement is growing in strength.  Death with dignity acts have passed in several states making physician assisted suicide legal.  Is it controversial?  Without a doubt.  Still, a new coherence around an enduring principle of what it means to ensure well-being is coming around again in a new form.  This spiral dance of change is never ending.  And yet, many of us desire to hold on to the gains as they unfold.



Perhaps the most frequently asked question when people have been part of an emergent change process is, “how do we sustain this?”  Some are speaking to the outcomes, the tangible results or commitments that arose from the synergies of their interactions.  Others refer to the deepening sense of understanding and connection with people they didn’t know before, frequently with people from different backgrounds from themselves.

Often, the people involved in hosting are burned out or ready to shed their mantle of leadership.  They put all their energies into creating the fertile conditions for a diverse group to interact and produce something meaningful.  They can celebrate some likely results:

  • People will be stretched, refreshed, and clearer about their next steps
  • New and often unlikely partnerships will form
  • New and revitalized initiatives will take off

Many of these outcomes will continue without needing further support from the organizing hosts.  Their possibility-filled life-energy fuels them.

Still, the desire to sustain the results — the outcomes for most, the creative, engaged community for some — runs strong in most of us.  Social science research has taught us something about what it takes: an image of a desirable future that compels us to act; and like most mammals, humans thrive on mutual support. Keep these flames alive by inviting new hosts to step in, bringing fresh energy and ideas; investing in infrastructure for communication, periodically coming together face-to-face or using conference calls to share what’s happening; employing online social technologies for continued conversation; increasing awareness and skills with conversational practices and with engaging emergence so that the experience of productive interactions among diverse people becomes less exceptional, more normal.  All of these activities are valuable next steps.

One caution.  Often, our wish for sustainability is an implicit desire for static, predictable, unchanging dependability.  Such qualities come at a high cost.  They contain the seeds of the next upheaval.  Approach stability with resilience in mind to establish a dynamism that serves well over time.  If the capacities to disturb compassionately, engage creatively, and renew wisely increase, then we are all more equipped to grapple with whatever disruptions come our way.  Think of sustainability as the capacity of a system to maintain itself, to remain congruent with changing realities.  It can recover from disturbances and retain its essential identity, meeting its needs with attention to the ability of future generations to meet their needs.  In her posthumously published book, Thinking in Systems: A Primer, pioneering environmental scientist and founder of the Sustainability Institute, Donella Meadows, beautifully describes the difference between static and dynamic stability:

Static stability is something you can see; it’s measured by variation in the condition of a system week by week or year by year.  Resilience is something that may be very hard to see, unless you exceed its limits, overwhelm and damage the balancing loops, and the system structure breaks down.  Because resilience may not be obvious without a whole-system view, people often sacrifice resilience for stability, or for productivity, or for some other more immediately recognizable system property.

I think of resilience as a plateau upon which the system can play, performing its normal functions in safety.  A resilient system has a big plateau, a lot of space over which it can wander, with gentle, elastic walls that will bounce it back, if it comes near a dangerous edge.  As a system loses its resilience, its plateau shrinks, and its protective walls become lower and more rigid, until the system is operating on a knife-edge, likely to fall off in one direction or another whenever it makes a move.  Loss of resilience can come as a surprise, because the system usually is paying much more attention to its play than to its playing space.  One day it does something it has done a hundred times before and crashes.[1]

Human systems are resilient when both intentions and relationships are cultivated.  If the sustaining focus is principally on projects, efforts die when the project ends.  If, in addition to tending to projects, the core intention and the social fabric are nurtured, a vibrant community of practice that continues to generate creative responses to complex issues lives for a long time.

Leadership is about stewarding shared intention and tending to the social fabric — both of which involve providing welcoming spaces for conversational. Bringing community and relationships into the foreground invites others into the traditional leadership work of providing direction.  This, too, is a turning of the spiral, a redefinition of the who and what of leadership that re-unites attention to the people and the work of a system.  We are in the midst of grappling with a new story that shifts leadership from tops of hierarchies to hubs of networks, a topic deserving of its own book.

We’ve now explored what emergence is, some of its challenges, actions for engaging it, and how its effects unfold over time.  It’s time to pull all of these elements together through a situation relevant for businesses and society.  In the next chapter, I’ll tell the story of Journalism that Matters and its role in the roller coaster ride that is journalism re-imagining its place in communities and democracy.


[1] Meadows, Donella.  Diana Wright, Ed.  Thinking in Systems: A Primer.  Sustainability Institute.  (White River Junction, VT, 2008)  Pgs. 77, 78.