PATTERNS OF CHANGE: Invoking Emergence in a Time of Uncertainty

31 03 2009

What would it mean to know how to work well with the unprecedented upheaval many of us face today?

Chris, a client of mine who has taken on a complex and ambitious task– the transformation of the corrections system in the U.S. – 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 very risky.  With a board asking very legitimate and traditional questions, like “What are you doing?” and  “What do you expect to achieve?” Chris is providing very 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 the diverse group working with him walk it.

We live in unprecedented times.  With financial systems crumbling, oil prices rising and falling, educational systems failing their students, whole industries like newspaper publishing and auto manufacturing 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.

Since change is a given, how do we work with it to transform the systems we care about?  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.  More and more, people are venturing into unchartered territory, re-imagining their systems. Leaders and change agents are struggling to find 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.  Enter emergence.

What is Emergence?

While there is much talk of emergence as the way change naturally happens, it is an elusive idea, particularly when it comes to knowing how to apply it.  A simple dictionary definition of emergence is

“Becoming known, becoming apparent, coming to light, becoming evident.”

We now know there is much more to it than that.  In systems theory and science, emergence is the way novel, higher-order systems arise out of interactions among diverse entities.  So in human systems, when diverse people rub elbows in a welcoming environment, innovations result that have properties none of the people, their ideas, or their projects have on their own.

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 outcomes.  By definition, if you know the steps to generate the desired outcomes, then emergence isn’t happening.  In truth, to say we can invoke emergence is audacious.  But before you throw up your hands in frustration, there’s something very important you need to know:  Just because specific outcomes are unpredictable, doesn’t mean it is impossible to work with emergence. It just requires a shift in orientation.  With clear intentions and a well-set context, it is possible to engage creatively with emergence and generate terrific results.  In fact, people, giddy with excitement, often say “I never could have imagined we’d have come to such a great outcome.”

For Chris, when a diverse group from the system of corrections came together using an open-ended emergent process to advise his organization on how to proceed, they broke through together 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?

While we can’t control emergence, or know in advance the specific outcomes it will produce, we can use our knowledge and aspirations to focus intentions to guide our work.  This distinction between intentions and outcomes helps handle the anxiety most of us feel when facing the unknown.  Even without specifics, there is direction.  With an intention in mind, I have found three questions particularly useful for invoking emergence:

  • How do we disrupt coherence compassionately?
  • How do we engage dissonance creatively?
  • How do we realize novelty wisely?


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 a novel whole arises that serves us all well?

For most of us, the notion of emergence is tough to grasp.  This makes sense, because it, too, is still emerging.  When something new arises, we have no simple, short-hand language for it.  We stumble with words, images, 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.  When scientists 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 their language was different, it was close enough that they knew they were on to something and they were no longer alone.

As they continued meeting, they started to give it language and a name to their experience: emergence.  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 don’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.

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.

I posit that 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 novelty that wasn’t possible before; novelty that serves those essential needs, intentions, and values more fully.

What follows is an emerging story that puts the old story of change in perspective, opens the way for something new, and provides some insight into how to put the ideas to work.  The story it tells lives at the intersection of four paths:

  • A theory of emergence – how simple acts of individual entities can, together, create higher-level order.
  • The practice of whole system change – in particular, emergent practices in which conversations  among diverse people about complex, often conflicted, topics lead to unexpected breakthroughs;
  • The study of evolutionary dynamics – how change naturally occurs, gained through exploring the mother of all change processes – evolution.
  • A pattern language – a means for communicating theory and practice, originated by architect Christopher Alexander and colleagues, that makes visible essential qualities for designs that serve us well.

Now the marketing pitch: invoking emergence is fast, energy efficient, turns disruptions into opportunities, leads to highly innovative results with broad support and resilience over time.  The catch:  you have to rely on the people of the system to make it happen.

Here’s the story…



10 responses

12 04 2009
Sherri Black

Recommend changing first sentence to:”How can each of us effectively deal with the unprecedented upheaveal in our lives today?

Recommend taking out the pharase “shouting out orders” — some leaders who may learn from this book may get turned off by those words. there is a sense of judgement in those words — philosophy of less judement from the story teller — let the story portray what is not being done by chris.

I would like to see you spend a little more time talking about emergence — what it feels like, its color, and its feel. Sense of wonder and relief it brings — almost make the reader feel the first time they experienced emergence. Reordering some of the first few paragraphs may help this

Peggy — it may be a bit more diplomatic talking about “old change” a bit more kindly — like change patterns that used to work but suddenly with the degree of turbulance in our lives do not seem to help any longer (or someting like that –not to offend all the other change or OD method masters).

Note: you talk about emergence as a science but to me there is a lot of intuition and listening to that sixth sense in letting emergence unfold.

I really like the ideas you are putting forward. It seems to me as if a combustion happns when the four paths merge and give life to emergence!

15 04 2009

Peggy, great post. I intended to write a short reply, also including a comment on Sherri’s comment. Then I got lost and I realized that I was writing a blog post on my own. So, a longer reply can be found on my blog.

Just a summary: I do not agree with Sherri. It is the role and responsibility of thought leaders to introduce a new language. The old language serves as justification for trying to reestablish the old ways of doing things. It is probably that we have not yet found the new language we need to describe patterns that are breaking through, and attitudes and tools that we need.

15 04 2009
Scott Davis

One of the finest blog posts I’ve ever seen. Kudos.

I work on a team with some folks, and we found ourselves using these methods a few years ago — thought we did not know what to call it. The result has been, as you said, more than we could have imagined.

In our experience, the vital starting point is clarity around what you called “essential needs, intentions, and values.” The ESSENTIAL ones=fn(Prioritization&Strategy). Most people can’t embrace indeterminant processes because they can’t distinguish between critical core values and sacred cows.

22 04 2009
Kelly Robson

Fascinating article. Emergence has many similarities to Adaptive management which is used to explore uncertainties in natural resource management decision making.

22 04 2009
Nancy White

Hey, Peggy, sorry it took me this long to read and circle back w/ comments. Here I’ll offer general comments and then put specifics in the diff. sections.

Overall, you have created an afforance, a “handle” to help people look appreciatively at change as something they CAN participate in and not just be a victim of. Beautiful.

The work resonates with some other writers who have been influential for me. Obviously, Peter Block’s work aligns with the strong emphasis on asking generative questions.

Interestingly, there is also an echo to Dave Snowden’s work (of Cognitive Edge) where he talks about chaos and retrospective coherence. He writes that he thinks AI etc are hogwash (my words, not his) but it would be interesting to see what he says because there is some strong resonance here. He works in a different sort of language. But he talks about working with the boundaries between what is known and repeatable, that which requires expertise, that which is only understood retrospectively and of course, chaos in which we can only swim, let alone make sense.

A question I’m left holding – and it is not necessarily the function of this work, is the dark side of what you write. Just as we can ride the wave of emergence for the betterment of the world, so too can we ride it to create destruction.

I kept trying to come up with an alternative word than “novelty” because novelty also has associations with triviality. Sigh.

The one other area I wished to see more of was the effect of networks in emergence, propagation of ideas, memes, etc. You mention it late in the work in terms of technology and context, but I suspect our ability to be together in new ways – networked ways that don’t always reflect closed loop conversations but distributed flows of bits of conversation plays a part in this. The me, we, network thing I mentioned when we had lunch.

Finally, in this first section

* I’m curious. Is emergence always about a higher order system or simply a new or changed system?
* On page 4 of the doc, you talk about coherent cultural narratives, the journey. What is the role of myth in getting us stuck and unstuck?

25 04 2009

Nancy, thanks for the feedback. Most helpful for the next round of edits.

I will add something on the DARK side. An important aspect to note.

I have also been looking for an alternative to novelty. My latest approach is to speak about renewal – how do we renew coherence wisely? I’ll see how that works.

Technically, strong emergence always arises into a higher-order system, with irreducible properties unique to the new system. For example, a new species. Weak emergence is new properties – mom and dad’s DNA combining to make a unique you.

BTW, I don’t know Dave Snowden’s work.

I’ve added a reference to myth but am not sure I want to go that direction. That said, the seed is planted. I’ll see where it goes.

22 04 2009

Thanks for this post. It’s provocative. The challenges you have articulated are all there — and so the real deal for all of us is going to be the meta-conversation about how to facilitate whatever is new and about to unfold. One of the ways I’ve seen emergence happen that is respectful of the past while welcoming change is in enabling people to bravely come together into their points of conflict and stuckness, then encouraging them to share their most important personal stories and experiences that have moved them to their stuck, sometimes highly defensive, emotional perspectives. Usually there are seminal experiences, childhood conditioning, stories of injustice, revelations of motive — all kinds of things. When the full stories are on the table then there can be new space where something can begin to emerge that might represent an altered vision. Not too much different than Otto Scharmer’s U Theory, I guess, but from my standpoint, moving to the real and difficult stuck points and holding that space naturally begins the “creative dissonance” and crumbling of the status quo. Also, and this is a tricky point in my experience, the leader/facilitator cannot simply “hold the space” for others without being personally engaged and present, offering a full personal perspective as to their role in the stuckness/conflict — and being genuinely open to feedback about that role. There’s sometimes a tendency for leaders to want to hold the space while others “do their work” or “create the breakthrough”and don’t engage out of a misplaced sense that their role is only to set the container. They may not want to impose their ideas because of a perceived power difference. Frequently, this leads to floundering by the group and everyone waiting for the leader to get real.

Again, thanks for this. Beautiful work.

25 04 2009
V1.0 Patterns of Change Outline « Patterns of Change: Invoking Emergence

[…] PATTERNS OF CHANGE: Invoking Emergence in a Time of Uncertainty […]

6 05 2009
Penny Walker

Hello Peggy

Thanks for sharing this work in such a ‘novel’ way! And for inviting strangers like me to share our reflections.

I am particularly struck by the question about compassionately disrupting coherence.

I work a lot with people and organisations which are considering their role in creating and adapting to climate change, and other eco-shocks.

There’s something about congruence, and also about being able to function effectively in one’s day-to-day life.

I think that a lot of my clients go through life a lot like I do – 99% of the time in a very helpful state of denial. We accept intellectually that CO2 in the atmosphere is higher than it has been for hundreds of thousands of years (for example) but we most act as if this isn’t the case.

And this denial is useful – it enables us to function.

What’s hard is when people are brought face to face with the reality and implications of that kind of data, and invited / choose to engage with their own role in creating the problem and finding the solution.

I find myself feeling guilty that I’m ‘causing’ them so much distress, and also (rather ashamed that) I feel pleased that “I’ve got through to them”. And all this despite the fact that this is what I’ve been invited in to do, to be a kind of agenda-driven change facilitator.

So when I do this, I’m disrupting their (fragile) coherence, and bringing them up close to what they likely perceive as their incongruence as people and as organisational actors.

Holding that compassionately, rather than feeling I need to rescue them from it, is sometimes hard.

So it’s great to have resources like this to enable deep reflection on my practice!

Kind regards


7 05 2009


I’m delighted to know this is helpful to you in working with your clients. BTW, do check out Version 2, which is now on the home page.


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