The trouble with emergence

What is it about the concept of emergence that so disturbs some managers? A friend of mine who is a very senior manager in a large INGO never misses an opportunity to tease me about the idea of emergence, whether in professional or private space: ‘when you taught your son to drive, I expect you just let things emerge. Like hell you did!’ There is clearly something going on here where the things I am interested in, complexity, emergence, the fallibility of managerialism, clearly poses some direct challenge to what she believes in. And she is not the only one who has responded in this way. Groups of managers are often perplexed when we explore alternatives to the tools, frameworks and principles that they feel need to govern their work. Emergence is deemed to be some kind of wacky, fringe interest, that managers living in the ‘real world’ have little time for, because they are busy getting things done.

Why does the idea niggle and undermine so? The first reason is probably due to a misunderstanding. I understand emergence to be a phenomenon that occurs when the patterning of many people’s intentions leads to outcomes that none of them could have anticipated, and maybe none of them wanted, but certainly ones which no one person is in control of. It arises as the result of the active engagement of interacting people.  Whereas some people have the idea that to be interested in emergent social phenomena means that you just sit back and ‘let things emerge’. As if they would without people acting together. No action, no emergence. So for me, emergence is not a passive phenomenon (although you could argue that if you do sit back and stop engaging, then all kinds of things are also possible, but they will be much less likely to be the things that you would want).

The idea that to be interested in emergence is equivalent to being prepared to let the world run over you is an absurd caricature.

The second reason why managers may feel threatened by the idea of emergence is that it poses a very fundamental challenge to those who believe that management is about always being in control, achieving predictable outcomes. For some managers the alternative to thinking that they are in control is the belief that they would be in total chaos. In a simplified world, a good manager is concerned with ‘delivery’. Obstacles, constraints and difficulties are to be managed away in favour of the prereflected goals. As events unfold, so it is important to listen hard and ‘learn the lessons’ and correct to the predetermined course. Any interview with Prime Minister Brown at the moment gives good examples of this way of thinking. For Brown, a good manager is someone who is unbendingly resolute and sees the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune as a way of proving their determination. Of course, the problem for Brown is that he clearly isn’t in control although he pretends that he is: the dissonance makes him look foolish and weak.

Of course, without determination and resolution it will not be possible to achieve things. But the manager interested in theories of emergence will be aware that they are both in control and not in control at the same time. They will be engaged in daily responses to unpredictable events where they will need to call on their best judgement at the time to muddle their way through. Some months into a project they will understand what they are doing completely differently from the way they understood it at the start. Although we thought things would turn out a certain way, now we have experience we realise how naive we were in our assumptions. We could not have known back then what we know now, for all kinds of reasons. If this doesn’t affect the things we then try to do we plough on despite the circumstances we find ourselves in, rather than because of them.

For a conventional manager, taking an interest in emergence may be the first step in relinquishing the fantasy of control. The emergent manager requires a different sort of discipline to getting tough with people who ‘don’t deliver’. It demands not less attention but more, not lazy laissez faire, but a scrupulous attention to the phenomena that arise as a consequence of our actions as we set out to implement our plans. It involves continuous meaning making. We may have to stick to plan A, but it may also be the case that there are such fundamental reactions to what we are trying to do that to pursue our course of action may involve oppressing people, or worse.

Going back to driving lessons, then, it may be entirely appropriate to understand driving, and the teaching of driving as an emergent phenomenon. Yes, it’s important for my son to understand the rules, and principles of driving,  and to act with intention on the road. It would be irresponsible not to cover these things. But I also want him to pay attention to the minute by minute conditions that he experiences as he drives around the streets. The rules are just rules of thumb: if I want him to be safe I need him to expect the unexpected, and to develop the judgement that comes as a result of being experienced, being able to make sense of whatever comes at him on the roads. What he needs to pay attention to in order to be in control of the car will change minute to minute: he needs to acknowledge that he will experience being less than in control in order to take appropriate action. His driving from A to B does not just involve his plans alone.

Think how much more complicated these judgements are when what you are trying to influence is not a machine, but perhaps a team of people, or a whole organisation. There is no alternative to acting with intentions, and making plans, but to believe that these plans will turn out exactly as we predict is a self-defeating delusion. As managers we have a duty to observe, systematically and in detail, what it is that arises as a consequence of our actions and intentions. We have a duty to pay attention to emergence as we ride the tiger.



2 thoughts on “The trouble with emergence

  1. joitske

    Interesting observation about control! I think the feeling of being in control is very important (for all of us, but for some more than others!). Maybe when people realize this feeling of control is fake, they will be more open to other concepts? (like with the climate change, crisis etc).

  2. reflexivepractice Post author

    Hi Joitske,
    if ever we needed proof that we are not in control of the way the world works, then it would be now!


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