Grounds for emergence or radical uncertainty?

I was working with a group the other day who had come together to discuss how important it was to undertake projects and research that were more open-ended. In other words, if one is being genuinely innovative or experimental it is not possible to specify in advance where a project might lead, or what research might discover. There was much amusement that many funding application processes oblige project proposers to specify in advance that they will be innovative and how they will be, which to many was a contradiction in terms. If you can specify the innovation in advance then maybe it’s not so innovative. The discussion turned on how we could persuade people who funded such work that the importance of experimentation was in not necessarily knowing what you would find – not all research is about testing a hypothesis. Sometimes it is necessary to undertake projects to work out what the hypothesis could be.

We decided that partly we were dealing with risk, and then on further reflection we decided that we were working with uncertainty. So risk is something that we already know might be a problem and we would take steps to mitigate it. This is what we have insurance policies for. Uncertainty takes us into Donald Rumsfeld’s fourth realm of ‘unknown unknowns’: we don’t know what our project or our research will lead us to discover since we don’t know what we don’t know (to put alongside the things that we do know we don’t know, which might comprise some of the reasons we want to undertake research in the first place).

As a group we had a lot in common, and shared common frustrating experiences of trying to deal with funders, who may themselves have their hands tied in terms of what their own managers or political bosses would accept, who seemed to want to tie down every eventuality. No business plan, project  or research proposal would be considered complete without its section on risks and ways to mitigate risks. To a certain extent every one knows this is a game to be played. If you can’t think of risks then you make them up, and you always make sure that the likelihood of the risk occurring is less than the mitigation strategy that you have devised.

But after a while I realised that amongst some people in the group there was still a search for certainty, a desire for ground which was every bit as strong as the funders we had gathered to criticise. This manifested itself in two ways, one as a wish to instrumentalise emergence and the second as a search for grounds.

So the term ’emergence’ was often taken to mean not controlling something, the opposite of making a plan. Some people talked about ‘allowing more emergence to happen’, perhaps even ‘creating the space for emergence’. For me this puts the idea of emergence straight back into the managerialist toolkit and is the very opposite of what I understand emergence to be. It implies that we can choose when to ‘let emergence happen’ and when we not to. Managers, researchers, project directors are still in control. It is similar to the claim that some writers on the complexity sciences make when they talk about ‘unleashing complexity in the organisation’ or designing ‘simple rules’ for people to operate by so that they can ‘align’ with a complex universe.

However, if we understand emergence to mean the patterning that occurs when we act with intention into a web of other people’s actions and intentions then emergence is happening all the time of one sort or another. New patterning emerges whether we ‘allow’ it or not, but it will be of a very different kind depending on whether we are actively engaged or stand back from events. The radical implications of the idea of emergence is that we are also part of what is emerging and do not stand separate from it.

The second idea that I found myself disagreeing with, that of ground, arose when we were discussing, sometimes drawing, what it was we thought we were talking about. For some people there has to be a common starting point, an alignment or ground from which to proceed. Some even drew diagrams which comprised a dot to signify the starting point where everyone’s values were aligned or their common purpose or mission was spelled out from which to proceed. Thereafter it is possible for ’emergence’ to allow a variety of things to happen. Of course, this is a very common sense point of view – there has to be something solid from which to spring.

My difficulty with this point of view is again down to the desire for certainty that is contained in the idea of a ground which undermines what seems to me to be the radical implications of insights from the complexity sciences. To take a radical view there are just practices and then more practices, patterning leading to more patterning. To call something a ground is an imaginative idealisation, just so  the process of  idealising a ‘whole’ when talking about organisations. It speaks to what Norbert Ellas was describing when he complained of way in which some types of scientific enquiry, and I would add the religious imagination, look for certainty in the form of something static and unchanging:

Yet, even today, people generally imagine that though knowledge may indeed change and grow, there is still an eternal immutable law underlying the human capacity for thought…it stems from the human need for security – the need to discover something immutable beneath the changing surface…It is taken as self-evident that something which is immutable itself and which can be detected in or behind all change, is more valuable than the change itself. What is Sociology: 42

Elias argues that what is simply a value position is presented as a fact. And indeed, in the group in which I was sitting a couple of participants were arguing that they knew that people needed to come together to agree a common ground ‘because it works!’, or ‘this worked for me!” The moment that people begin to assert their positions with quasi-religious certainty is the point at which my questions arise.

So a radical position  drawing on insights from the complexity sciences would be to argue that there is no ‘using emergence’, nor is one ever standing on firm ground. This is not to argue that there is no stability in social life: many of our practices have survived for hundreds of years and our ability to communicate with each other and locate ourselves in social life depends upon  regularities of interaction. However  stability and instability arise at the same time as patterning leads to more patterning. We can only begin to make sense of this from within the practices to which we contribute.

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5 thoughts on “Grounds for emergence or radical uncertainty?

  1. Pingback: From the Feed – Blog @Emergence International

  2. Chris Rodgers

    Hi Chris,

    As you’re aware, I broadly share your radical complexity view of organizational dynamics; with, perhaps, some nuance of difference ‘around the edges’. So taking this view to its logical conclusion, what might be said in relation to the scenario you have set out here?

    To me, the patterns of thinking, acting and interacting that you describe have themselves emerged from participants’ past interactions. Through these they have perceived, interpreted and evaluated ongoing events and decided how ‘best’ to act. Indeed, the patterning process will have continued during the course of the conversation itself, whether in ways that reinforced existing perceptions and interpretations (metaphorically ‘deepening’ the existing interpretive channels) or, potentially, changing them.

    In other words, what we might see as others’ flawed understanding of the dynamics of emergence – and of organizational dynamics in general – is itself the product of the very dynamics you describe. It has emerged from, and been ‘legitimized’ through, this same ongoing process of interaction. Indeed, as you suggest, much of this way of thinking and acting has come to be seen as commonsense. And we could say much the same about many other of the trappings of conventional management ‘wisdom’.

    I like the way that Keith Grint talks about this last point in his book, “Fuzzy Management”. He says that much of what is taught in management and business schools, and written about in management and business books, is a banal paradox. It is banal because it tells us what we already take for granted and know to be true. It is a paradox because, despite being full of commonsense, it doesn’t seem to work!

    So, assuming that we believe that others would be better served if they didn’t try to instrumentalize emergence or to look for certainty where none exists, the challenge would then seem to be one of helping to shift these well-established patterns in some way. As you say, this can only be done from within ongoing practice; that is, through participation in the sensemaking conversations.

    However, I see no conflict between paying attention to the here and now of current-day interactions and, at the same time, seeking to expose and explore some of the taken-for-granted assumptions and other “imaginative idealizations” that are tending, imperceptibly, to pattern these ongoing interactions. The latter may well be fantasy, in the sense that these are social constructions and reifications of past conversations (rather than in-the-moment sensory experiences). Nevertheless, they are very ‘real’ in practical terms for the participants. That is, even though we might argue that nothing tangible exists outside current interactions, the reifications of past interactions are – it seems to me – an equally important part of ongoing practice. These unavoidably affect the pattern and content of current interactions, both consciously and subconsciously, according to the particular circumstances of the moment. As such, these are equally deserving of our attention – not least because they have emerged from the self-organizing process of conversational interaction.

    Cheers, Chris

    Reply
  3. Chris Mowles Post author

    I don’t disagree with your, Chris. Aristotle made the same point, that what people think, whether it is reality congruent or not, is also a phenomenon to be dealt with. It is in and of itself something interesting to think and talk about. But actually it’s quite difficult to do this because of the emotional valency that sometimes accompanies people’s point of view about instrumentalising emergence. As I try to convey in the post, they express their point of view with some degree of religious conviction. From this I gather that I am not just worrying away at their ideas, but at their sense of identity as well. This makes it much harder for both of us. I suspect you of being a much nicer and more patient person than I am!
    Chris

    Reply
  4. Chris Rodgers

    I agree, Chris – except with your inferences about my niceness and patience!

    Again, though, I don’t think we should be surprised (as I’m sure you’re not) that people’s views are wrapped up with their sense of identity. Or that these are expressed, on occasion, with ‘religious fervour’; especially where contrary positions appear to attack those beliefs that underpin their sense of competence and self-worth. I guess that your strong identification with the work of Elias, Mead et al has, by definition, become part of your own identity.

    Any potential shift in identity is therefore inevitably an emotional as well as a cognitive challenge. For me, identity provides a personal ‘frame of reference’ that enables people to perform competently (from their own perspective) in a range of relationships at the same time. And, equally crucially, it is the means through which they seek to maintain each of their important relationships, simultaneously, in a desired state. Re-authoring their identity ‘story’ in one context can affect the ways in which they are viewed in others. So, holding on to the familiar – especially when this is in tune with the mainstream (i.e. other people’s stories) – is a natural response. And, as you found, people may not even be prepared to look for an alternative.

    I think that this refusal to engage with an alternative perspective is a bit like that which can occur when people see one of those paradoxical images for the first time. The old woman/ young woman figure has become too clichéd to work with most people today, but it will illustrate the point. If an individual is presented with the image for the first time and sees, say, the figure of the old hag, it is no use telling them that it is really a picture of an attractive young woman. The first thing that has to happen is to acknowledge what they are seeing. Only then are they likely to open up to the possibility that there might be an alternative way of looking at the image.

    Chris

    Reply
  5. Pingback: Management as ideology « Reflexivepractice

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