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Designing for Emergence

Last year Naomi Stanford posted a LinkedIn article questioning whether we can design for emergence or just set up the conditions to enable emergence.  To answer her posed question, I replied the business change function I like to use involves Cynefin Dynamics.

You start in the Disorder domain and collect stories to understand the present situation. The stories may lead you to the Cynefin Complicated domain where traditional Change Management practices and tools are useful. We can call on experts to analyze and develop idealistic future state solutions. Targets, milestones as governing system constraints work well because behaviour is consistent, repeatable, predictable.

However, if the stories are full of uncertainty, confusion, ambiguity in the form of dilemmas and paradoxes, then we move into the Cynefin Complex domain. Here, we design for emergence by probing the system with safe-to-fail experiments and monitoring behaviour. Experiments are designed with the conditions of emergence in mind – diversity, feedback loops, self-organization. Coherence and Obliquity are two enabling constraints (think of container in Glenda Eoyang’s CDE model) that allow patterns of different behaviour to emerge.

Continual dynamic flow around the Cynefin Framework essentially means staying in beta. Our propensity is to begin with reductionism (Complicated and Obvious domains) due to the many years of formal schooling and training drilled into us. Thankfully, complexity science helps us to think holistically and signals us to change our methods and tools to engage people differently.

Cynefin Complicated domain work is diagnostic. Complex domain work is dialogic. This is the new Dialogic OD perspective that folks like Peggy Holman are exploring and why stories are preferred over surveys and interviews.

Design for Emergence was given a deeper focus at a Cynefin Retreat held at Whistler BC in June 2018. Ann Pendleton-Jullian introduced “scaffold, not structure” to enable emergent thinking. She has co-authored a book Pragmatic Imagination. This book is the last chapter of a larger work in a soon to be published five-book system of books called Design Unbound: Designing for Emergence in a White Water World. 

Her concept and framework is based on six principles: 

  1. The imagination serves diverse cognitive processes as an entire spectrum of activity.
  2. The imagination both resolves and widens the gap between what is unfamiliar – new/novel/strange – and what is known. This gap increases along the spectrum from left to right. Within the range of abductive reasoning, there is a shift from using the imagination for sense-making to sense-breaking, where one first widens the gap and then resolves it with the imagination (see diagram below).
  3. The Pragmatic Imagination pro-actively imagines the actual in light of meaningful purposeful possibilities. It sees opportunity in everything.
  4. The Pragmatic Imagination sees thought and action as indivisible and reciprocal. Therefore it is part of all cognitive activity that serves thought and action for anticipating, and thought and action for follow-through.
  5. The imagination must be instrumentalized to turn ideas into action – the entire spectrum of the imagination. And the generative/poïetic/sometimes-disruptive side of the spectrum is especially critical in a world that requires radically new visions and actions.
  6. Because the imagination is not under conscious control, we need to understand, find, and design ways to set it in motion and scaffold it for play and purpose.

The last principle on scaffolding really resonates with me, especially as a professional engineer. It was cool to make the connection between using scaffolding to build skyscrapers and using scaffolding to mentally enable imaginative ideas to play with each other and build something entirely new. I’ll be adding scaffolding into my 21st century toolkit.

The Future of Change Management

At the Organizational Change Network on LinkedIn, Ron Leeman posted an article on the continuing argument about traditional Change Management being “old skool” and that it needs a re-think, an overhaul, some fresh ideas etc. He researched CM methods currently being offered by a handful of leading consulting organizations. His conclusion was apart from how new digital tools can help with some aspects of Change Management, he didn’t think there is a lot of new thinking out there. Rather it looked like just a regurgitation and/or re-naming of previous approaches.
I replied what if there was an emerging change practice that wasn’t a regurgitation but quite different as per the following:
  • What if a change practice emerged that treated all organizations as complex adaptive systems? It would mean escaping the dominant human-imposed Engineering paradigm (faster, better, cheaper)  and setting aside age-old tools such as reductionism, benchmarking, future state visioning, cause & effect analysis, linear road mapping, surveys, and yes, even metrics to a certain degree.
  • The change practice would be built on an Ecological paradigm applying ideas and words such as Anthro-complexity, Cynefin, Liminality, Morphogenesis, enabling constraints, managing the evolutionary potential of the Present.
  • The change practice would be informed by Natural science – what we have learned from observing Nature in action: Messy coherence, Homeostasis, Natural Resilience, Mutating containers, Exaptation, Biomimicry.
  • The change practice would leverage real world Complexity phenomena: Emergence, Diversity, Viral Butterfly Effect, Non-linear Tipping Point, Self-organization, Stigmergy, Pareto Power Law Risk (fat tail).
  • The change practice would recognize people are Homo Narrans: Dialogic sense-making, Distributed ethnography, narrative fragments, Thick Data, Disintermediation.
  • The change practice would understand the concept of Homo Faber – use of tools to shape a complex environment: Distributed cognition, Chaordic teaming, Safe-to-fail experiments, Weak signal detection, Obliquity, Asymmetric co-evolution, Scaffolding, Nudging, Fractal management.
  • The change practice would recognize humans like to play creative games (Homo Luden): Pattern recognition, Strange attractors, Non-hypothesis abduction, Wicked problems, Serendipity.
  • The change practice would be pragmatic: Conceptual blending, Adjacent Possible, Satisficing, Heuristics, Phronesis, Praxis.
As many of you know, what I outlined was the complexity-based approach to implement change during unpredictable, constantly changing times.
As Dave Snowden explained, you can view the real world in terms of 3 basic systems: Order, Complex, Chaotic. The 20th century was dominated by Order system thinking. Many change practices are  designed for a work environment that is stable, consistent, and where cause & effect relationships exist. The future is deemed predictable and possibly extends from past history. The popular image of jigsaw puzzle parts being put together is apropos. If a change project fits in this environment, one can confidently carry on using a linear step-by-step command and control mindset.
In a complex system the puzzle parts are constantly moving or even missing. Furthermore, a complex adaptive system will see humans adapting by evolving relationships and adjusting emotional interactions. If your change project faces uncertainty, unpredictability, ambiguity, think twice about using Order system CM tools. They really aren’t built for uncontrollable turbulence and volatility.
In 2000, Stephen Hawking stated the new century is the Age of Complexity. It’s getting close to two decades. The time is ripe, perhaps overdue, to update the Future of Change Management.