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.