When You Stop Controlling, What Emerges?

In my last post I mentioned emergent behavior is a strength of adaptive organizations.

A definition of emergent behavior: A behavior is emergent if it’s something the collective does without any individual intentionally aiming to  it belongs to a collective but not to the individual components that make up the collective. It’s sometimes used interchangeably (even though it isn’t strictly interchangeable) with “self-organizing.” The movement of a flock of birds, for example, isn’t led or organized, but nonetheless ends up creating a beautiful, organized pattern–so much so that scientists long hypothesized that there was some sort of organization or leadership.

On the surface level, it’s easy for leaders to get excited about emergent behavior. It’s engaging, it’s innovative, and because of its connection to artificial intelligence, it sounds futuristic. But as soon as you start to dive into the details of emergence, it starts to get scary very quickly.

Emergence not only unplanned but unplannable. It doesn’t obey a strategy or market tactics. We’re able to tell the stories of the individual parts of a system, and we’re able to tell the story of the system as a whole, but the individual story and the story of the whole are not clearly and causally related. In other words, it’s not possible to control emergent processes to create a specific desired outcome–at least not without some kind of mind control.

To most business leaders, this makes emergence a non-starter, or at the very least makes it something they would limit to a dark corner of the dreaded Innovation Department. Our objective is to contain what we can’t control and subdue it with everything we can control. Giving up control is the exact opposite of what I try to do every day.

The good news is that, although I’ve written quite a few words already about emergent behavior, I haven’t yet mentioned what emerges.

  1. Leadership. We all know leadership and management are not the same thing. Management is a way of delegating down a chain, percolating down to (one can hope) the right people for each task. By contrast, a leader only exists because there are people who choose to follow. Leadership is visionary and inspiring–not the mushy feel-good kind, but the kind that puts such a strong idea in your head that you will stick with it through disagreements and difficulties, even through loss and sacrifice.
  2. Culture. Culture is already an emergent phenomenon, but a particularly interesting one because it works as a feedback loop: culture emerges between people, but then it is identified and qualified and absorbed by the individual who goes on to influence the culture. But even with that in mind, managers still attempt to control culture as though it were something that could obey their will if only they tried hard enough.
  3. Strategy. Slime mold is so efficient at finding food that scientists spent several years laboring under the hypothesis that they would find “controller cells” that coordinated the behavior of the colony. Emergent strategy adapts to present conditions more quickly than planned strategy because its members are responding directly to stimuli, and due to its parity with the pace of culture it is just as good or better at future-readiness. What’s more, due to its emergent properties, it scales much more effectively than planned strategy. (The flip side of its scalability is that emergent strategy is less effective in smaller organizations; emergence is itself something of a network effect.)

I want to emphasize that emergence doesn’t mean surrendering your organization to chaos and anarchy. I will delve further into the subject, but for now just imagine that your organization is your back yard. At present, at its best, your backyard is neatly mowed, has some nice lawn furniture and a couple of lawn games. I’m not suggesting you should let your lawn be reclaimed by nature–covered in scraggly bushes and weeds–but that your lawn could be a Japanese garden, a beautifully manicured work of nature. Without the self-directed growth of the plants, it wouldn’t be possible, but likewise it wouldn’t have form or meaning without the care given to cultivating and pruning those plants.

I’d like to take this opportunity to do a check-in with you. What excites you about emergence? What concerns you? I have several posts in the works, but I’m interested in where you want this to go next. Let’s have a conversation in the comments.

3 thoughts on “When You Stop Controlling, What Emerges?”

  1. The target audience seems to be more (not exclusively, but more) executives who are used to monitoring and controlling a great deal of things. In my career, I’ve mostly seen the opposite: executives who delegate the responsibility of organizing and planning for mergers and large corporate initiatives to low-level employees who already have their own mission-critical tasks to occupy their full attention. Any thoughts on “When you start facilitating, what emerges?”

    1. Thanks for the feedback. I was going to write at least one follow-up post about “designing for” emergent behavior, but “facilitating” might be a better word. Hopefully that will speak more to your experience and we can have some good discussion around it.

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