“The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley, an’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain for promis’d joy.”

— Robert Burns

“Human beings, viewed as behaving systems, are quite simple. The apparent complexity of our behavior over time is largely a reflection of the complexity of the environment in which we find ourselves.”

― Herbert A. Simon

“Organisms are themselves expressions of … emergent order and agents of higher levels of emergence.”

― Brian Goodwin

“Emergence of ever more complex structures seems to be programmed into the nature of our evolving cosmos.”

― Alex M. Vikoulov

“The phenomenon of emergence takes place at critical points of instability that arise from fluctuations in the environment, amplified by feedback loops. Emergence results in the creation of novelty, and this novelty is often qualitatively different from the phenomenon out of which it emerged.”

— Fritjof Capra

“This spontaneous emergence of order at critical points of instability, which is often referred to simply as “emergence,” is one of the hallmarks of life. It has been recognized as the dynamic origin of development, learning, and evolution. In other words, creativity—the generation of new forms—is a key property of all living systems.”

— Fritjof Capra

COVID-driven changes since early 2020 appear now to be global and largely permanent. Our past world is gone forever. Exactly what is replacing the past world – i.e., the so-called “new normal” – can as yet only be seen dimly and in broad outlines. Emergent properties and behavior are still, well, emerging.

The restructuring of nearly everything resulting from COVID disruptions is still in progress. Far from complete. When will things stabilize? Who knows? Maybe never? Stability does not seem to be anywhere visible so far.

Emergent properties and behaviors from interactions of members of newly-formed groupings usually become visible as a result of some degree of post-change stability. This emergent process conclusion however is hindered by significant continuing or residual instability. All we are able to see in this case is the ongoing process of emergence itself. Also known as confusion, mixed in with some chaos and a black swan or two.

Emerging properties and behaviors will not be visible for a while

This is a critical point: Today, instead of beginning to see what has at long last emerged, we still can’t see much more than the process that is underway. Managing during an emergence happening is a bit tricky, as some of you may have noticed. It requires some very different management processes and practices to succeed, to win.

When we are in the middle of a major change process like this, the inevitable slowdowns and even stops may be seen as the beginning of a new period of some stability. Unfortunately, it takes a great deal of effort and strong leadership to bring a halt to such change processes.

With serious trepidation, I offer as an example a rather infamous major emergence-change process known as the French Revolution (1789 to 1795). COVID times are of course very different, and hopefully non-violent, but there seems to be some comparability in change magnitude and impact scope. See a brief summary and link for more information at bottom of Related Reading section below.

This is probably the worst-case example for a messy “emergence”, but it illustrates how new systems are “created” on the fly with their own set of rules, mechanics, and behaviors. No one could possibly have foreseen the outcome until the emergence process was more or less terminated by Napoleon’s strong leadership.

The lesson for our times seems to be that our COVID-driven emergence process is now fully underway and is heading for an unforeseeable outcome. The process itself is truly the next big thing. And next is now.

Great Resetters beware

Trying to impose a particular outcome on an active emergence process like we have today is very likely to fail. Why? The new structures, groupings, and interactions are self-organizing in ways that seem far beyond the vision or control of any one overlord. Even Napoleon probably couldn’t take control of this one.

Exactly what is emerging depends on the people and situations involved, which are hugely dynamic – especially in this COVID-driven world. Some types and degrees of structure may be successfully enforced in a few places but there are way too many moving parts out there. The emerging systems are far more complex and variably-interconnected today to accommodate the desires of even the most capable control group or groups.

Big things will play out as always – in their own way and in their own time.

The ”new normal” period of relative stability that we all have been hoping for is more likely instead to be an extended, non-normal period of emergence, the nature of which will be self-determined dynamically and invisibly as the process evolves. Largely impossible to predict.

Managing in times of great emergence

“Managing” may not the right term here. For most of us, the operative term may be more like “survival”. The internet and its tech compatriots are vastly increasing the quantity and quality of interactions globally. This in turn drives complexity dramatically and swiftly upwards.

I wrote a post recently that dealt with complexity, which grows daily – along with our decreasing ability to deal effectively with it. Complexity eventually reaches a point of unsustainability, and a collapse of some kind commences.

How close are we to collapse? Probably quite far because the current emergence process has become global and is driven by (at least) several major players. Unless communication stops almost entirely, complex interactions within and among groups are likely to prevent or forestall anything too extreme. For the moment, anyway.

My prior post on Creative Destruction argued that changes, even major ones, are a part of life and have been forever. It is how each of us responds to the impacts of changes that really matters.

This is really the key takeaway point in my view. An emergence process is what we are experiencing today. Unforeseeable outcomes. Continuing big changes.

Only those who are best able to manage effectively – respond – in such times are likely to come out ahead.

So how do we “manage effectively” during an emergence process?

  1. Don’t expect or plan for a process end
    The process will end whenever it does – unforeseeable in both timing and outcomes. Agility and adaptability are what is needed. Indefinitely.
  2. Build and strengthen your agile business process
    Despite a lot of writing about agile processes, widespread adoption is still very distant for the majority of businesses and organizations. “Muddling through” seems to be the dominant implicit game plan today.
  3. Diversify as much as possible
    Move away from concentrations of customers, markets, products, locations, suppliers, supply chains, technologies, and much more. This requires knowing how your organization might be impacted by the loss of or major damage to each of your existing concentrations.

This clearly is not an obvious, quick, or simple endeavor. It will take careful planning and execution.

Also, breaking major plans into as many small, low-risk steps as possible seems especially important. Small steps become tests of responses to actions and feedback on changed situations, providing invaluable timely feedback for adjusting next steps.

Don’t plan based on predictions of the unpredictable

This should not have to be stated but the fact is that the majority of organizations today are mostly doing just that. They are planning based on usually-implicit assumptions that things are going to stabilize and that we’ll soon go back to “normal” (aka the past).

As they say, good luck with that.

Finding out that neither stability nor predictability are likely in our emergence process situation seems to be inviting some very hard and possibly fatal lessons.

Plans and actions should be based on continuing major change

Emergence appears to be far from done with us on this round. The detailed nature of our emerging new world is still emerging, changing. Management processes and practices of the past will no longer work.

Processes and practices that anticipate major change as a working environment and that don’t require predictability except in the very near-term are essential. An agile organization and culture of some kind seems to be the only credible solution here. Plan on small, learning steps wherever possible, backed by constant monitoring of the environment and a solid understanding of your points of greatest fragility.

Bottom line:

Emergence occurs where an entity is observed to have properties and behavior that its parts do not have on their own and that emerge only when the parts interact for some unknown period. The world has recently been undergoing a huge restructuring to create new groupings, new interactions, and new behaviors. Emerging from this process will be a business environment entirely unlike anything ever experienced. You cannot predict where it is going or how it may end up. Agility is the key to success.

Unless you follow complex systems theory or its applications to biology, sociology, or other field, emergence will be an unfamiliar concept. As always, Wikipedia offers a good starting point here:

“In philosophy, systems theory, science, and art, emergence occurs when an entity is observed to have properties its parts do not have on their own, properties or behaviors which emerge only when the parts interact in a wider whole.”

“Emergence plays a central role in theories of integrative levels and of complex systems. For instance, the phenomenon of life as studied in biology is an emergent property of chemistry, and many psychological phenomena are known to emerge from underlying neurobiological processes. In philosophy, theories that emphasize emergent properties have been called ‘emergentism’.”

“This concept of emergence dates from at least the time of Aristotle. The many scientists and philosophers who have written on the concept include John Stuart Mill (Composition of Causes, 1843) and Julian Huxley (1887-1975). The philosopher G. H. Lewes coined the term ‘emergent’, writing in 1875:

Every resultant is either a sum or a difference of the co-operant forces; their sum, when their directions are the same – their difference, when their directions are contrary. Further, every resultant is clearly traceable in its components, because these are homogeneous and commensurable. It is otherwise with emergents, when, instead of adding measurable motion to measurable motion, or things of one kind to other individuals of their kind, there is a co-operation of things of unlike kinds. The emergent is unlike its components insofar as these are incommensurable, and it cannot be reduced to their sum or their difference.”

“In 1999 economist Jeffrey Goldstein provided a current definition of emergence in the journal Emergence.[8] Goldstein initially defined emergence as: “the arising of novel and coherent structures, patterns and properties during the process of self-organization in complex systems”. In 2002 systems scientist Peter Corning described the qualities of Goldstein’s definition in more detail:

The common characteristics are: (1) radical novelty (features not previously observed in systems); (2) coherence or correlation (meaning integrated wholes that maintain themselves over some period of time); (3) A global or macro “level” (i.e. there is some property of “wholeness”); (4) it is the product of a dynamical process (it evolves); and (5) it is “ostensive” (it can be perceived). [emphasis added]”

“Rules, or laws, have no causal efficacy; they do not in fact ‘generate’ anything. They serve merely to describe regularities and consistent relationships in nature. These patterns may be very illuminating and important, but the underlying causal agencies must be separately specified (though often they are not). But that aside, the game of chess illustrates … why any laws or rules of emergence and evolution are insufficient. Even in a chess game, you cannot use the rules to predict ‘history’ – i.e., the course of any given game. Indeed, you cannot even reliably predict the next move in a chess game. Why? Because the ‘system’ involves more than the rules of the game. It also includes the players and their unfolding, moment-by-moment decisions among a very large number of available options at each choice point. The game of chess is inescapably historical, even though it is also constrained and shaped by a set of rules, not to mention the laws of physics. Moreover, and this is a key point, the game of chess is also shaped by teleonomic, cybernetic, feedback-driven influences. It is not simply a self-ordered process; it involves an organized, ‘purposeful’ activity.”

“Emergent structures can be found in many natural phenomena, from the physical to the biological domain. For example, the shape of weather phenomena such as hurricanes are emergent structures. The development and growth of complex, orderly crystals, as driven by the random motion of water molecules within a conducive natural environment, is another example of an emergent process, where randomness can give rise to complex and deeply attractive, orderly structures.”

“Emergent change processes. Within the field of group facilitation and organization development, there have been a number of new group processes that are designed to maximize emergence and self-organization, by offering a minimal set of effective initial conditions. Examples of these processes include SEED-SCALE, appreciative inquiry, Future Search, the world cafe or knowledge cafe, Open Space Technology, and others (Holman, 2010).”

Spontaneous order. Groups of human beings, left free to each regulate themselves, tend to produce spontaneous order, rather than the meaningless chaos often feared. This has been observed in society at least since Chuang Tzu in ancient China. Human beings are the basic elements of social systems, which perpetually interact and create, maintain, or untangle mutual social bonds. Social bonds in social systems are perpetually changing in the sense of the ongoing reconfiguration of their structure. A classic traffic roundabout is also a good example, with cars moving in and out with such effective organization that some modern cities have begun replacing stoplights at problem intersections with roundabouts, and getting better results. Open-source software and Wiki projects form an even more compelling illustration.”

“Emergent processes or behaviors can be seen in many other places, such as cities, cabal and market-dominant minority phenomena in economics, organizational phenomena in computer simulations and cellular automata. Whenever there is a multitude of individuals interacting, an order emerges from disorder; a pattern, a decision, a structure, or a change in direction occurs.”

Economics. The stock market (or any market for that matter) is an example of emergence on a grand scale. As a whole it precisely regulates the relative security prices of companies across the world, yet it has no leader; when no central planning is in place, there is no one entity which controls the workings of the entire market. Agents, or investors, have knowledge of only a limited number of companies within their portfolio, and must follow the regulatory rules of the market and analyse the transactions individually or in large groupings. Trends and patterns emerge which are studied intensively by technical analysts.”

Emergence during the French Revolution

The French Revolution that began in 1789 was set off by a series of huge changes, as history.com outlines:

“As the 18th century drew to a close, France’s costly involvement in the American Revolution, and extravagant spending by King Louis XVI and his predecessor, had left the country on the brink of bankruptcy. Not only were the royal coffers depleted, but two decades of poor harvests, drought, cattle disease and skyrocketing bread prices had kindled unrest among peasants and the urban poor. Many expressed their desperation and resentment toward a regime that imposed heavy taxes—yet failed to provide any relief—by rioting, looting and striking.”

Definitely not like our COVID days but similar in the extent and magnitude of societal changes occurring. Storming of the Bastille in July 1789 set off the process:

“The wave of revolutionary fervor and widespread hysteria quickly swept the countryside. Revolting against years of exploitation, peasants looted and burned the homes of tax collectors, landlords and the seigniorial elite [and led to] signing of the death certificate of the old order [feudalism].”

The “new order” began with the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in 1791 that deteriorated into mobs and eventually unleashed insurrectionists leading to a bloody, 10-month Reign of Terror in 1794. Order was finally restored with the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1795.