Understanding Emergent Change

Understanding Emergent Change

It’s one thing to change a light bulb. It’s something different to change a system. 

As more business leaders recognize that yesterday’s leadership strategies won’t work tomorrow, we are transitioning away from outdated strategic planning methodologies to embrace the new paradigm of “Emergent Change”. 

As a consultant, through my community and client work, I am building awareness around Emergent Change and helping leaders integrate the practice, so they can bring greater adaptability, innovation and creativity/emotionality into their business. 

Contact me to learn more!

What is Emergent Change

Emergence is the process of order arising from chaos. This idea has long been the foundation of many exploratory fields from science to art, not to mention social dynamics and human relationships. 

Emergent Change translates this idea to an organizational context. It is based on the assumption that change is a continuous, open-ended and unpredictable process of aligning and re-aligning an organizational system to the changing environment. 

Emergent Change processes are used in many industries that prize exploration and discovery, including technology, science, design and engineering. Recently, Emergent Change has reached the highest levels of organizational leadership, as executives recognize that the old paradigm of “planning” change on 3, 5 or even 10 year cycles no longer suits a marketplace that is evolving exponentially. 

How Emergent Change Looks in Practice

Two widely recognizable examples of Emergent Change are Netflix and Amazon. 

Netflix first began competing with Blockbuster by sending rental DVDs through the mail. 15 years later, Netflix competes with the major Hollywood studios generating the type of content that it once used to ship. This was never part of the “plan”.

Similarly, Amazon’s business began as an online bookstore, competing with Barnes and Noble. Today, its portfolio includes e-commerce, cloud computing, streaming, AI… that’s a long way from selling paperbacks! 

Obviously, not every organization that employs Emergent Change will achieve the same scale. Still, there are similarities in mindset and practice that can be applied to companies at much smaller scales. 

In essence, an Emergent Change practitioner focuses on three things at once: achieving current goals and objectives; innovating new goals and objectives; sunsetting old goals and objectives. 

This dynamic sense of ongoing movement exemplifies Emergent Change, and suggests the leadership systems,  interpersonal skills and inner worldview that the process requires. 

What Emergent Change Requires From Executives

In a top-down change model, executive leaders can ask others to change … without  having to change themselves. 

In Emergent Change, leaders must “embody” the transformation process to a much greater degree, developing familiarity and even intimacy with the uncertainty, disorientation and fear that the process requires. 

Understandably, words like uncertainty, disorientation and fear have not been common in many corporate boardrooms .. up until recently. However, as executive leaders articulate the need for adaptability, resilience and innovation, they are coming to realize that these qualities require a much different management strategy. 

Emergent Change also begins from the top-down, with an inner shift in perspective that, for many executives, can ripple out beyond business and into their personal world. Accordingly, Emergent Change requires a greater degree of wisdom and creativity from leaders … empowering them to work with complexity of a higher order. 

Emergent Change generates not just creative solutions, but a higher-order of solutioning entirely. It brings to mind Einstein’s famous quote: “we can’t solve our problems with the same thinking we used when creating them.”

How To Know When to Shift to Emergent Change

Some Emergent Change engagements are precipitated by a sudden interruption to “normal”—like sudden growth, an acquisition, layoffs or a disruption in the marketplace. 

However, the vast majority of my client engagements begin with the vague sense that “something better” is possible … without a specific problem to point to, or even a specific vision of what better could mean. 

Often, this sense is also related to an interruption—only one of a less dramatic order. Perhaps there has been a transition in leadership or a perspective shift in an executive’s inner life. This interruption has put the overall system out of balance. 

Symptoms can include cycling through the same leadership choices or feeling like there is “no solution”.  Executives could be experiencing stuckness, anxiety or burnout; Even positive changes can be accompanied by a sense of chaos and dread. 

An Emergent Change process can “release” this stuck energy and get the innovation process flowing again. 

What an Emergent Change Process Looks Like

In my client work, we begin every engagement with a Discovery process, no matter the problem our clients are asking us to help solve. 

Discovery has these intentions: 

  • To help the executive unravel the complexity of their challenge and uncover the root cause
  • To facilitate a shift in perspective that allows the executive to see a solution/path forward that is outside of the set of what has been considered previously 
  • To guide them to understand what integrating this solution will require of them and their organization 
  • To educate them about Emergent Change and help them conceptualize their individuated skill development journey 

Importantly, Emergent Change does not begin with “the solution” as in a planned change management process. Instead, Emergent Change is about creating an environment where unexpected solutions are likely to emerge … similar to weeding a garden, by analogy. 

For example: unlike most consultants/creative agencies, RCKT SCNC does not design/develop a solution and present it to a client. Instead, we guide the client through the innovation process, such that the solution emerges from the collaboration. 

In doing so, we exemplify the practice of Emergent Change, “teaching” by example and attuning the client to the mindsets and heartsets that this practice requires. 

This approach can be very disruptive for executives who are used to thinking in terms of problems and solutions. However, many Emergent Change practitioners find the process hugely creative and energizing, with ramifications that can spill out to all aspects of their life. 

Contact us to learn more: hello@rcktscnc.io