Medium 9781605095219

Engaging Emergence

Views: 2581
Ratings: (0)

Shows how to spot the emergence of a new level of order from the seemingly chaotic change that characterizes modern times
Offers practices and principles that will help you align yourself and your organization with the new order
Features real-world examples of individuals and organizations that have successfully navigated disruptive change
2011 Nautilus Gold Medal in the category of Conscious Business/Leadership

Change is everywhere these days, so much so that it can seem like barely-controlled chaos. As a result, increasing numbers of leaders, managers, workers and change agents feel overwhelmed. Some see too many choices, while others see no choices at all. But sometimes within this seeming chaos are the seeds of a higher order. Science calls the process of a new system arising from the ashes of the old emergence. Understanding the phenomenon of emergence can help leaders to gracefully and successfully cope with change and emerge stronger and more purposeful.
In this profound and insightful book, Peggy Holman offers new ways to think about the potential upheaval contains as a source of emergent change and shows how to engage it productively. This is is an art more than a science, so Holman offers practices that tell you not precisely what to do but rather how to approach disruptive situations–what to notice, what to explore, what to try, what mindset will leave you most open to identifying the new paradigm as it emerges. She grounds these practices in five overarching principles that apply the scientific understanding of emergence in the natural world to social and organizational change processes. Real-world stories of collapse and renewal serve to illustrate these principles and practices in action. And Holman outlines three questions to help you work compassionately, creatively and wisely with the entire arc of the change process, from coherence to disruption to renewal.
This work can be difficult—the end is rarely in sight and the outcome is often uncertain. But it can also be tremendously exciting. Our survival in an increasingly unpredictable world is at stake, and working consciously with emergence is a promising pathway to doing something about it.

List price: $24.95

Your Price: $18.71

You Save: 25%


19 Chapters

Format Buy Remix






If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.

—Carl Sagan, Cosmos

For most of us, the notion of emergence is tough to grasp because the concept is just entering our consciousness. When something new arises, we have no simple, shorthand language for it. The words we try seem like jargon. So we stumble with words, images, and analogies to communicate this whiff in the air that we can barely smell. We know it exists because something does not fit easily into what we already know.

Emergence disrupts, creates dissonance. We make sense of the disturbances that emergence creates partially through developing language that helps us to tease out useful distinctions. As the vocabulary to describe what is emerging becomes more familiar, our understanding increases. For example, disturbance, disruption, and dissonance are part of the language of engaging emergence. These terms are cousins, and I often use them interchangeably. Disruption is the most general of the three words. If something involves an emotional nuance, chances are that I call the disruption a disturbance. When conflict is involved or the disruption is particularly grating, with a lack of agreement or harmony, I will likely refer to its dissonance.


2. What’s the Catch?


Chaos is found in greatest abundance wherever order is being sought. It always defeats order, because it is better organized.

—Terry Pratchett, Interesting Times

If emergence holds so much promise, why isn’t it more widely embraced? First, we are just beginning to understand its dynamics so that we can successfully engage with them. More, working with emergence has a catch. In fact, it has several. The pages that follow describe six catches.

When breakthrough initiatives—the fruits of emergence—begin, there’s nothing particularly spectacular about them. Quite the opposite. The seeds of most great ideas are misunderstood, dismissed, or discouraged by others. I heard author Peter Block summarize David Bornstein’s How to Change the World by observing that successful social entrepreneuring projects begin small, slow, and underfunded.1

Beginnings are laden with self-doubt, false starts, dismissal as a crackpot, and other less-than-appealing experiences. Pioneering is not for the faint of heart. People blaze trails because of something so compelling that they feel they have no choice. Often, the reasons are obvious: a business collapses or a tsunami destroys the town. Sometimes, one person’s inner drive carries an idea forward. The beginning of the “green jobs” movement highlights the leap of faith through which many initiatives are born. I heard Van Jones, human rights and clean-economy activist, tell this story in 2007, before his brief tenure in the Obama administration.




When love is truly responsible, it is also truly free.

—Pope John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope

Taking responsibility for what you love, or, stated more fully, taking responsibility for what you love as an act of service, liberates us to act on our own passions—as long as they also benefit the greater good. Since we don’t know which interactions among us make the difference, this practice points us to a promising source for guidance. I consider it the heart of the practices, because if we step up to it as a daily practice, it can change everything. It opens the way to situational leadership. We no longer need to wait for formal leaders or facilitators to declare an initiative or pose a good question. Any one of us can do so by taking responsibility for what we love as an act of service. When invited to do so, people consistently rise to the occasion. It may be messy, because most of us haven’t been prepared to take responsibility for ourselves. Yet, over and over, people from all backgrounds develop the internal guidance to take responsible action. In doing so, they discover their connection to themselves, others, and the larger whole.




We are not what we know but what we are willing to learn.

—Mary Catherine Bateson, Willing to Learn

Emergence is rife with uncertainty. The more skilled we are in facing the unknown, the better able we are to engage emergence and to bring others with us.

How do we equip ourselves to engage disturbance?

Three practices—embracing mystery, choosing possibility, and following life energy—are particularly useful to cultivate. This chapter explores them.

What does it take to be receptive to the unknown?

Perhaps knowing that turmoil is a gateway to creativity and innovation provides a reason to open to the unfamiliar. Just as seeds root in rich, dark soil, so does emergent change require the darkness of the unknown. After all, if we know the outcome and how to create it, then by definition nothing unexpected can emerge. Even knowing its value, embracing mystery, being receptive to not knowing, takes courage. Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön speaks eloquently of this notion: “By not knowing, not hoping to know, and not acting like we know what’s happening, we begin to access our inner strength.”1




As for the future, your task is not to foresee it, but to enable it.

—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Wisdom of the Sands

When disruptions are loud, situations are complex, and feelings run hot, we need change strategies up to the challenge. As appealing as it may be to “take charge,” success is more likely with a “create conditions for something to emerge” strategy. The latter approach takes humility, curiosity, and the willingness to involve others. We cultivate these qualities by embracing mystery, choosing possibility, and following life energy. They prepare us to host others.

Engaging emergence involves hosting, creating a “container” in which innovations can arise. A good container has a clear purpose, has a spirit of welcome, and invites the diversity of the system. Clear intentions provide direction and inspire a sense of purpose without defining specific outcomes. Welcome conditions encourage authenticity and engagement. Diversity ensures that the unexpected is present.

This chapter discusses three hosting practices for cultivating productive containers: focusing intentions, welcoming, and inviting diversity.




Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.

—Helen Keller, The Open Door

We have prepared ourselves to engage and equipped ourselves to host, with a clear purpose and spirit of welcome. We have invited a diverse group to come together. We are poised to step in, confident that productive outcomes are possible.

How do we engage so that we achieve the best possible outcomes?

This chapter covers practices key to engaging emergence: inquiring appreciatively, opening, and reflecting. In addition to descriptions, stories, and tips on these practices, I offer two practices that amplify reflecting: naming and harvesting.

How do we inspire explorations that lead to positive action?

If your first impulse when facing disaster is to ask questions that surface images of a positive future, your chances of making it through upheaval increase. It kept psychiatrist Viktor Frankl alive, as he continually sought meaning even in a concentration camp during the Holocaust.1

Ambitious, possibility-oriented questions are attractors. They bring together diverse people who care. They disrupt, but do so by focusing on opportunities for something better, more meaningful. They help to create a welcoming environment, opening the way to discover what wants to emerge. A useful general question is “Given all that has happened, what is possible now?”




History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.

—Mark Twain

Something subtle often happens after an experience with emergence. Whether it was living through an earthquake or hurricane or coming together with a diverse group to address an intractable challenge, life returns to normal. But not quite. Old habits seem strange. Normal activities seem more like walking through a dream. There is a Zen proverb: “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” Though we may look the same, the experience changes us.

While emergence is how nature takes great, discontinuous leaps to create novel forms, it leaves many ripples in its wake. This chapter describes how those ripples are integrated into our assumptions about how our world works over time. It puts emergence into the bigger picture of change by discussing iteration—doing something again and again, each time influenced by the previous experience. It sheds light on an important and elusive challenge of change: sustaining the gains. By the end of this chapter, you should have a sense of how to work with the aftermath of emergence.




Hopefulness only makes sense when it doesn’t make sense to be hopeful.

—Paul Hawken, commencement address, 2009

What is it like when our world is disrupted? How did autoworkers feel, not just losing their jobs, but losing a way of life that shaped their lives, their children’s lives, their community’s lives? We can easily say, “Serves them right for making an inferior product,” in the abstract. I dare any of us to say it to a grieving member of the industry, someone who sees his or her work contributing to society.

Welcoming disturbance can move us from the pain of change to its possibilities.

Isn’t it useful to know that order can arise out of chaos? Conflicts, differences, and disruptions are great indicators that we’d better act. Engaging emergence is a good strategy for taking on wicked problems. Knowing that we have a viable approach is a reason for optimism, not to mention untying a knot or two in one’s gut. Rather than throwing our hands up, not knowing what to do, we can take action. We know practices for engaging emergence that can lead to higher-order solutions that are radically novel, coherent, persistent, whole, and dynamic, and that positively influence individual behavior.




Never tell people how to do things … they will surprise you with their ingenuity.

—General George S. Patton, Jr., War As I Knew It

Pioneers have much to teach us about engaging emergence. They begin their journeys into the unknown by marshalling resources and support. They are most resilient when they hold their intentions clearly but lightly, without attachment to specific outcomes. They adapt by welcoming feedback from others and the environment. Inviting partners with diverse perspectives and skills also increases their chances of success.

Pioneers know that the assumptions that work in familiar settings change when we enter the unknown. They know that breaking old habits takes courage. And while compassion may not be a traditional pioneering skill, it helps keep us going as we stumble through the many experiments that elate and frustrate along the way.

Seek new directions. Think different.1 Act courageously. If you are holding on, let go. If you are going with the flow, step out of the stream. If you are focused on the inside, see what’s happening outside. If you are working downstream, check out what’s going on upstream. Pioneering involves breaking habits, doing the unexpected, breaking well-worn feedback loops.




Life is the continual intervention of the inexplicable.

—Erwin Chargaff, Heraclitean Fire

Remember the notion that no one is in charge? This frequently cited characteristic of emergence reminds us that in complex systems, change doesn’t happen through command and control. As appealing as it would be to tell a system what to do, where would you begin? Imagine commanding the health care system to be accessible and affordable. Even a CEO who gives an order that is inconsistent with expectations may have to wait a while to see it executed. Certainly in the economic crisis of 2009, auto executives learned the painful truth that they are not in charge of what happens! Changing systems, no matter the scale—families, work groups, organizations, economies, even our own behavior—is indirect. Although we can’t tell a system to change, we can create conditions that support it in doing so.

What if we said, “Everyone is in charge”? Would that create better conditions for change? Consider the game of soccer. It is fluid, ebbing and flowing, highly interdependent and cooperative. Everyone matters. The flow of the ball, the state of the field, the sounds of the crowd, all affect how the game unfolds. While “Everyone is in charge” might inspire more of us to engage, it still isn’t quite on the mark. After all, the rules of the game and whom we will encounter are understood.




There’s a world of difference between truth and facts. Facts can obscure the truth.

—Maya Angelou, in I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America

For many, entering the unknown of emergence is akin to experiencing a dark night of the soul—an internal struggle, a questioning of one’s purpose, that often leads to a spiritual awakening. Why do it without believing that it will lead to something useful … more than useful, something deeply meaningful?

Without meaning, nothing jells. Oren Lyons of the Iroquois nation states it eloquently: “We talk until there’s nothing left but the obvious truth.” Such truth is the threshold for action. When we can all find meaning in what emerges, something palpable shifts in our relationship with each other and ourselves. Our perception of the whole of which we are a part is more nuanced, more richly textured. Diverse perspectives no longer separate us. They connect us more deeply.

Given time to reflect, we humans have a natural capacity for recognizing patterns, discovering coherence where none previously existed. But which patterns matter? How do we surface the ones with legs that move us?




The obvious is that which is never seen until someone expresses it simply.

—Kahlil Gibran, The Garden of the Prophet, Lazarus and His Beloved, Sand and Foam

Order arises when individuals follow simple rules or organizing assumptions: Drive on the correct side of the road. Raise your hand and wait to be called on to speak. Rules provide structure and boundaries.

To a surprising extent, we don’t have to articulate the rules. Initial conditions tell us a lot about the principles that guide us. Think how differently we feel when we walk into a softly lit room, music playing quietly in the background. Now think about entering a sterile meeting room with chairs all facing the front of the room. With no explanation, each situation sets up a different emotional response and tells us a lot about what is expected of us. Now that’s simplicity!

Given the complexity of human systems, how can we possibly know what sort of rules will create the desired changes to a system? Finding simplicity is an art of discovery, continually doing one less thing while seeking the heart of the matter. Getting to fundamentals is key. What is our purpose in seeking change? Who needs to be involved? How do we approach it?


13. How Do We Disrupt Coherence Compassionately?


You’ve got to be careful if you don’t know where you’re going because you might not get there.

—Yogi Berra, What Time Is It? You Mean Now?

By now, it’s clear: disruption, upheaval, conflict, and disturbance interrupt the current state. They reveal unexpected aspects of a system, differentiating some element or elements that were previously invisible. Perhaps the issue is civil rights: people of color or those with disabilities saying we have a place, too. Or maybe nature reminds us that we are not as independent from our environment as we thought. Disruptions help us to notice differences that are ignored aspects of our systems.

This chapter explores a role that disruption plays in emergence: surfacing useful distinctions. It introduces compassion—the capacity to enter into and be moved by another’s experience—and it describes the relationship between compassion and disruption. It offers tips for cultivating compassion and a powerful practice of compassion—hearing, seeing, and loving. The chapter explores the question of when it makes sense to disrupt. It shares a story of learning how to compassionately disrupt in a situation in which one person seemed to be the disturbance. It ends with tips for disrupting coherence compassionately.




Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing.

—Warren Spahn, Major League Baseball pitcher

Now that we have disrupted compassionately, it is time to engage—to fully participate with head, heart, body, and spirit. Creative interaction is at the heart of engaging emergence: connecting with ideas, each other, the system as a whole, the context in which it lives, the natural world, even ourselves. The conditions are ripe for creativity—the open-ended flow that brings novelty into being—enticing us to explore both the familiar and the unfamiliar with new eyes, or a beginner’s mind, as Buddhists might say.

This chapter explores what can make disruptions creative. It points the way to the exhilarating work we encounter once we’ve leaped into the unknown. It offers a story of diverse people creatively engaging a disruptive challenge. It speaks to the value of embracing chaos. And it ends with tips for engaging disruptions creatively.

When disturbed, most of us would rather hunker down someplace safe, bringing what we wish to protect with us. This attitude kills creativity. A group of us were exploring an idea for a radio show that would bring together people with different points of view in civil conversation. One person was instantly resistant. Her image was the on-air style of most talk radio: shouting matches among people with conflicting perspectives. Not exactly creative conversation. And she was not alone.




The act of sense making is discovering new terrain as you are making it.

—Brian Arthur, economist, Santa Fe Institute

Remember Humpty Dumpty’s fall? The pieces didn’t fit together again. Emergence is like that. What arises from creative interactions is not a return to former times. It is more of a spiral, a re-newal— new again. Some elements circle around from the past. Others are original. Together, they form something novel and of a higher-order complexity.

This chapter explores coherence, the last aspect of change’s pattern of disturbing, differentiating, and coalescing. It opens with a story of differences cohering. It reflects on renewal and wisdom. It talks of the nature of networks, which are showing up as an emerging form for how we organize our systems. It ends with tips for renewing coherence wisely.

When we’re in the midst of creative disruptions, what helps our work come to fruition? What enables a higher-order understanding to coalesce? Reflecting, inviting people to share their stories, and naming what has heart and meaning helps to surface what hides in our midst.




Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.

—Seneca, Roman philosopher and statesman

It is a funny thing about our cultural stories. We seem to tell more of them that reinforce our belief in collapsing systems than ones that inspire a belief in renewing systems. Stories of breakdown are everywhere. We find them in newspapers, in magazines, on TV, in movies, and on the Internet. We know that ecosystems flourish, collapse, and arise anew over time. So do social systems. They rise up, become “too big to fail,” and weaken, even as something new takes shape. New beginnings are all around us. Yet they become visible only when we ask questions focused on possibility.

A renewal is under way, a modern renaissance fueled by the passion and commitment of many who have dared to pursue a dream. In communities, organizations, industries, and other social systems, stories of new ways of living and working are flourishing. They are visible if we simply choose to look for them. Some people and organizations are beginning to do just that. And they are sharing the stories, making this rebirth more apparent to all of us, inspiring more of us to engage.




History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.

—Sir Winston Churchill

A Pattern of Change

DIFFERENTIATION teases apart useful distinctions:

What do we wish to conserve?

What do we wish to embrace that wasn’t possible before?

COHERENCE arises as disparate aspects cluster to create a complex, novel whole.

DISRUPTION interrupts habitual activity.

Forms of Change

In order of increasing disruption:

STEADY STATE—Disturbance is handled within the existing situation. A minor fix is made, or the disruption is ignored or suppressed. Business as usual continues. For example: a speeder gets a ticket for driving too fast.

INCREMENTAL SHIFTS—Disruptions interrupt the status quo. We distinguish what the disturbance brings to the system and integrate changes. For example: an existing constitution is amended following protests that spark legal action.

EMERGENCE—Occasional upheaval results when principles that keep a system orderly break down. Chaos sparks experiments. Current assumptions are clarified, and new possibilities surface. Ultimately, something dies, and a new coherence arises that contains aspects of the old and the new but isn’t either. For example: a revolution leads to a new form of governance.


Load more


Print Book

Format name
File size
2.86 MB
Read aloud
Format name
Read aloud
In metadata
In metadata
File size
In metadata