About Emergent Change Processes

I will not follow where the path may lead, but I will go where there is no path, and I will leave a trail.

—Muriel Strode, My Little Book of Prayer

Emergent change processes engage the diverse people of a system in focused yet open interactions that lead to unexpected and lasting shifts in perspective and behavior.

The roots of these processes grew out of three traditions: social psychology, psychoanalytic theory, and systems theory.1 Perhaps the earliest experiment that united these threads by involving people in changing their own systems occurred in 1960. Social scientists Fred Emery and Eric Trist ran what came to be called a “Search Conference” to support a difficult merger. The new company was British aircraft engine company Bristol Siddeley. By the end of the session, the 11 top managers had “redefined the business they were in.”2

Another seminal event occurred in the early 1980s when consultants Kathleen Dannemiller, Chuck Tyson, Alan Davenport, and Bruce Gibb brought together a 130-person management team, followed by nine additional management teams of comparable size, at Ford Motor Company. At the time, the optimal group size for addressing complex challenges was considered to be eight people. Few worked with more than 20 at a time. Ford sought breakthroughs in managing its businesses comparable to its breakthroughs in managing quality. Dannemiller and her partners involved the large groups, trusting the principle that having the whole system in the room was critical. Through these five-day sessions, each management team “came to understand each other, the competition, and the market . . . as a coherent, energized, focused and aligned whole.” They created strategic plans owned by all. They reorganized their structures and practices to support their goals, according to Nancy Badore, executive director of Ford Motor Company.3

What made these and other experiments distinct was (1) working with the whole system, and (2) involving the people of that system in finding their own answers. Two organizational development consultants noticed that something interesting was happening. Barbara Bunker and Billie Alban edited a 1992 special issue of the Journal of Applied Behavioral Science on this odd phenomenon. The issue told stories of using these emerging methodologies, calling them “large group interventions.”4 That journal issue catalyzed the field and accelerated the experimentation.

Since then, thousands of consultants and academics have used these change methods in organizations, communities, and other social systems around the world. They have improved businesses, developed communities, and influenced social systems like health care and education all over the world.

Brief descriptions of the processes referenced in this book follow. For more information on these and other processes that support the diverse people of a system to realize what matters to them, see The Change Handbook.5

Appreciative Inquiry

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is based in asking possibility-oriented questions that focus on what is working and what is possible to inspire collaborative and wise action.6


Constructionist Principle—We construct realities based on our previous experience, so our knowledge and the destiny of the system are interwoven.

Principle of SimultaneityInquiry and change are simultaneous.

Poetic Principle—The system’s story is constantly coauthored and is open to infinite interpretations.

Anticipatory PrincipleWhat we anticipate determines what we find.

Positive Principle—As an image of reality is enhanced, actions begin to align with the positive image.

Phases of an AI Process

DiscoveryMobilizing a multiple stakeholder inquiry into the positive core of a system.

DreamCreating a results-oriented vision based in discovered potential and questions of higher purpose, such as “What is the world calling us to become?”

DesignCreating possibility-oriented design propositions of the ideal organization or community. Articulating a design capable of drawing upon and magnifying the positive core to realize the newly expressed dream.

DestinyStrengthening the affirmative capability of the whole system. Enabling it to build hope and sustain momentum for ongoing positive change and high performance.

At the center of this cycle is Affirmative Topic Choice. It is the starting point and most strategic aspect of any AI process. AI topics become an agenda for learning, knowledge sharing, and action. They get written into questions for Discovery interviews, and serve as seeds for Dreams, as arenas for crafting Design propositions, and for taking action in the Destiny phase.

Art of Hosting

Art of Hosting is a global community of practitioners using integrated participative change processes, methods, maps, and planning tools to engage groups and teams in meaningful conversation, deliberate collaboration, and group-supported action for the common good.7


High-quality conversation arises under the following conditions:

  • People in a group are present and grounded, working with a common purpose.
  • It is hosted in a container that invites participation and self-organization.
  • People engage in participatory leadership, not top-down leadership, making the group’s wisdom more available to itself.
  • Groups working together over time act and harvest their learning through feedback loops that support action.

As Art of Hosting scales these generative principles up to larger and larger settings, the work becomes Art of Participatory Leadership. Rather than working with predetermined methods, the “art” is approaching each conversation from a design perspective, offering the best design for the context, based on simple principles.


Art of Hosting is the “jazz” of emergent change processes. A team of hosts works with the conveners—often traditional leadership—to surface questions and activities that support their intentions for bringing people together. Hosting teams design the flow of an engagement by discerning what is most useful in the moment. Specific processes are often selected the evening before or the morning of an interaction. As hosting teams create the experience for participants, they invite the participants into the hosting itself. As a result, in addition to addressing the intended issue, participants are introduced to hosting skills. They learn how to ride the waves of the present moment while tending to an abiding intention.

Circle Process

Circle Process elicits deep speaking and listening that seems to arise from the form itself—a ring of chairs and a clearly defined purpose—inspiring collective wisdom and action.8

Principles and Practices

PeerSpirit Circling suggests three principles:

  • Rotate leadership
  • Share responsibility
  • Rely on group synergy

And three practices:

  • Speak intentionally
  • Listen attentively
  • Tend to the well-being of the group


Circle begins by setting the circle space, including establishing a visual center that represents shared purpose or intention. A check-in—each person speaking briefly without comment or interruption—connects people, as they slow down and fully arrive. Often, a talking piece—an object that, when held, reminds the bearer to address the question and reminds everyone else to listen with curiosity—ensures that everyone has a chance to speak without interruption.

When coming together for the first time, circle participants discuss and commit to group agreements—often statements defining confidentiality, respectful interaction, and parameters of responsibility. Someone volunteers to act as host, leading the topic from within the rim. And someone volunteers to serve as guardian of group time and energy. Within this framework, circle members move into the business or intention of the meeting, generally in a free-flowing conversation. When the subject is challenging, circle members may choose to reinstate the talking piece to slow the dialogue and stay in a mode of deep listening. Circle is brought to closure with a check-out—a talking-piece round to reflect on what has happened and harvest learning.

Dynamic Facilitation

Dynamic Facilitation (DF) helps individuals, groups, and large systems to address difficult, messy, or impossible-seeming issues, resulting in new possibilities, greater trust and collaboration, practical action steps, motivation, and exciting outcomes.9, 10 It does this by stimulating a heartfelt creative quality of thinking called choice-creating, whereby people seek win-win breakthroughs.


  • Creativity is key when facing complex or “impossible” issues.
  • Diverse perspectives are essential for creative breakthroughs.
  • Each person has a unique perspective and seeks to contribute to the larger whole, regardless of how he or she expresses it.
  • Listening deeply to someone supports self-reflection and expression of meaning.
  • When people can speak authentically and be heard, we discover our human connections.
  • Creativity and authenticity flourish when protected from judgment.
  • When diverse perspectives are held in a safe environment, we spontaneously create shared meanings and new, effective solutions that work for all.


A Dynamic Facilitator encourages participants to work on high-care issues by speaking naturally and authentically about them. Instead of behavioral guidelines, preset agendas, or step-by-step procedures, DF’s simple structure allows each contribution to be welcomed and heard even when the speaker might ordinarily be seen as disruptive. The facilitator’s work is to “take all sides” and actively “protect” each person’s contributions using four charts: data, solutions, concerns, and problem statements. He or she follows and supports participants’ energy, welcoming even frustration or anger while eliciting desired hopes and wished-for outcomes. As the facilitator draws out each participant, reflecting back meaning and recording each contribution, shifts happen.

A series of sessions deepen personal changes, sustaining the new perspectives that emerge.

Future Search

Future Search, if the principles are followed, has the potential to transform an organization’s or community’s capability for action in one meeting.11, 12 With “the whole system in the room,” people generate a shared vision, an implementation plan, and high commitment to act—all in less than three days.


  • Have the right people in the room—that is, a cross-section of the whole, including those with authority, resources, expertise, information, and need.
  • Create conditions where participants experience the whole “elephant” before acting on any part of it.
  • Focus on the future and seek common ground rather than reworking problems and conflicts.
  • Help people to take responsibility for their own conclusions and action plans.


Five tasks occur in the approximate timeframes shown below.

Day 1 Afternoon

Task 1—Focus on the Past

Task 2—Focus on Present, External Trends

Day 2 Morning

Task 2 Continued—Stakeholder Response to External Trends

Task 2 Continued—Focus on Present, Owning Our Actions

Day 2 Afternoon

Task 3—Preferred Future Scenarios

Task 4—Identify Common Ground

Day 3 Morning

Task 4 Continued—Confirm Common Ground

Task 5—Action Planning

This task sequence is used successfully in cultures worldwide. People work entirely with their own experience. No diagnosis, vocabulary, or special inputs are required. People come together across lines of culture, class, education, age, gender, and ethnicity to create plans many once considered impossible. The method has been continuously tested and refined since 1982.

Open Space Technology

Open Space Technology invites people to self-organize by taking responsibility for what they love as a means to address complex, important issues.13

Principles and the Law

  • Whoever comes are the right people.
  • Whatever happens is the only thing that could have.
  • When it starts is the right time.
  • When it’s over, it’s over.

The Law of Two Feet (or, when being mindful of the disabled, the law of mobility) names the two fundamentals on which Open Space runs: passion and responsibility. Passion engages the people in the room. Responsibility ensures that things get done.

An urgent theme or question focuses the event. The art of the question lies in saying just enough to evoke attention, while leaving sufficient open space for the imagination to run wild.


All participants are seated in a circle (or concentric circles if the group is large). The principles and the law are introduced. Participants identify any issue for which they have some genuine passion and are prepared to take personal responsibility. They come to the center of the circle, write their issue on a piece of paper, announce it to the group, and post the paper on the wall. When all the issues have been surfaced, the participants go to the wall, sign up for the issues they care to deal with, and get to work. From there on out, the group is self-managing. As small groups meet, they generate reports. Participants come together at the end of each day to reflect and reach closure for the session.

Scenario Thinking

Scenario Thinking generates stories of alternative plausible futures to arrive at a deeper understanding in order to improve current and future decisions.14

A common approach to Scenario Thinking has five phases: orient, explore, synthesize, act, and monitor.

Phase One: Orient

Clarify the issue at stake by learning how challenges and underlying assumptions might play out in the future.

Phase Two: Explore
Determine the driving forces that could have an unexpected impact on the focal issue. Consider regulatory shifts or broader social, technological, economic, environmental, and political developments.

Phase Three: Synthesize

Identify the two or three most important and most uncertain driving forces. Picture these “critical uncertainties” on two axes. For instance, health care might cross uncertainty about the financial and regulatory environment with uncertainty about the pace and distribution of technological development. Envision the four scenarios created by this matrix: What if the financial and regulatory environments were favorable toward a freer market in health care, and technology developed and spread at a fast and even pace? This could be a world with a highly automated and efficient infrastructure for managing and administering health care with many choices and a weak safety net. Consider whether the possible scenarios produce believable and useful stories of the future.

Phase Four: Act

Use the scenarios to inform and inspire action. A good scenario set need not portray the future accurately. It supports learning, adaptation, and effective action.

Phase Five: Monitor

Track leading indicators—signs of emerging change. Is a particular scenario beginning to unfold, causing some implications to rise in importance and some uncertainties to evolve into certainties?

The World Café

The World Café fosters strategic dialogue by creating a living network of connected small-group conversations focused on shared “questions that matter” in order to foster the emergence of collective intelligence and committed action.15


When engaged as an integrated whole, these principles create the conditions that enable the “magic” of World Café dialogues to emerge and unfold:

  • Set the context.
  • Create hospitable space.
  • Explore questions that matter.
  • Encourage everyone’s contribution.
  • Cross-pollinate and connect diverse perspectives.
  • Listen together for patterns, insights, and deeper questions.
  • Harvest and share collective discoveries.


Four people sit at a café-style table or in a small conversation cluster to explore a question or issue that matters to their life, work, or community. Other participants seated at nearby tables or in conversation clusters explore similar questions at the same time. As they talk, participants are encouraged to write down key ideas on large cards or to sketch them on paper tablecloths that are there for that purpose. After an initial 20- to 30-minute “round of conversation” in these intimate groups, participants are invited to change tables—carrying key ideas and insights from their previous conversation into the newly formed group. One “host” stays at each table to share with new arrivals the key images, insights, and questions that emerged from the prior dialogue. This process is repeated for several (generally three) rounds and is followed by a harvesting of the dialogue, to which all participants contribute.

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