Introduction: From Chaos to Coherence

Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it without knowing what’s going to happen next.

—Gilda Radner, It’s Always Something

Change begins with disruption. Whether caused by something small—a broken promise—or large—a hurricane sweeping across a city—disturbance interrupts the status quo. We may find it positive: a promotion, losing weight, a new baby. We may experience it with dread: loss of a job, a contract, a life. No matter what the disruption, because it is disturbing, it can lead to change.

Disruption, disturbance, tension, upheaval, dissonance, chaos. These conditions stress us. They often challenge our ability to work together toward common goals. Some disruptions, like upheaval and chaos, are more extreme, but they all stimulate change. And though we usually relate to such situations negatively, one key shift to engaging emergence is developing a positive relationship with these sorts of stressors. In fact, disrupting compassionately is a particularly effective approach.

Most of us avoid tension and disturbances. We attempt to plan them away, control them, or destroy them. Perhaps we hold in our anger because we don’t want to cause a fuss. We feel a little more isolated as a result, but order is maintained. We learn to walk around these isolation zones, sometimes forgetting they exist. Yet they typically worsen with time. Alienation, rigidity, greed, intolerance, and inaction or violence grow. Such characteristics are present in many of our current crises.

What if tensions inspired curiosity? What if we knew how to express our anger, fear, or grief so that it contributed to something better? This introduction describes a fundamental pattern of change as a guide for working with disruption. It examines how disturbances surface useful differences that generate coherent order. It puts emergence in context with other forms of change to clarify when engaging emergence makes sense. It speaks to why engaging emergence matters. The introduction ends by naming benefits of engaging emergence.

A Pattern of Change

How does change happen? Whether it is human, cosmological, geological, or biological, some aspects of change are predictable. By understanding them, we are better equipped to work with them. Every system contains the following:

A drive for coherence—Relationship, unity, bonding, wholeness, coalescing—a coming together—convergence. Think of atoms forming molecules, people joining communities, or our longing to contribute to something larger than ourselves.

Occasional disruptions—Interruptions to the status quo, unexpected actions—disturbance. Think of natural disasters, angry protesters, changes in work policies or laws.

A drive for differentiation—Becoming separate, individual, distinct, unique—a breaking apart—divergence. Think of teenagers separating from parents to find their identity, a coworker striking off to freelance, or our longing to be accepted for who we are.

These forces are constantly interacting, mutually influencing each other. Nature plays out this pattern over and over. For example, a new species appears, disrupts the existing ecosystem, sorts out who survives and who goes extinct, and ultimately arrives at a new coherent state. The same dynamics play out in human systems. A case in point: writing this book has been a constant ebb and flow of disruption, differentiation, and coherence.

The seeds of this book have been with me for years. The size of the second edition of The Change Handbook disturbed me. We were cataloging methodologies that were being created faster than we could document them. Something deeper was happening. Understanding that something mobilized me to write, hoping to see the different notions that surfaced. Eventually, the outline for the book you now hold coalesced. I was on a roll. I wrote to a schedule because the content was clear. Sometimes, my musings surfaced a useful distinction that found its way into the outline. The work was “steady as she goes.”

The first draft was flowing out of me when I tripped. I was starting to write part 2. I had a headache. I couldn’t concentrate. Forcing my way through left me exhausted, the material uninspired. Then it hit me: I faced disruption! I remembered the pattern of change. Treating my frustration with compassion, I acknowledged the disturbance and experimented with differences until something cohered. I realized there was no part 2. The book got simpler, and I got back to writing.

The resulting manuscript went to readers. I posted it on a blog. Feedback came from a variety of people, and I looked for distinctions and similarities among their responses. Themes coalesced. I planned my revisions, including adding stories and how-to tips; made an outline; and got to work. And the chapters got longer. Too long. The manuscript asserted itself and I was stuck. Worse, my editor found the organization confusing. This time, I got the message before the headache: welcome disturbance. I experimented with different strategies. What could I delete? Would breaking the material into more chapters eliminate the confusion? Could I use different visual presentations? As options differentiated themselves, I kept tuning in to what the manuscript itself was telling me. I listened for what wanted to emerge. With great editorial coaching, a breakthrough occurred: tell a nonlinear story in a linear way. And so I have.

Mostly, the experience was a steady state of writing, reviewing, editing, and writing. Sometimes, distinctions led to incremental shifts—adding or removing a chapter. Occasionally, I threw up my hands when the manuscript’s organization blew apart. Ultimately, it coalesced into a new, more coherent order. Steady state, incremental shifts, emergence. Understanding these different ways in which change happens equips us to work more effectively with disruption.

Forms of Change

Though all change begins with disruption, not all change is emergent. This book focuses on emergent change because it is least understood and we need more effective ways of working with it. Knowing how emergence fits with other forms of change provides perspective on why we are experiencing more and stronger disruptions. It also helps us to understand when engaging emergence makes sense. Emergence will happen whether or not we choose to engage with it. We increase the likelihood of less destructive experiences and more desirable outcomes by working with it. I characterize change in three forms:

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, a constitution is amended.

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.

Much of today’s angst comes from treating all disruptions as if they fit a steady state scenario or, at worst, could be managed through incremental shifts. Economic upheaval, failing schools, increasing terrorism—all indicate larger forces in play.

The Consequences of Not Engaging Emergence

Most of our current strategies for handling disruptions work well to maintain a stable system or to manage incremental shifts. They are great for moving from where we are to a predetermined outcome. When the root causes of disturbance are more complex, often more emotionally charged, approaching them as if we were fixing a broken car can make the situation worse.

We maintain our sense of coherence by drawing boundaries, physical or psychological. We protect those inside our neighborhoods or organizations and keep “the other”—people we view as different from us—out. Fenced communities and security systems are growing around the world. Airplane travel and immigration are vastly more difficult because of the security we use to keep us safe.

Such methods are natural responses when our way of life seems threatened. They also isolate us. If someone holds a different view, we better not let him or her in. Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort chronicles how people in the United States have sorted themselves into homogeneous communities over the past three decades. We choose neighborhoods, churches, and news shows most compatible with our beliefs.1

Even if we doubt our “tribe’s” stand on an issue, many of us don’t voice it for fear of being ostracized. We hold it in and feel more alone as a result. The outcome: we isolate ourselves based on differences and retreat into a posture of defensive rigidity. In contrast, engaging emergence uses our differences to bring us together, opening us to creative involvement.

So, increasing numbers of us face complex challenges and don’t know how to solve them. Some of us feel stuck or overwhelmed by the accelerating urgency of the conflicts and challenges facing our organizations, communities, families, or even ourselves. Some of us have too many choices and neither the time nor the expertise to discern among them. Others of us see no choices at all. Familiar strategies lead to dead ends, leaving many seeking alternatives. Until we engage emergence, disruptions will continue erupting more and more destructively.

Consider an industry in upheaval: newspapers. Readership has been falling for decades. Even as newspaper executives acknowledge the radical shifts they need to make, they continue approaching change using the same old strategies. A 2008 article in Editor and Publisher, a time-honored industry journal, makes visible the tragic irony: while we may know we need to change, we don’t always know how to do it.

“Turn and Face the Change—With Newspaper Industry in Crisis, ‘Everything’s on the Table,’” exhorted the article.2 It ends, “If this is a seminal crisis, then we have to do some seminal thinking. And it really does have to be radical.”

Yet the most innovative idea in the article was distinctly small bore: print less frequently. When the world economy faltered in 2009, the decline turned conundrum into catastrophe. About 15,000 newspaper people lost their jobs.3 More than 100 papers closed their doors, including the 150-year-old Rocky Mountain News.4 The decline was predictable, yet virtually every newspaper is choosing extinction over experimentation. In perhaps the ultimate irony, Editor and Publisher closed its doors in December 2009.

Newspaper executives are not alone in struggling with how to approach change. In Change or Die: The Three Keys to Change at Work and in Life, Alan Deutschman quotes experts saying that the root cause of the health crisis hasn’t changed for decades.5 Yet the medical establishment can’t figure out what to do about it. Individuals also resist change when facing disruption. Deutschman cites research into change-or-die scenarios for patients facing bypass surgery and other diseases that can be mitigated by lifestyle changes. Even when we know we must change, 90 percent of us won’t alter our behavior to fit the new situation. We choose death over adaptation.6

The Other 10 Percent

In the spirit of turning upheaval into opportunity, what goes on in that 10 percent of cases where we choose adaptation? According to the researchers in Deutschman’s book, people find fellowship that inspires, reframe disaster as possibility, and keep practicing. Rather than making incremental shifts, changing a habit here and there, they engage emergence. They redefine the fundamental assumptions that guide their image of themselves and their actions. And they don’t do it alone.

In no particular order, the following table compares traditional thinking about change with ideas that support emergence. This list grew out of my work with emergent change processes. Understanding the differences can help us to make more informed choices about how we approach change.

Traditional Ideas about Change Emerging Ideas about Change
Difference and dissonance as problem. Diversity and dissonance as resource, with problems inviting exploration.
Restrain, resist disturbance. Welcome and use disturbance in a creative dance with order.
Focus on the predictable, controllable. Focus on the mysterious from a foundation of what we understand.
Ensure that there are no surprises. Experiment; learn from surprises.
Focus on outcomes. Focus on intentions; hold outcomes lightly.
Focus on the form and its stability. Focus on intended function; work with forms as they arise and dissipate.
Hierarchy. Networks containing natural, often fluid hierarchies.
Visionary leadership. Shared, emergent, flexible leadership.
Top-down or bottom-up. Multidirectional.
Work solo. Work in community and solo, bringing our unique gifts.
Pay attention to the mainstream. Pay attention to the dance between the mainstream and the margins.
Build/construct/manage. Invite/open/support.
Follow the plan. Follow the energy, using the plan as useful information.
Manufacture. Midwife the birth of novelty and cultivate its development.
Assemble the parts. Interactions among the parts form a novel whole.
Design processes. Design processes and cultivate nutrient environments.
Handle logistics. Cultivate welcoming conditions, including handling logistics.
Strive for sustainability. Sustainability exists in a dance of dynamic tensions.
Incremental shifts. Periodic leaps and incremental shifts.
Classical. Classical skills that also support jazz and improvisation.
Declare/advocate. Inquire/explore, using what is at the heart of our advocacy as a resource.

Changing Notions of Change

The next time you face disruption and don’t know how to approach it, look at the left side of the table. If it reminds you of what you would ordinarily do, look at the right-hand counterpart. Perhaps you will find some new insights for handling your situation. If taking the approach on the right seems like a lot of effort, consider the reasons for doing so.

Why Does Engaging Emergence Matter?

Emergence—increasingly complex order self-organizing out of disorder—isn’t just a metaphor for what we are experiencing. Complexity increases as more diversity, connectivity, interdependence, or interactions become part of a system. The disruptive shifts occurring in our current systems are signs that these characteristics are on the rise.

Today’s unprecedented conditions could lead to chaos and collapse, but they also contain the seeds of renewal. We can choose to coalesce into a vibrant, inclusive society through creative interactions among diverse people facing seemingly intractable challenges. In many ways, this path is counterintuitive. It breaks with traditional thinking about change, including the ideas that it occurs top-down and that it follows an orderly plan, one step at a time.

We don’t control emergence. Nor can we fully predict how it arises. It can be violent, overwhelming. Yet we can engage it confident that unexpected and valuable breakthroughs can occur. Working with emergence involves some unfamiliar notions:

Embracing mystery—Asking questions in addition to stating answers.

Following life energy—Using our intuition in addition to making plans.

Choosing possibility—Attending to our dreams and aspirations, not just our goals and objectives.

Change is always happening. When it is emergent change, it seriously disrupts what’s familiar. It behooves us to learn how to work with it creatively. Our survival in an increasingly unpredictable world is at stake. When change is treated as an opportunity, opportunities for positive outcomes are all around us.

Emergent change processes have uncovered creative and productive ways to engage emergence. These methods have also surfaced some dependable outcomes from doing so.

Benefits of Engaging Emergence

Just because specific outcomes from emergence are unpredictable doesn’t make working with emergence impossible. We benefit from engaging emergence in these ways:

Individually, we are stretched and refreshedWe feel more courageous and inspired to pursue what matters to us. With a myriad of new ideas, and confident of mentors, supporters, and fans, we act.

At an early Journalism That Matters gathering, a young woman, recently out of college, arrived with the seed of an idea: putting a human face on international reporting for U.S. audiences. At the meeting, she found support for the idea. Deeply experienced people coached her and gave her entrée to their contacts. Today, the Common Language Project is thriving, with multiple awards (

New and unlikely partnerships form—When we connect with people whom we don’t normally meet, sparks may fly. Creative conditions make room for our differences, fostering lively and productive interactions.

A reluctant veteran investigative reporter was teamed with a young digital journalist. They created a multimedia Web site for a story from a two-year investigation. Not only did the community embrace the story, but the veteran is pursuing more interactive projects. And the digital journalist is learning how to do investigative reporting.

Breakthrough projects surfaceExperiments are inspired by interactions among diverse people.

The Poynter Institute, an educational institution serving mainstream media, was seeking new directions because its traditional constituency was shrinking. As a cohost for a JTM gathering, Poynter had a number of staff participating. They listened broadly and deeply to the diverse people present. An idea emerged that builds on who they are and takes them into new territory: supporting the training needs of entrepreneurial journalists.

Community is strengthenedWe discover kindred spirits among a diverse mix of strangers. Lasting connections form, and a sense of kinship grows. We realize that we share an intention—a purpose or calling guided by some deeper source of wisdom. Knowing that our work serves not just ourselves but a larger whole increases our confidence to act.

As a community blogger who attended a JTM conference put it, “I’m no longer alone. I’ve discovered people asking similar questions, aspiring to a similar future for journalism. Now I have friends I can bounce ideas off of, knowing we share a common cause.”

The culture begins to changeWith time and continued interaction, a new narrative of who we are takes shape.

When Journalism That Matters began, we hoped to discover new possibilities for a struggling field so that it could better serve democracy. As mainstream media, particularly newspapers, began failing, the work became more vital. We see an old story of journalism dying and provide a place for it to be mourned. We also see the glimmers of a new and vital story being born. In it, journalism is a conversation rather than a lecture. Stories inspire rather than discourage their audience. Journalism That Matters has become a vibrant and open conversational space where innovations emerge. New language, such as news ecology—the information exchange among the public, government, and institutions that can inform, inspire, engage, and activate—makes it easier to understand what’s changing. People say, “I didn’t know I could be effective without a big organization behind me. Now I do.”

These experiences show that working with emergence can create great initiatives, the energy to act, a sense of community, and a greater sense of the whole—a collectively intelligent system at work.

As more people engage emergence, something fundamental changes about who we are, what we are doing, how we are with each other, and perhaps what it all means. In the process, we tear apart familiar and comfortable notions about how change works. We bring together unlikely bedfellows. For example, when Journalism That Matters hosted 44 mainstream journalists and media reformers in 2007, I watched them eye each other suspiciously as the gathering began. Once they realized that everyone cared about the role of journalism in a democracy, cooperation flourished.

The old story of change and how to do it, generally called change management, like many stories of our times no longer functions well. A new story is arising that works creatively with complexity, conflict, and upheaval. That story involves understanding more about emergence and what it can teach us about turning upheaval into opportunity. Later, we’ll discuss practices, principles, questions, and what is possible as more and more of us engage emergence.

The theory and practice of change is too important to leave solely in the hands of experts. It is time to broadly develop the capacity to reenvision our organizations, our communities, and the systems where we live and work—health care, education, politics, economics, and more. Together, we can make it happen.

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On to Part I: The Nature of Emergence