Chapter 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.

Catch 1: Getting Started Is a Leap of Faith

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.

Jones’s early years as a social justice activist had burned him out. As he put it, he had hit his head against the wall of injustice over and over. He broke, and the wall wasn’t even dented. He needed to get away. He went on a spiritual retreat, something outside his normal experience. The retreat left its mark and brought him new friends from a different community. He found himself traveling between two worlds just 30 minutes apart. He lived in Oakland, California, where there wasn’t a grocery store in the impoverished community. And he visited Marin County, where people worried about their carbon footprint while driving hybrid cars and eating organic foods. At some point, the dissonance coalesced into inspiration: green jobs. Retrofitting buildings to higher environmental standards—jobs that couldn’t be taken offshore—married the employment needs of Oakland with the ecological sensibilities of Marin.

Jones brought the idea to the board of the organization he had founded, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. The support was underwhelming. No one “got” the idea. They had more pressing issues with policing and incarceration. Self-doubt was Jones’s constant companion. He was responsible not just for himself, but also for the staff and supporters of the Ella Baker Center. Still, the call was strong and not to be ignored. With time, ideas like eco-capitalism and environmental justice started taking hold. Ultimately, the Oakland Green Jobs Corps emerged. According to the Ella Baker Center, which designed and championed the program, it is a “job-training and employment pipeline providing green pathways out of poverty.”2

In 2007, a call came from Capitol Hill. Jones was invited to a meeting hosted by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Sitting at a table of 30 people, each with two minutes to share an idea, he needed to make his point fast and sharp. When his turn came, he had four words: green jobs for all. It stuck. At a press conference 15 minutes later, he stood behind Speaker Pelosi as she talked of a future with green jobs. The term has become a rallying cry for environmental jobs to lift people out of poverty. And it has gone around the world.

Novel ideas are tough to communicate because they have no models. They start as seeds, intuitive hunches that are easy to ignore and challenging to embrace. When the calling is strong, even without knowing precisely what it is, we have no choice but to take the leap of faith and begin. As we experiment, experiences provide language. Language helps the notions take root and spread. A moment arrives, and a term like green jobs has meaning. Support grows, and eventually those outside perceive that the innovation is an overnight success.

Which brings us to the next catch.

Catch 2: Success Can Be a Hurdle

Since engaging emergence involves the unknown, it is risky. For many traditional leaders, success carries responsibility for the well-being of employees or community members. What if the risk fails?

In 2009, a journalism colleague struck a deal with a major news organization to develop software that supported a new business model. When the time to fund phase two arrived, the organization balked. It wanted more certainty before proceeding. For journalism organizations, certainty is years away. The implication of choosing inaction is to perpetuate the current decline, likely to be a fatal choice.

Yet their need for assurance is understandable, given the number of lives affected by their decisions. A publishing executive said to me, “We have plenty of ideas. There simply aren’t the resources to pursue them all. We know we need to act. How do we choose among the options?”

Why did William Boeing “take one of the greatest risks in business history” on the 707 airplane in 1958?3 What compelled Prosper Ndabishuriye, a Burundian minister, to look death in the face and unite Hutu and Tutsi youth to rebuild homes following the 1993 genocide in their country?4

A clue resides in crisis. When disturbance is loud enough, it helps crystallize what is critically important. Such was the case for a state agency that had lost the confidence of its constituency and faced life-altering funding cuts. As the agency’s story shows, when we are unsure whether to step in, clarifying intentions catalyzes action.

To solve the agency’s crisis of confidence, the governor formed a blue ribbon commission. Among its recommendations: hire a new executive. She was charged with creating a strategic plan with broad-based public support. Funding was tied to the plan’s success.

The director knew her future and that of her staff depended on a successful strategic plan. So did their work in the communities they served. She proposed to her board that they go well beyond a one-way public-input process. She wanted to host a statewide conversation.

As the board considered the idea, the members worried that individual agendas would prevail: rural versus urban, big versus small, east side versus west side. If they opened the way for individual expression, what would prevent the process from becoming a free-for-all, everyone battling it out for themselves?

At an early planning session, I worked with the board and staff to clarify the purpose of the planning process. We used Appreciative Inquiry—a process based in asking possibility-oriented questions that focus on what is working and what is possible to inspire collaborative and wise action. The board and staff delved into their own commitment to the field. They shared stories of how they had fallen in love with their work. By the time they were done, the focus of the planning process was clear. Even knowing that they didn’t know exactly what would happen, they were convinced that engaging the public in a statewide conversation was the right process.

Ultimately, over a thousand people participated. They had two statewide and 18 community-based Open Space Technology sessions, an online forum, and a dedicated phone line. By the end of the first session, the board members were so thrilled with the spirit of cooperation that they forgot they had ever been afraid. The agency’s constituency saw it as a respected convener and partner. Its funding was restored. Further, when a statewide budget crisis hit a year later, its constituents came to its aid. The agency retained adequate funding to do its work.

Clear intentions can bridge the old world to the new with some assurance of landing on our feet or flying. While it won’t eliminate risk, a clear, compelling purpose focuses our actions. And actions lead to outcomes, even if we don’t always see them.

Catch 3: Outcomes Can Be Difficult to Recognize

At first it seems to be something we already know. When encountering novelty, our first impulse is to try to fit it into our existing frame of reference. Sometimes, seemingly minor shifts change fundamental assumptions of how things work. Years may pass before we appreciate the implications.

Consider the introduction of e-mail. It is just a quicker form of sending a note, right? Perhaps at first. Once we discovered how easy it was to send many-to-many messages, something new took shape. Suddenly, we could access more and different people. The volume of e-mail increased. With more messages coming in, how many of us have felt the weight of e-mail overload? As a 50-something, I grew up in an information-scarce world. My reading habits were shaped by the assumption that information was scarce, so I wanted more. With e-mail, blogging, Wikipedia, social networks, and other technologies, we now live in an information-abundant world. The assumptions of how to sort what to read are in flux. Yet I still feel obligated to read it all. I envy the people who assume that they’ll be able to find all the information they need when they need it. They are wired to organize their reading differently.

With the rapid pace of technological change, many assumptions that guide daily life are changing. Even the forms evolve. We use computers rather than pen and paper. The underlying intention may well remain. Asking “What do we conserve that endures from the past?” and “What do we embrace that wasn’t possible before?” can help us to navigate the change. Such was the case at a 2009 Journalism That Matters gathering that explored the question “What is our work in the new news ecology?” Participants uncovered something both ordinary and revolutionary. It seemed obvious, fitting existing assumptions. Yet the more they considered it, the more game-changing it became. Here’s the story:

For two days, about 90 people from the whole system of journalism—editors, reporters, technologists, and others from print, broadcast, and new media—engaged in intense conversation about the future of journalism. On the last morning, people spent some time in quiet reflection. They looked for the patterns that mattered to their work. They shared stories in groups of three or four, listening for what had meaning to them all. They considered what endured that still held meaning. And they sought what was possible now that they wished to embrace. As a whole group, they identified the ideas that resonated most in the room. Among the insights, two were most heartily accepted:

  • If it serves the public good, it’s good.
  • Journalism is now entrepreneurial.

No news there. Or was there? As I watched these seemingly obvious notions sink in, I could feel the wheels turning for many in the room. These simple statements contained important and liberating truths on the edge of journalism’s rebirth. Legacy journalists, who thought they needed the name of their news organization behind them to be credible, realized that their voices counted even if they became independent reporters. New media people were affirmed in their wide-ranging experiments with new forms of serving communities and democracy. An ethic of service endured from the past. An entrepreneurial spirit was embraced as part of an emerging future.

At some point, it flips: what seems familiar and easily integrated into existing ways of thinking becomes a new organizing idea. Rather than fitting “serving the public good” into business models with pressures to produce content that doesn’t matter, the journalism is liberated from its existing shackles. It is free to find new ways to survive. A vibrant, albeit chaotic, renaissance in journalism is under way as this simple realization that journalism is now entrepreneurial and serves the public good gains traction. What was outside the realm of imagination—entrepreneurial journalism—becomes part of the system.

With this realization, whole new forms appear. Technologies support communities in covering news and information that matters to them, which supports society-wide action. Entrepreneurial journalism uses new forms of expression to meet its core intention of serving the public more effectively than ever. A myriad of experiments are in process. For example, an idea born at a JTM event is applying crowd funding to journalism. At the Web site (, people post story ideas and attract pledges for small amounts of funding. When sufficient funds are pledged, the money is collected and an investigation is launched.

When change is so radical that it seems ordinary, emergence is likely involved. Only in retrospect do we appreciate it as life changing.

Another reason why outcomes can be difficult to spot is that they are the cumulative result of many small changes. Certainly home runs happen, projects so spectacular that they can’t be ignored. More often, seeing the effects of the work takes time. Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff, creators of Future Search, developed a strategy to address this challenge. Future Search is a process in which the people in a system explore their past, present, and preferred future. They transform their capability for action and create policies, programs, and projects that many had considered impossible at the start. After a Future Search, Marv and Sandra advocate regular review meetings so that people reconnect and share their activities. Thus you are less likely to hear, “Well, not much has happened since the event. Though we did this thing in my department/neighborhood.” When 30 or 50 people each name the little something they are doing and hear each other’s stories, they realize that remarkable change is occurring. It energizes and amplifies everyone’s work.

The nature of emergence involves occasional big, discontinuous leaps, usually creating major disruptions. Years of small, incremental changes follow. Shifts are integrated into a new context, such as entrepreneurial journalism. Ultimately, outcomes are visible. By bringing these patterns to consciousness, we can work with the elegance of change, its own rhythm and pace. We move with it toward new possibilities, even ones we never anticipated.

Catch 4: What’s Most Important Is Likely Not on Our Radar Screen

Unexpected consequences are often the most vital. We tend to look at the projects initiated as a measure of success. Or, if we’re looking over the longer term, what projects were successfully implemented. While these are important outcomes, the real treasures are often more subtle.

Over years of watching temporary communities form and disperse, I have observed an exciting trend. Emergent change processes create a context in which trust and friendship grow. Networks form around these communities of friends. Perhaps the gathering launches a few projects, but the network continues learning and experimenting. These networks of people are one of the treasures from engaging emergence.

With little or no seed money, the networks surrounding different emergent change practices—Future Search, Open Space, World Café, Art of Hosting, Appreciative Inquiry—are growing. Thousands of practitioners around the world could be catalyzed into action should an intention of sufficient magnitude arise. In the meantime, they share stories and questions, mentoring and being mentored, researching and learning together.

How these networks have organized themselves to behave with collective intelligence holds great potential for understanding new organizational forms. What if we took seriously the idea that all systems are self-organizing? Just imagine our organizations managing themselves without guidance from above. They operate as an ebb and flow of network connections, regulated by an emergent collective intelligence. No one is in charge; everyone is in charge. Or each of us is doing what matters to us, coordinating with others as we go. Collectively, it adds up to a smoothly running venture. Of course, it does take some support and new ways of thinking, as I learned with some colleagues while on retreat.

A group of us gathered at Channel Rock, a retreat center on Cortes Island in British Columbia. Channel Rock was built to have a low-carbon footprint. It was designed to accommodate about 30 people, as long as they are conscious of their energy and water use. We were 10 people who put the systems supporting us seriously at risk. Why? We knew in the abstract that we should turn off lights and be mindful of our power use. In practice, we were creatures of habit. When our host saw that we were close to maxing out the water and energy systems, he took us on a tour of the power plant. We could see the gauges that told us the effect we were having on our environment. Until then, our power and water usage was an abstraction, the reality invisible to us. What an interesting insight: it is virtually impossible to understand our carbon footprint because the feedback is far removed from our actions.

As this story illustrates, we are babies when it comes to understanding how to use feedback well. Important outcomes may have nothing to do with what we focused on accomplishing. We may be receiving signals that we don’t even know we need. In fact, disturbances are such signals. Learning how to work with emergence includes knowing that there are always unpredictable outcomes. The networks that form are an important gift in working with these unknowns. Even those who don’t join in have something to contribute.

Catch 5: Not Everyone Makes the Trip

Most of us have experienced situations in which others have dived in, but we’ve chosen not to play. Perhaps the venue didn’t suit us, the energy was wrong, or the circumstances weren’t what we expected. Perhaps we go to a party that a friend talked us into attending, a workshop is different than advertised, or a church service has unfamiliar customs. Everyone around us is transported, but we are not moved. Sometimes we wonder if something is wrong with us. Or perhaps we think everyone else is running headlong into disaster, and holding back will vindicate us. Is it Wonderland, a magical mystery tour that changes us? Or is it Jonestown, with poison-laced Kool-Aid?5

In 2007, I cohosted a gathering in which a few people wondered if they had come to the wrong party. It offered some major lessons about disruption and compassion.

We—the conference organizers—brought together 83 storytellers of all stripes. We had writers, activists, futurists, visual artists, academics, musicians, documentary makers, advertising people, philanthropists, and others who shape the “story field”—the conscious and unconscious cultural narrative that defines how we collectively order our lives. The stories we tell, the clothes we wear, and the assumptions we make about wealth or leadership or community are all aspects of the story field. During the gathering, something disrupted just about everyone. Tensions surfaced that usually remain invisible: male/female, people of color/Caucasian, indigenous cultures/Western culture, young/old. And yet—thanks to the process and hosting team—for most, the experience evoked curiosity rather than polarization. Deep, personal connections resulted. As differences surfaced, people spoke their angst, or fear, or pain. An indigenous woman expressed her anger about stolen stories when an anthropologist told a Maori story, intending it as a sacred offering. Her anger opened the door to a conversation about copyright, what different cultures hold sacred, and what that means cross-culturally. The compassion for and from both the storyteller and the woman objecting kept them engaged and connected with each other and those witnessing the exchange.

Most people left the conference understanding that the seemingly monolithic narrative of Western culture is actually many-storied and experienced differently based upon race, age, gender, subculture, class, and life experience. As one participant said:

“I came to Storyfield 2007 tracking capitalism and its ecological side effects. I expected to come away with ideas and inspiration about the transition to a sustainable human civilization. Once there, diversity and social justice issues captured my attention. What I came away with was mostly organized around tears—being frequently, unexpectedly moved to tears. Up to now, my attitude toward social justice issues could be summarized as—I’m all for it, but it is not my cause, not my passion. I have seen activist burnout, and sustainability seems like more than enough for me to work on.

I got it that we can’t get away with leaving the justice work for others to do. As long as the justice strand gets the least of our attention, it will continue to limit how deeply we can speak for sustainability. We become more effective in addressing sustainability by inviting diversity into the conversation, and doing our work around it.”

This response was typical. Based on a post-conference survey, virtually every participant found the conference “mind- and heart-blowing.” Many spoke of having come through the dissonance with a more complex understanding of their world and the relationships among the diverse people in it.

And yet, after the gathering, on the conference forum site, one man wrote:

I don’t get it. A group of 80-some adults are attempting to conduct a conference without structure and without facilitation. It is a disaster (in my humble opinion). But some participants seem to love it—as if there isn’t enough chaos in daily life. I’ve been immersed in business for 30 years, where progress is easily measured and carefully planned. In a corporation, the difference between a bad meeting and a good meeting is palpable to everyone in the room. Give me a structured process where everyone knows what’s going on, and everyone agrees to the ground rules.”

To him, most of us had drunk the Kool-Aid. Yet his message seemed to be asking for help to understand what he had missed. His authenticity attracted a compassionate response from others.

People who take initiative often experience self-doubt. So do those who don’t make the trip, like the man writing to the forum. Still, they play a critical role. They may be powerful voices for an initiative because their success in the current system attracts others who are changed by the experience. In the Old Testament story, Moses led the Israelites as they traveled in the desert for 40 years. During that time, the generation who experienced slavery died out. Moses never set foot in the Promised Land. I recall a Sunday school interpretation: he was of another time. The Promised Land wasn’t open to him. But without him, no one would have made it to a new life. Which brings me to one last catch.

Catch 6: Death or Loss Is Usually Part of the Mix

Without death, there is no room for birth. Just think of the overcrowding if nothing or no one ever died! Death opens the way for something new to emerge. Without the death of stars, there would be no planets. Without the death of the dinosaurs, the small mammals that survived the meteor crash ending the reign of dinosaurs would never have opened the way for humans to emerge.

Perhaps fear of death, or more broadly, loss, is the biggest reason why we resist emergence. Loss brings grief. While death is ultimately a given, few of us choose to experience the emotional turmoil if we can avoid it. So we invent strategies that bury the root causes of disturbance, perhaps inadvertently setting up a system to die.

Just because death is essential to life doesn’t make it easy. The seeds of the current collapse of the U.S. newspaper industry were visible long before it occurred. Readership had been declining since the late ’40s. The rise of TV was considered the primary reason. To stem the tide, publishers listened principally to the needs of their primary revenue source: advertisers. By the 1970s and ’80s, many newspapers made a strategic decision to focus on the readers most attractive to advertisers—people who could buy stuff. When our primary identity became consumers, the essential purpose of newspapers, to ensure that we had the information we needed as citizens, began to muddy. And circulation took a deeper dive.6 Making choices that hasten our own demise is frighteningly easy if we close the door on disruptions, such as outside voices. While some may mourn, when a system ceases to meet the needs of the people it serves, its death opens the way for new alternatives. Many journalism alternatives are returning to the core purpose of journalism: providing the news and information we need to be free and self-governing.

As newspapers are discovering, denying disturbances leads to loss or death. Disruption has an interesting way of becoming more extreme when not adequately addressed. Ultimately, it forces our hand, and we acknowledge that business as usual is over. We mourn what is lost as best we can. We are well served to also let go of the operating rules from the past and admit that we don’t know what to do. We can even ask for help.

We are in a special moment. Letting go of how things were opens the way for engaging emergence. What does it take to find the potential in the mess, to make it through the fear of loss or death? Part 2 offers some practices to help us face the challenge.

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On to Part II. Practices for Engaging Emergence