Chapter 7. Iterate: Do It Again . . . and Again

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.

What keeps us going?

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.

Integrating What’s Novel into What We Know and What We Know into What’s Novel

Not only are we changed when we experience emergence, but so are our relationships, how we interact with each other, and how we relate to our environment. Business as usual has been interrupted, compelling us to revise our understanding of who we are and what assumptions—the “simple rules” or invisible assumptions that guide our actions—we wish to embrace. We generally become more resilient, with increased capacity to work with differences and the unpredictable. We can sense in ways that weren’t previously part of our makeup. Individually and collectively, we become more complex systems. It takes time to assimilate the new story of who we are; who “the other” is; how we fit together; what it means for ourselves, our relationships, our society; and how it shapes our actions. I had a personal taste of this shift following a trip to Russia. It taught me that making sense of an experience takes time.

In 2000, I spent a month in Siberia. The group I traveled with had been advised to bring toilet paper from home. It was a good idea, because public restrooms had none. Midway through our trip, we hosted a weeklong leadership workshop for women who were starting social service organizations. They were replacing the social system infrastructure that had collapsed during perestroika. The U.S. team shared a space at the conference facility. We kept running out of the half-used rolls of toilet paper we were supplied each time we requested more. Three days in, I went to our room during a break to discover four unwrapped rolls. I was elated! I thought, “Maybe I should take some with me in case my supply from home isn’t enough for the rest of the trip.” And then it hit me: I knew the reason why public places had no toilet paper. If everyone followed my impulse and took a little home, public institutions would become everyone’s TP suppliers! In the U.S., we have a story of abundant toilet paper. In Russia, there was a story of scarcity. I shared my insight with workshop participants. One of our translators told us that during her first trip to the U.S., she thought she was in toilet paper heaven. Toilet paper and our beliefs about scarcity and abundance became cultural metaphors for understanding the invisible assumptions that shape our lives.

As our travels continued, I noticed that the napkins in most places were small and one ply thick. Other cultural differences also caught my eye: converting dollars to rubles illegally on the streets was normal. Periodic and unpredictable power outages were frequent. Indoor plumbing was nonexistent outside the cities. Apartment buildings had no common areas. I remember my judgment about a government that had spent more money on the nuclear arms race than on basic infrastructure for its citizens. And my conclusion that when a government doesn’t want people to organize, it designs buildings without a place for them to gather in community. Were these accurate interpretations of my observations? I don’t know. I do remember on the plane home going into the restroom and being overwhelmed by the variety and abundance of papers: toilet seat covers, tissues, toilet paper, paper towels.

As is the case after encountering emergence, I was changed by my experience. My habitual patterns had been interrupted. With reentry to the United States, I was more aware of my surroundings. I understood that many assumptions I took for granted had different meanings to my Russian colleagues. I assimilated a new guiding principle: things are not always what they seem; do not assume I know what’s going on based solely on my observations. Since the trip, I am less likely to jump to conclusions without checking with others on their perceptions. My toilet paper epiphany caused me to revisit some mundane assumptions. I hadn’t noticed the abundance in my ingrained routine until it was absent. I am both more appreciative of the abundance in my life and more mindful of choosing less wasteful alternatives.

My trip to Russia is an example of weak emergence. I was different, perhaps more capable, but still able to assimilate these new aspects into my basic cultural narrative.

With strong emergence, everything we know is reordered around new organizing principles—the simple rules or assumptions we use to bring order to our lives. I have a colleague, Sabine Pannwitz, who grew up in East Germany when it was behind the Iron Curtain. We were walking along Unter den Linden (Berlin’s equivalent to Paris’s Champs-Élysées) to the Brandenburg Gate. She told me that this used to be the end of her world. It was where the Berlin Wall divided the city. She went on to tell me that she was in college when she emigrated to West Germany. It was tremendously disorienting. She came from a society that, once she had chosen her college major, selected every other aspect of her education. Her new West German university gave her complete freedom to choose her course of study. She told me she was so overwhelmed that she couldn’t act. She had no preparation for making such decisions. Nor did she know how to face all of the little choices that are normal for westerners. How do you choose among dozens of brands of toothpaste? What differentiates one type from another? It took her years to learn how to function in her new home. She revisited virtually everything she knew about how things work, slowly integrating assumptions new to her that emerged as she learned how to fit into her new environment.

If one person freezes when faced with such change, imagine the effect when whole societies make such a shift, as East and West Germany did when they reunited. I had the privilege of witnessing a conversation among people from East and West Germans during a Future Search workshop in Berlin. I came to understand that although West Germany “won” with the dominant economic system, everyone lost. The countries came together without the sort of creative engagement through which East Germany’s close-knit family and community relationships might have been valued as a gift to the re-knit society. East Germans integrated new operating principles, and West Germans provided the context. Perhaps a container, like Future Search, that allowed East Germans and West Germans to explore the best of both cultures might have led to a novel outcome with the economic vibrancy of the West and the community vitality of the East.

These stories highlight that it takes time to assimilate what emerges. Perhaps that explains why it often seems that after a powerful collective experience, nothing else happens for a long time.

Doing It Again . . . and Again

Repetition and iteration are two forms of doing something over and over. In repetition, the same act continually recurs. I have heard insanity defined as doing the same thing repeatedly expecting different results. This type of static stability is useful for making widgets that have to fit with little tolerance for variation. In human systems, while the predictability may be nice, over time such rigidity can contribute to collapse. Just think of the images conjured by the organizational phrase “But we’ve always done it that way.”

Iteration, by contrast, is a repeating process in which the output of the current cycle becomes input to the next cycle. With each execution, conditions evolve and affect the next cycle. Iteration describes how we learn.

Although this process looks straightforward on paper, in practice, several challenges arise when we attempt to understand how change occurs over time. The next few pages describe three challenges. First, changes may be virtually invisible in the beginning, accelerating with continued iterations. Second, emergent change arises in an almost untraceable flow, not the easy-to-follow cause and effect we can track through “managed change.” Finally, change seems to have a spiral character, with aspects long discarded reemerging in a later iteration.

From Invisible Beginnings

The first time we pursue an intention, we might do it alone; but if we keep at it, it can gain traction. The initial inquiry may not attract anyone. For example, from quiet beginnings, a movement of storytellers introducing a sacred version of the story of evolution is growing. That growth highlights how we experience iteration in our social systems.

My colleague Michael Dowd is an evolutionary evangelist. Ever hear of such a role? If not, you may soon. Michael wrote a book, Thank God for Evolution, about the relationship between science and spirit.1 To trace the path of his work, one could begin with a unique voice, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Teilhard was a French philosopher and Jesuit priest whose book The Phenomenon of Man (1955) was an influential account of the cosmos unfolding. Many have read Teilhard. No one could have predicted that one of those readers, theologian Thomas Berry, would dedicate his life to furthering these ideas. Nor that Berry would attract a young cosmologist, Brian Swimme, to coauthor a brilliant, poetic book, The Universe Story, that marries science and spirit.2 Nor that others would read Teilhard or Berry and Swimme, and, seeking more inspiration, would find each other. With each iteration, the merit of the ideas is affirmed and amplified. The number and variety of companions and sense of companionship also grow along the way.

The pace of growth among those now working at the crossroads of science and spirituality is accelerating. In addition to Michael Dowd, dozens of scientists, spiritual leaders, and social activists make the telling of a sacred evolutionary story part of their life’s work. As they share their views, the ideas get clearer. Novelists, artists, poets, and musicians are inspired to tell the story through different modes of expression. As the story goes multimodal, it takes off. These ideas are everywhere—in songs, in novels, and on the news.

We are reintegrating views split when Western culture organized science and religion as incompatible ways of understanding our place in the universe. We have learned so much about cosmological, geological, and biological evolution. A richer, more complex sense, both scientific and spiritual, of how we fit in the cosmos is coalescing. Perhaps the universe story as a collective creation story is emerging now because we need it. It not only helps us to understand our place in the universe, but also makes it clear that we are part of a common family.

From one voice to many, starting almost undetectably small, changing slowly and incrementally, then taking off. Since the 1950s, we’ve moved from an occasional voice to a few pioneers to many people making sense of the sacred and scientific story of our evolving universe. Because of his accessible style, Michael Dowd may be the one who breaks through to popular culture, putting to rest the war of words between science and religion that has gripped so many in the United States.

This pattern of change over time is visible in the power curve:

Most of us notice a shift only after it is well under way. Knowing this pattern may help some of us to keep going through the early, invisible times as we pursue our own initiatives. When we have just the whisper of an idea, getting started is an act of faith. If we don’t see results from our efforts, most of us tend to move on, looking elsewhere to make a difference. Appreciating our effect is difficult when we can’t see it. Most of us do better joining existing initiatives and organizations. For those called to initiate: consider staying with it even when faced with little or no visible results. The breakthrough may be just around the corner.

Ironically, radical shifts sometimes seem trivial at first. Integrating novelty takes time. We must bump into old assumptions and behaviors and notice that they no longer work. Then we try the new assumption or behavior instead. How long did it take e-mail to replace snail mail as our primary means of correspondence? The red ink in the post office and rising stamp prices are effects that have been in the making for years. How long will it take us to collectively sort out what communication technology to use when? I often leave voicemail, e-mail, and a text message when trying to reach someone in a hurry! Of course, these communication tools are the tip of one iceberg of that mammoth emergent agent of change called the Internet.

The fruits of emergence often ripen slowly. By the time most of us notice, it is a whirlwind that we can barely grasp. One need only listen to scientists continually revising their estimates of the speed of melting Arctic ice to understand that the pace is not linear.

When consciously working with change, remember that going to scale begins with a single step and then another and another. As energies ripen, the pace accelerates. Starting small, we learn the skills and presence to work with the unexpected. As capacity grows, we can take on more complex systems with more diverse participation and reach greater numbers. Journalism That Matters has been doing its work since 2001, including a three-year gap between the first three iterations before it took off. Now demand is accelerating. And we’re better equipped to handle it.

Walking Randomly toward Coherence

Change rarely has a predictable progression. A random walk describes it better, with sparks appearing at unexpected moments. First small clusters form, then larger ones, coming together through interactions that seem to magically lead to increasing connections. Such is how networks grow. The leap in personal communications from letters to e-mail tells the tale. Correspondence used to be personal, a letter penned from one person to another. Carbon copy paper made business communications a bit more convenient. But personal letters remained just between friends. When e-mail arrived, it was simpler and faster to drop a quick line to a friend. Or two friends. Or 20. The one-to-one barrier was broken, and we could keep our friends tuned in as long as they, too, had an e-mail address. Pretty soon grandparents were logging in to connect with the grandkids. And acquaintances across oceans became friends without ever meeting face-to-face. One unintended consequence: the holdouts who opted not to go online find themselves increasingly outside the stream. They are isolated on the dry banks of an almost defunct and quaint form of communication now commonly called “snail mail.” Another unintended consequence: personal communication has a radically different meaning as it goes online. It is perhaps both less personal and less communicative. Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking tools have enabled us to connect not just to our friends, but to our friends’ friends. With the addition of fans, groups, and other ways of clustering, we are meeting up, linking in, and becoming increasingly connected with each other. Our connections may have greater reach and less intimacy. The many consequences won’t be visible for a while. In the meantime, we are weaving a web of relatedness that circles the globe at an accelerating pace.

Change as a Spiral

Another notable aspect of change is characterized by the phrase “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Change spirals over time. It cycles through interactions that differentiate and coalesce, guided consciously or unconsciously by an intention. For example, the core intention of health care is to ensure our well-being. This purpose led to practices for doing whatever it took to keep people alive. Technologies changed. Now we can keep the body breathing even if the mind is gone. Social, emotional, economic, and other ripples from this shift affect individuals and society. The Terri Schiavo case pitted government and spouse against parents over whether to pull the plug on this young woman in a persistent vegetative state. It spurred us to collectively reexamine what it means to ensure well-being. The hospice movement is growing in strength. Death-with-dignity acts have passed in several[states, making physician-assisted suicide legal. Is it controversial? Without a doubt. Still, a new coherence around an enduring principle of what it means to ensure well-being is coming around again in a new form. This spiral dance of change is never ending. And yet, many of us desire to hold on to the gains as they unfold.


Perhaps the most frequently asked question when people have been part of an emergent change process is, “How do we sustain this?” Some are speaking to the outcomes, the tangible results or commitments that arose from their interactions. Others refer to the deep connections with people they didn’t know before, frequently with people from different backgrounds than their own.

Often, the people involved in hosting are ready to shed their mantle of leadership. They put all their energies into creating the fertile conditions for a diverse group to interact and produce something meaningful. And they can celebrate some likely results:

  • People are stretched, refreshed, and clearer about their next steps.
  • New and often unlikely partnerships form.
  • New and revitalized initiatives take off.

Many of these outcomes will continue without further support from the hosts. They are fueled by excitement and commitment.

Still, the desire to sustain the results runs strong in most of us. Many focus primarily on the tangible outcomes—the products invented, the projects launched. Others thrive on the creative, engaged community that forms and seek to keep it alive. Social science research has taught us something about what it takes:

  • An image of a desirable future compels us to act.
  • Like most mammals, we thrive on mutual support.
  • We can keep these flames alive by inviting new hosts to step in, bringing fresh energy and ideas.
  • We can invest in infrastructure for communication, periodically coming together face-to-face or using conference calls and other technologies to share what’s happening.
  • Online social technologies can support continued conversation.
  • We can learn more skills for hosting conversations and for engaging emergence so that the experience of productive interactions among diverse people becomes less exceptional, more normal.

All of these activities are valuable next steps. They come with a caution. Often, our wish for sustainability is an implicit desire for static, predictable, unchanging dependability. Such qualities come at a high cost. They contain the seeds of the next upheaval.

Approach sustainability with resilience in mind. Think of sustainability as the capacity of a system to remain congruent with changing realities. It can recover from disturbances and retain its essential identity, meeting its needs with attention to the ability of future generations to meet their needs. In her posthumously published book, Thinking in Systems: A Primer, Donella Meadows, the pioneering environmental scientist and founder of the Sustainability Institute, beautifully describes the difference between static and dynamic stability:

Static stability is something you can see. It’s measured by variation in the condition of a system week by week or year by year. Resilience is something that may be very hard to see, unless you exceed its limits, overwhelm and damage the balancing loops, and the system structure breaks down. Because resilience may not be obvious without a whole-system view, people often sacrifice resilience for stability, or for productivity, or for some other more immediately recognizable system property.

I think of resilience as a plateau upon which the system can play, performing its normal functions in safety. A resilient system has a big plateau, a lot of space over which it can wander, with gentle, elastic walls that will bounce it back, if it comes near a dangerous edge. As a system loses its resilience, its plateau shrinks, and its protective walls become lower and more rigid, until the system is operating on a knife-edge, likely to fall off in one direction or another whenever it makes a move. Loss of resilience can come as a surprise, because the system usually is paying much more attention to its play than to its playing space. One day it does something it has done a hundred times before and crashes.3

Human systems are resilient when we cultivate both clear intentions and good relationships. If the focus is principally on projects, efforts die when the projects end. If, in addition to tending to projects, a shared intention and the social fabric are nurtured, a vibrant community of practice continues to generate creative responses to complex issues for a long time.

Leadership for engaging emergence involves stewarding shared intention and tending to the social fabric—both of which require welcoming spaces for conversation. Conversational leadership, like knowing how to engage emergence, invites us all into leadership work. This, too, is a turning of the spiral, redefining the who and what of leadership. We are in the midst of grappling with a new story that shifts leadership from tops of hierarchies to hubs of networks, a topic deserving of its own book.

Tips for Iterating

Emergence is part of a cycle of change. Doing “it” again . . . and again reaps rewards over time.

Steward shared intentions. As events unfold, periodically affirm that our reason for being is still relevant and still fuels us. Revisiting intentions often reinvigorates and refreshes us, reminding us of why we said yes when the work gets hard.

Tend the social fabric. When people feel they belong, they show up, bringing their gifts. Coupled with shared purpose, a sense of community keeps the fires of commitment burning, fueling ever more creativity and innovation.

As “it” takes shape, give “it” away. The more attractive and accessible our outcomes, the more they inspire others to join in. New participants bring fresh energy and questions. Although disturbances are part of the package, we now know that just sparks creativity. Make it easy for people to get involved.

Keep the faith. The effects of our actions need time to take root and grow. If it matters, stay with it.

We have explored the nature of emergence and practices for preparing ourselves, for hosting, for stepping up and into engage emergence, and for keeping it all going. In part 3, we’ll look at some principles that put these practices in context. The principles increase our understanding of the forces at play, freeing us to work more creatively with the practices.

Back to the Table of Contents

On to Part III. Principles for Engaging Emergence