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.
How do we create conditions in which chance interactions among diverse members of a system lead to breakthroughs?
This question is a conundrum at the heart of emergence that frustrates many and tickles some. We don’t know which interactions or mix of interactions among us in what sequence catalyze emergent change.
Much of the magic of emergence arises from the unlikely encounters among us. An ancient rabbinic story states that since we can’t recognize the Messiah in advance, it’s a good idea to assume that it could be anyone. What a life-affirming stand! Anyone could be the one who names the unexpected insight or finds the synergy among us that makes the difference, a difference then magnified and evolved by the rest of us. Perhaps a time will come when that is predictable, but not today. Isn’t it exciting that we can’t tell what combination of knowledge, skills, and relationships could catalyze a breakthrough? Not if our only experience of conversation among people with conflicting perspectives is that it disintegrates into a shouting match. Then encouraging random encounters is likely to cause heartburn.
The good news is that emergent change processes have been successfully bringing diverse groups of people in conflict together and accomplishing something useful for years. We know something about how to do the indirect work of creating conditions that will likely lead to emergence.
Further, trust, respect, and cooperation are not necessary preconditions, though they are frequent outcomes. In fact, conflict, distrust, and people locked in their positions are sources of life energy for engaging emergence.
Good hosting—with clear intentions and welcoming conditions—sets the stage for something useful to occur. Inviting people from all aspects of a system, complete with their conflicts, positions, and agendas, opens the way for creative engagement. Once people are present, inviting them to take responsibility for what they love as an act of service sparks them to fuel innovation that serves us all well.
Juanita Brown, creator of the World Café, shared a story with me about encouraging random encounters. The World Café process fosters strategic dialogue by creating a living network of connected small-group conversations focused on shared “questions that matter.” The process encourages collective intelligence and committed action to emerge. (See “About Emergent Change Processes” for a description of the World Café process.)
The story describes what Samantha Tan, a former research fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, uncovered in her native Singapore. It highlights the unexpected gifts that we receive from random encounters. In particular, it illustrates both the power and importance of discovering the common bonds among us.
The story begins when Samantha returned to Singapore to learn more about ways in which the World Café approach to large-scale dialogue and engagement was supporting Singapore’s goal of becoming a “learning nation.” The World Café process intentionally cross-pollinates diverse perspectives around critical questions in rotating rounds of conversation. It supports unexpected encounters and innovative possibilities for action.
Having worked as part of the government, Samantha sought to answer the question “How can we build bridges between those in power and other voices in our society so that something new can emerge?” Several vignettes of what she found on her Café learning journey provide a sense of what’s been happening across Singapore.
Guns and Flowers
Senior and junior staff on the police force are sitting together in a Café conversation. People from three or four different ranks, wearing their uniforms and carrying their guns, are talking as equals at those little Café tables with flower vases and checked tablecloths. They are really listening and “hearing” each other’s perspectives for the first time. For example, they discuss how street officers are affected by a computerized tracking system that’s been installed in police cars.
After the Café, the senior officers say, “No matter how bright or smart our ideas are, we now realize that we need ideas from the people at the ground level to make policies that work.” The junior officers come to appreciate that the seniors aren’t just authoritarian. They really are concerned about the welfare of the junior members.
Nourishing Community Innovation through Dialogue
The People’s Association of Singapore, through the National Community Leadership Institute (NACLI), decides to merge the World Café with our local culture. They create P2P (People to People) conversations between government representatives from different departments and grass-roots leaders of varied ethnic groups and perspectives. They use a creative adaptation of the World Café called the Knowledge Kopitiam. Kopitiams are traditional Singaporean neighborhood coffee shops that local people have gone to since our early immigrant days.
NACLI launches its Knowledge Kopitiams by re-creating a traditional kopitiam setting for its conversations. They call the kopitiam approach the “knowledge-traveling process.” NACLI’s magazine, Kopi Talk, spreads the word about this “old/new” way of encouraging innovative ideas among diverse constituents on key issues. The kopitiam idea begins to spread.
After experiencing the Knowledge Kopitiams and the creative ideas that emerge from them, Yaacob Ibrahim, then senior parliamentary secretary for the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, comments, “Today we want to spark a revolution. Not to overthrow the government, but to reinvent ourselves. . . . These people-to-people discussions are essential to our development as a cohesive and well-informed people.”
What Does It Mean to Care?
For me, the most surprising Café discoveries about the power of unexpected encounters came at the end of my visit. It was the last Café I participated in. Key organizational learning practitioners from the Police Department and the Housing Development Board convened the session. We put the question “What does it mean to care?” at the center of the Café. As Singaporeans, we often see ourselves primarily as logical, rational, efficient, and results oriented. We wanted to see what might unfold if we approached our national development from a different lens.
Something happened that afternoon that revealed our deeper common yearning for reaching across boundaries of class, ethnicity, gender, power, and other dimensions that so often separate us. There was a plainly dressed woman in the Café who seemed out of place, although I knew she’d been invited. I’d describe her as a “tea lady”—a service person who is usually pretty invisible in our society.
We were in the whole-group conversation at the end of the Café rounds. Having talked with many new people, the “tea lady” courageously stood up and said softly, but with much certainty, “You know, it’s important to feel people care because when people care, it makes life worth living.” The room was struck silent by her piercing humanity. Her words spoke to a national issue—our utilitarian mindset where people sometimes feel like widgets—and how debilitating and soul destroying it is. I was moved. Everyone was moved. And in that room, I knew that policy decisions would be shifted because of her unexpected contribution. That moment changed me forever.
Such simple words, with so much impact. Possibilities surface from unexpected encounters. As people randomly moved between café tables, their interactions generated increased understanding, sparked new ideas, and surfaced unspoken common yearnings. They found meaning that none could have uncovered on their own.
Practices That Encourage Random Encounters
- Focus intentions: clarify our calling.
What purpose moves us?
Tune in. Sense what is stirring in you, others, and your environment.
- Welcome: cultivate hospitable space.
How do we cultivate conditions for the best possible outcomes?
Create a spirit of welcome—physically, socially, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.
- Invite the diversity of the system.
How can we include the true complexity of the situation?
Reach out to those who ARE IN: with authority, resources, expertise, information, and need.
- Open: be receptive.
How do we make space for the whole story—good, bad, or indifferent?
Be willing to be more in questions than answers.
- Take responsibility for what you love as an act of service.
How can we use our differences and commonalities to make a difference? Get involved with what matters, listening and connecting along the way.
Acknowledging that we don’t know which interactions matter sets up a different ethic for whom we include and how we interact. It encourages us to focus on teasing out the potential in the unknown. We can discover meaning, deep connections, and innovative ideas among us when we do.
Connect: bridge differences and bond with others.
How do we link ourselves and our ideas with others similar to and different from ourselves?
Listen for deeper meaning, to seek common ground.
Back to the Table of Contents
On to Chapter 11. Seek Meaning