The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands, but in seeing with new eyes.

—Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past

Albert Einstein famously observed, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” Too often, we use tired change strategies to address complex problems, only to be frustrated by the results. Fortunately, emergence, a naturally occurring pattern of change, provides an alternative. Should we choose to work with it, emergence can take us to a new level of change-making competence. Simply put, emergence is order arising out of chaos.

This book is about working with emergent change. While others have explored what emergence is, this book also focuses on how to engage it. It prepares you to face disruptions and invite the people you work or live with to realize new possibilities together. To help you find your way, I describe a fundamental pattern of change and then offer practices, principles, and questions for engaging emergence.

As creative partners with emergence, we can ride its rapids into organizations, communities, and a world more alive, healthy, and engaging. The more we understand and work with emergence, the more we increase the possibility of outcomes such as government in which partisan differences lead to creative, breakthrough legislation rather than gridlock or compromises that no one likes.

Is This Book for You?

Are you facing upheaval, disturbance, dissonance, in some aspect of your work or life? If so, you’re in good company with automakers, schoolteachers, bankers, electronics manufacturers, information technology professionals, journalists, and others who have lost jobs or experienced their industry faltering. Have you noticed the rich diversity of capabilities, cultures, and aspirations among us? Have you ever wondered how we can become more capable together than we are alone?

If you seek courage, hope, and faith despite struggle or collapse, this book offers a path to a brighter future.

  • Engaging Emergence presents both compelling ideas and powerful actions for working with uncertainty, upheaval, dissonance, and change.
  • It is for leaders, both formal and informal—managers, officials, community leaders, opinion leaders, change practitioners, activists, and change agents of all sorts—who face complex, important issues and seek creative alternatives for addressing them.
  • It provides insight into the intellectual, emotional, physical, and spiritual landscapes that upheaval evokes in most of us, fostering compassion for ourselves and others.
  • It offers a framework for understanding the larger forces at play that create the sense of disruption many of us are experiencing.
  • It highlights individual and collective practices for working creatively with disruption.
  • And it focuses on what is needed to renew ourselves and our systems wisely, conserving what endures as we embrace what wasn’t possible before.

Whether you want a map of the territory, prefer focusing on what you can do, thrive on the unknown, or favor some combination, this book seeks to equip you for working well with shifts and disruptions. It provides practical perspectives on the dynamics of emergent complexity—increasing diversity, connectivity, interdependence, and interaction in the self-organized functioning of a system. It grounds this abstract but useful idea in stories about how the idea shows up in our lives. And it offers guidance for facing the unknown.

How My Perspective on Engaging Emergence Evolved

All change begins with disturbing the status quo. So my quest to understand emergence began, of course, with disturbance. It was 1989, and I managed software development for a cellular phone company. A major project was on the rocks. Because it touched virtually every department, lots of people had opinions about how to fix the situation. The company had hired an expert in Total Quality—a system of tools, processes, and practices that increase efficiency and effectiveness. He led a meeting attended by 30 people with a stake in the project. I was galvanized! In my 17 years of doing software projects, I had never seen so many perspectives coalesce so quickly into a clear, focused direction and plan of action. It was my first taste of what I now see as a fundamental pattern of change: interactions that disturb, differentiate, and cohere.

That meeting changed my life. I took responsibility for the Information Technology group’s Total Quality effort and dove in to discover how to change the organization. We introduced new disciplines, such as process improvement, teamwork, and measurement. Over the next three years, the organization remade itself, becoming best in class by every measure. I thought I knew what I was doing. And I fell flat on my face. Disturbance, ever my ally, opened the door to deeper learning. In this case, it meant developing more compassion for myself and others.

In 1993, I took a role researching learning organizations, bringing what I discovered into U S WEST Communications—a 60,000-employee telephone company. That’s when work got really interesting. I ran into these odd change processes: Appreciative Inquiry, Future Search, Bohm dialogue, and others that creatively engaged the people of a system in generating breakthroughs. In my first experience with one of these processes—Open Space Technology—I witnessed something I had thought impossible. I watched angry union technicians and company managers come together on solutions in which individuals and the organization both thrived. I was hooked.

I became part of an emerging field of practice that had no name. We practitioners began connecting with one another, sharing questions and stories via the new social technology: listservs. Vibrant worldwide communities of practice have coalesced around different change processes. Strong friendships and learning partners have been welcome byproducts.

Worn out by travel for U S WEST, I joined a forest products company as the director of quality for information technology. It provided fertile ground for experimenting with all I had learned, bringing struggles and successes along the way. After two and a half years, more equipped to face the unknown, I struck out on my own. It was daunting and exhilarating. The Change Handbook: Group Methods for Shaping the Future (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 1999), coedited with Tom Devane, was an early achievement. Containing 18 methods for engaging whole systems, the book was my attempt to understand why these odd processes worked.

Following the book, that quest to understand continued through both practice and research. With businesses, nonprofits, government agencies, and communities, I use what I now call emergent change processes—methods that engage the diverse people of a system in focused yet open interactions. These methods catalyze unexpected and lasting shifts in perspective and behavior. I follow scientific literature on complexity, self-organization, chaos theory, and emergence. I have delved into spiritual practices, seeking answers to why these open-ended, nonlinear processes work. Doing so has increased my equanimity when facing disruption. As a result, I am better able to support others in engaging emergence. My own story has become more open-ended and nonlinear as my quest for uncovering the deeper patterns of these methods guides me.1

Because this search is not solo work, since 1993 I have been part of a loose cohort of friends I met through Open Space Technology—an emergent change process that invites people to self-organize around what they love in order to address complex, important issues. (See “About Emergent Change Processes” for a description of Open Space Technology.) Together, we have convened a number of Open Space conferences around ambitious social issues. For example, in 2003, “The Practice of Peace” brought 130 people from 26 countries, including such high-conflict areas as Northern Ireland, Nigeria, Burundi, Bosnia, and Haiti. Gatherings like this provided freedom for creative experiments that would not be likely in organizational settings. They also helped me to appreciate the communication and governance infrastructures that accelerate action in organizations once departmental boundaries are bridged.

After the shocking disturbance of a racially based shooting at a Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles in 1999, I joined with three journalists to cofound Journalism That Matters (JTM). I hoped my knowledge of emergent change processes could contribute to telling stories that served communities and democracies. This book draws many stories from JTM. The industry has been a learning lab for engaging emergence, making visible the agony and excitement in the death and rebirth of an industry.

My search for understanding the deeper patterns of emergent change processes took a step forward in 2004 when I was invited to a gathering on evolutionary emergence. Social philosopher Tom Atlee and “evolutionary evangelist” Michael Dowd (more on Michael and evolutionary evangelism in chapter 7) were planning an “Evolutionary Salon.” Scientists, spiritual leaders, and social activists were coming together to explore the implications of evolutionary emergence on human systems. Tom asked my help in hosting the meeting. With emergence in the title, how could I resist? Four Evolutionary Salons later, with funding from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, Tom and I developed a model of evolution centering on the role of interaction.2 It provided a missing link in my understanding of emergence that helped connect it with my change practice.

This book, which relates emergence to the practice of change, was seeded when Steven Cady, Tom Devane, and I published the second edition of The Change Handbook in 2007. Because the field has exploded, we included over 60 methodologies. The book’s size disturbed me. It pointed toward something more fundamental that we didn’t name. It mobilized me to finally address the question of why these processes work. My answers coalesced into this book. These processes work because they help us to engage emergence compassionately, creatively, and wisely.

As I look back on these last 20 years, I see how disturbance, differentiation, and coherence have shaped my life. I share these ideas with you in the hope that together, we can take them to scale. Just think of the possibilities if more of us knew how to bring together diverse, conflicted groups that creatively coalesce and generate innovative and wise outcomes!

About Journalism That Matters

Since many Journalism That Matters (JTM) stories are in this book, here’s a little background on the initiative.

Journalism That Matters generates innovations by convening, connecting, and inspiring the diverse pioneers who are shaping the emerging news and information ecology.

JTM’s operating principles:

  • Invite the diverse and evolving ecosystem of journalism. Include people from print, broadcast, and new media who are editors, reporters, bloggers, audience members, reformers, educators, students, and others.
  • Create the space—a calm in the storm—for random encounters and conversations about what matters most.
  • Work with the unknown, engaging with what’s emerging in news and information in a democracy.

As of 2010, we have cohosted 14 gatherings bringing together more than a thousand people. The centerpiece of every gathering is one to two days using Open Space Technology for participants to set their own agenda.

Numerous breakthrough initiatives have been born at these gatherings. Legacy media people find hope, and new media people find fellowship and inspiration. A community of journalism pioneers is emerging, along with a growing culture of entrepreneurial journalism that serves the public good. Hope, inspiration, and excitement arise as participants catch a glimpse of a future in which they are part of the answer.

What’s in the Book?

Engaging Emergence turns upheaval into a promising path for change. It provides a hopeful way to think about disturbance. It gives you practices, principles, and orienting questions for stepping into chaos.

The introduction describes a fundamental pattern of change, puts emergence in context with other forms of change, speaks to why engaging emergence matters, and identifies benefits of engaging emergence.

Making sense of emergence is the focus of part 1, “The Nature of Emergence.” Chapter 1, “What Is Emergence?” defines the term, offers a history of emergence, and describes its characteristics. Because emergence isn’t always sweetness and light, chapter 2, “What’s the Catch?” identifies idiosyncrasies that make working with emergence challenging.

Getting to work is the focus of part 2, “Practices for Engaging Emergence.” Chapter 3, “Step Up: Take Responsibility for What You Love,” addresses a practice at the heart of engaging emergence. Given that emergence requires working effectively with disruption, chapter 4, “Prepare: Foster an Attitude for Engaging,” covers three useful practices: embrace mystery, choose possibility, and follow life energy. Once you’ve prepared, chapter 5, “Host: Cultivate Conditions for Engaging,” equips you to attract others by elaborating on the following practices for shaping productive, creative environments: focus intentions, welcome, and invite diversity. Chapter 6, “Step In: Practice Engaging,” describes practices for interacting: inquire appreciatively, open, and reflect. Since the effects of emergence are not always immediately visible, chapter 7, “Iterate: Do It Again . . . and Again,” looks at how emergence works with stability and incremental change over time. It considers the frequently asked question “How do we sustain the results?”

While the practices are useful on their own, they are part of a system for engaging emergence. Five principles—welcome disturbance, pioneer!, encourage random encounters, seek meaning, and simplify—are explored in part 3, “Principles for Engaging Emergence.” These principles, each described in a chapter, came from marrying my work in emergent change processes with my study of emergence.

Part 4, “Three Questions for Engaging Emergence,” introduces the last of this system. The questions map to the pattern of change mentioned earlier: disturb, differentiate, and cohere. They offer an orienting perspective for engaging emergence. Chapter 13, “How Do We Disrupt Coherence Compassionately?” speaks to why we might want to disrupt. It also clarifies the benefits of doing so compassionately. To turn the way we usually think about creative engagement on its ear, chapter 14, “How Do We Engage Disruptions Creatively?suggests acting from our passions. It contradicts what most of us have been taught about selfishness and service. Now that we have opened to creative engagement, chapter 15, “How Do We Renew Coherence Wisely?” reflects on what contributes to wisdom arising.

The practices, principles, and questions of parts 2 through 4 form a system for engaging emergence. The good news about systems: because they are interconnected parts, no matter where you begin, it leads to other aspects. The pieces reinforce each other, strengthening our overall understanding and capacity for engaging emergence.

With that understanding, “In Closing: What’s Possible Now?” envisions what could emerge as increasing numbers of us work with emergent change.

The book ends with a “Summary of Key Ideas” and descriptions of the emergent change processes referenced in the book. Throughout the book, stories appear in a distinctive font.

As you read, consider how you might engage emergence to work with the disruptions you face. Together, we can turn upheaval into opportunities that can lead to innovative results with broad support and greater resilience in our families, neighborhoods, communities, organizations, and other social systems, such as health care, education, economics, and governance.

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