The Challenge of Power

Thanks to Google Alerts, I discovered a great review of Engaging Emergence by Ron Lubensky, from the Centre for Citizenship and Public Policy in Sydney, Australia.

An excerpt:

This is the sort of easy-to-read book that you want to leave lying around so others will find it accidentally. Maybe they’ll recognise, as Peggy hopes, that modern life is not a predictable, steady state that is occasionally and annoyingly disrupted. Rather, life should be celebrated as an evolution of surprises, change and adaptation. Peggy provides us with a straightforward roadmap about how to constructively steward positive change.

In the last paragraph, Ron raised an issue about power (bolding is mine):

Engaging emergence requires that we talk to one another in a civil manner with mutual commitment. Perhaps wisely she has sidestepped the thorny challenge of motivating people who exercise power to graciously and generously devolve their authority to a shared enterprise. The book presumes that a situation where the practice can be exercised poses no political barriers to emergent change. Unfortunately, this would be a rare occurrence. So just like the enterprise of deliberative democracy, which requires the practice of engaging emergence, the initial challenge is just getting to step 1.

Illustration by Steven Wright

Since the challenge Ron raises is no doubt a common one, thought I’d share my exchange with him:

Thanks for your reflections on Engaging Emergence. I’m delighted at your enthusiastic response!

And I want to comment on the challenge you raised of motivating people with power. There are virtually always political barriers! Shame on me that I wasn’t more explicit on how to address them.

What I have found to be true is that when the issue faced is more important than their position, people in power positions will engage. In other words, they’ll step up when:

  • the situation reaches the point that they realize that they can’t solve it alone;
  • it is critical to their success; and
  • they’ve found a partner to work with that they’re willing to trust.

Essentially, these are the conditions when anyone will engage. It’s just that people with more to lose tend to wait longer. By then, the situation is really messy and they’re desperate.

I’ve experienced this shift in government agencies, like the National Institute of Corrections (NIC), and in organizations, like the Boeing Company.  As Chris Innes of NIC put it so eloquently, they stepped up to “make it up as they went along” when doing the same old thing was not worth the trouble.

Posted by Peggy Holman 05 October 2010 06:47 am | link


Peggy, thanks for your elaboration regarding motivations to stepping up. It also points our community of practice to work harder to generate opportunities using the non-instrumental language you recommend. ps, I’ve posted sections of my review to Amazon for you! Best of success!

Posted by Ron Lubensky 05 October 2010 10:18 am | link


Making Sense Out of Chaos: An Audio Interview

I did an interview on September 7th for the Community Learning Exchange –CLExchangeonair with Cheryl Fields on Blog Talk Radio.

Image by Susan Cannon

Below are some of the questions Cheryl asked and a summary of my responses:

  • Everyone is familiar with chaos, but I’d like to begin by describing what you mean by emergence for our listeners. What is it and how does it show up in our lives and in our work?

It’s a word to describe something we all experience, usually at the best and worst times.  The simplest definition I’ve found is order arising from chaos.  So we experience emergence in emergencies – something happens and people self-organize to handle the situation.

Then there are the times when we give ourselves over to the larger forces and follow our noses and something magical happens.  Think of great jazz or team sports at their best.

  • Early in the book you tell the story of how your own perspective on engaging emergence began. Tell us about that experience?

In the 1990’s I managed software projects.  I was excellent at figuring out the steps that needed to be done and then making those steps happen —  planning the work and then working the plan.

As the projects got bigger and more complex, I ran into a one that involved enough people with different opinions that that old approach just didn’t cut it.

Fortunately, I had the opportunity to work with someone who understood how to work in a different way.  Once I experienced it, I had to learn more.

  • It strikes me that one intention of your book is to provide people with tools for overcoming the emotions of fear, panic and retreat that instinctively emerge when we’re confronted with upheaval. These emotions are a natural response to crisis, but how do they get in our way as we’re trying to adjust to these disturbances?

I love your question because it gives me a chance to both answer it and demonstrate one of the simplest ways of doing what you’re asking about.

Change IS often an emotional roller coaster.  Just acknowledging that can take some of the angst out of change.  We dig ourselves deeper in because of where we focus our attention.  In other words, when we focus on how our emotional state gets in our way, we reinforce it and it gets more in our way!

Questions can be powerful influencers of the stories that shape our attention and action.  So, for example, what if we turned your question around and asked,

How could the powerful emotions we naturally experience support us as we face disturbances?

What do you notice when the question is asked that way?

Great questions do three things: they provide focus which brings some sense of order.  They attract those who care.  And they invite others to join in.

  • In your preface you talk about achieving breakthrough solutions rather than compromises that no one is happy with. We’ve seen a lot of the latter on Capitol Hill in recent years. How does engaging emergence help us to arrive at innovative solutions?

Rather than trying to force an answer, engaging emergence has us do almost the opposite: it suggests we make room for the unknown.  After all, if we had the answers, we’d already have pursued them. So instead of pursuing familiar paths, the idea is to give something new a go.  How do we do that in a way that something useful arises rather than devolving into chaos?

Create conditions for something useful to happen through:

Bringing clarity of purpose by asking disruptive questions compassionately.  For example, given the state of our schools, what’s possible to do on behalf of the children?

Inviting the diverse system of people who care about the question.

Welcoming who and what shows up, recognizing that even if it seems disruptive, it likely contains important kernels of truth that need to be discovered and incorporated into the ultimate solutions.

  • What are the five principles of emergence?

I have identified five principles based on what science teaches us about emergence.  They are helpful both when designing activities that engage a diverse group in addressing a complex issue or when operating in a challenging situation:

  • Welcome disturbance
  • Pioneer
  • Encourage random encounters
  • Seek meaning
  • Simplify