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The Core Elements of Advancing an Emergent Strategy Toward Systems Change, Part 2

Core elements of emergent strategy

This is the second part of a two-part blog that looks at the core elements of emergent strategies and how focusing on these elements allows us to manage and even benefit from the ambiguity and conflict that naturally emerge when solving complex problems.

Our last blog looked at the four core elements of advancing an emergent strategy toward system change:

Core elements of an emergent strategyNow, let’s explore the consequences of not balancing the four elements. Let’s imagine some scenarios where only a couple of these things are moving forward and explore what that does to a group’s ability to drive change:

  • Attention to Structure and Learning: A group that focuses on how they are going to work together and engages in reflection (with a facilitator or developmental evaluator) focused on their group process is likely to fail to develop a good structure. Absent something to work on, coming up with a structure can be difficult and breed conflict that is not productive.
  • Attention to Experimentation and Learning: This sounds good! Rapid deployment of experiments, learning, and adaptation in response to feedback is critical in any systems change effort! Yet, without untangling the problem, over time the experiments may come to feel less and less rewarding as they aren’t driving toward systemic and significant change. Lacking a functional structure, it may be very difficult to switch from experimentation to scaling and institutionalizing change.
  • Attention to Untangling and Structure: Talk about a buzz kill! Attention to two things that take a great deal of time and energy, feel “processey,” and are rarely inspiring can keep a group from ever getting to action.
Setting a clear vision and goals

You may be wondering at this point where vision and goal setting fit into this description of these core elements. I am going to make a bold suggestion: setting clear goals should not be a priority when engaging in emergent strategies to drive systems change.

Emergent strategy needs space to emerge. Sometimes in the process of structuring, a clear vision or goal naturally emerges. Often in the process of untangling, a set of defined changes emerge. Experimentation can surface mechanisms to drive change. A learning process can gradually surface the underlying theories of change. Allowing this type of direction setting to emerge naturally over time frees groups to try things in new ways. Forcing clearly defined goals too early can create similar dynamics to the challenges explored above, creating conflict in the attempt to eliminate ambiguity.

Now, the reality is that groups engaged in emergent strategy will always operate with a theory of why the actions they take matter, however loosely thought through (and often not articulated), and there may be value in taking time to surface the operating theories tied to various actions. But, trying to define THE theory of how these actions will drive systems change is often counterproductive during emergent strategies, as this takes away the emergent nature of the strategy and leaves the group back where they started: implementing the strategies they can think through at this time, based on their current knowledge and experience. Innovative, transformative work requires giving ourselves more time to emerge into a new level and type of understanding before we define how change happens.

Finding Balance

Now let’s imagine a group that is in balance and allowing emergent strategy to unfold naturally:

Early in their process they agree to work collaboratively and allow any two partners to initiate an experiment together, without group consensus being needed (Structure, Experiment). They retain a developmental evaluator to help them learn from the experiments and untangle the larger problem and its systemic drivers (Learn, Untangle).

As they learn more about the problem, their experiments begin to align with specific drivers and become increasingly innovative. They also begin to see, as a group, some potential areas of focus where they feel positioned to make a significant difference. However, there is still some push/pull tension and even conflict about the focus. So before they try to resolve this tension, they decide to develop a more formal structure, setting in place a consensus decision-making process that requires organizational sign-off, not just the individuals in the room (Structure). They also dig in deep on two specific drivers to understand how they can act on them (Untangle). One of their early experiments is proving to have significant impact (Learn), so they make the decision to experiment next by expanding its scope and reach (Experiment).

At a pre-planned reflection moment, they look at their work and realize they are no longer implementing emergent strategy. Rather, the goals are becoming increasingly clear and agreed upon, and are strategies they can deploy. By giving themselves permission to operate amid ambiguity and work through conflict, they have arrived at a place where they are ready to focus and tackle complex, systemic work in a way they have never done before!

This type of progress through an emergent strategy is not easy work and it does not (and should not) eliminate ambiguity and conflict. It can turn them from barriers to emergent strategy into productive elements of strategy when groups give themselves permission to remain emergent and balance their focus on structuring, learning, experimentation, and untangling.