Emergent by Design

Designing for emergent properties enables creative people to balance fiercely independent personalities with the benefits of team collaboration.

Over the past year I have had the privilege of working with a group of highly creative individuals who are trying to navigate a tremendously complex landscape. They were originally drawn to the notion of an OPO (Open Participatory Organization), but their situation pushes well beyond the boundaries and constraints that make an OPO workable. The OPO is, afterall, a structural approach that is designed to enable self-organization and catalyze emergence in complex situations.

For this group of creatives, however, the structures fail to do the work they were designed to do. For them, structures do not function as enabling constraints that help capture the work in a manageable form. Rather for them, structures function more like affordances that can be used according to the needs at the moment. In other words, for creatives, the structures themselves are already part of the toolkit, but here new tools are also being invented for new purposes.

This of course, hugely increases the complexity of the work, because the structures themselves are always changing; and people are always experimenting with new ways of construing what the organization is at any and every given moment. What is holding this particular group of people together, is the incredible sense of purpose and ethos they share, and their commitment to not working as “hired guns” for conventional, capitalist, extractionist organizations. That, and the mutual recognition of their amazing talents! In their own words, they are looking for organizational design for creative liberation!

What if, in this case, we turned the relationship between process and structure on its head? What if we thought of the organization not as if it existed in space (that is the OPO’s approach with the notion of locations) but as if an organization was a rhythm across time. Here the rhythm would be defined as the creative process, from inception to realization. The rhythmic pattern would be composed of various durations that had unique signatures. In complex systems terms, we can think of the durations as phase-states, and as transitions between them as being determined by some kind of threshold event. Meaning, we cannot have a prior definition of “done” that marks the exit of one state and the beginning of another. Rather, we need to be attuned to the rhythmicity such that we collectively sense when a new phase is emerging as the old phase dispenses. Of course this means that previously defined goals keep moving, and the group must continually surf multiple emergent futures.

In contrast to the OPO design, which emphasizes the continual regeneration of a starting position, here the starting position is etched in stone — that is the ethos — but the ending position is in continual regeneration. It’s like saying the target is moving, but we must stay anchored to this spot. So instead we have to curve space.

How then might we conceive of an emergent organization based on process and time? We can think of it as a waveform of various process phases:

  1. Possibility space — bounded by the overarching ethos
  2. Situation room — bounded by the specific purpose, pursuit, project
  3. Search space — bounded by being in service to the situation
  4. Possibility landscape — composed of salient features of the project
  5. Goal tuning — goal selection, goal synergies, goal finding, goal making, goal activation, goal updating

Each one of these phases have signature systems properties. Some operate more at the self-organizing team level, some more at the distributed team level, some at the individual level. Some phases are more like scouts going out in all direction, other phases require more disciplined and ritualized structure. Some phases demand fulfilling static (albeit temporary) roles, other phases demand complete egalitarian and transparent dynamics.

This is just a first attempt to think about emergence as a temporal movement, rather than as effects that are dependent upon constraints. A way to see the structures as emergent affordances that are attuned to the temporics rather than functioning as environments in which affordances arise.

Let me know what you think.

Releasing complexity, source code solutions, training post-formal actors, next generation leadership, sensemaking, open participatory organizations

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