Conditions for Emergence

February 12, 2013 Leave a comment

The following comments was posted by Gibran as a response to Curtis Ogden‘s Collective Impact and Emergence blog post.  In it we are challenged to think beyond our institutions and think about how to truly impact the communities we work with. 

This is excellent Curtis. It brings me back to one of our most important inquiries – how do you nurture the conditions for emergence? With this inquiry, we are not just saying that emergence happens; we are saying that our best approach is to nurture it. It is a significant shift from a more top-down technical approach.

I think that the Collective Impact framework does a phenomenal job of articulating one side of the coin. Like you, I think it falls short, and it is only half of the story. Organizational structures are easier to see and understand than the cultural conditioning and the socio-economic structures that make it so difficult to have transformational impact. Since organizations are easier to see they become the places that attract our attention. We relate to our institutions as our most important levers.

Our institutions ARE important levers! But they are not our most important ones. How do we affect culture? Values, beliefs, assumptions? What moves hearts and minds? What are the behaviors and practices that allow us to stand in the heat of discomfort? What are the aptitudes that let us drive our institutions to do the very best they can do while remaining persistently aware that these simply cannot contain the level of complexity at which we are currently challenged?

There are no firm answers to these questions, which makes for a less seductive argument. But we do know about holding space. We do know about the sort of design and facilitation that allows for people to connect more authentically to one another even as they are doing important institutional work. We do know about the role of passion, of love and commitment among those who want to change the world. We know about practice, about gradual shifts in behavior, as well as about social scale structural analysis.

This is a missing layer to the collective impact framework. I’m glad we are working on it.


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  • Beth Tener says:

    I love this thread – thanks Curtis and Gibran. To Gibran’s point “What are the behaviors and practices that allow us to stand in the heat of discomfort?” – I sense there are several that are important to cultivate:

    – The ability to stay with a process when the outcome is uncertain. There’s another conversation to have about how setting tight specific outcomes and deadlines on these initiatives and how that stifles emergence. This also relates to our own ability to step into the unknown and trust a group enough that we can allow something truly new to emerge.

    – I’ve been reflecting on how to create the conditions to support collaboration for system change. A key barrier I’ve been seeing is the lack of funding and investments aligned with collaborative work at a larger scale. When people feel that time is scarce and there is competition for scarce resources or the priorities of their job/organization already fill their plate, it can undermine this joint work. I’m interested to explore how we can use investments of philanthropy or other sources to create underlying conditions that generate a sense of abundance and possibility for these collective efforts that we sense have such leverage and potential.

    – Also, I think we each as leaders need to have a capacity for self-awareness and reflection to “stand in the heat of discomfort” – especially in circumstances where issues of power, inequities, privilege, etc. come up.

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