by Ian Saunders, Antony Aitken, Ray Charlton and David Flatman

Emergent change

Effective change is usually emergent. In other words, within a change programme there needs to be space and time to adjust or amend direction and expectations in the light of what is actually taking place. There has to be a balance between the planned and the emergent.

This is important as we often seek to ‘manage’ things and this is seldom the way that change occurs.

Planned or emergent?

In recent years, there has been a great deal of discussion about why so many change programmes fail to deliver to expectations. This has provoked a debate about the nature of change and whether it can be planned. Research into actual change shows that change programmes rarely work as planned – ‘and things get done anyway’.

In fact, the results of change emerge from the complex web of action and interaction that makes up an organisation. It is from this complexity that a pattern or purpose emerges – which hopefully will be aligned with our original intention. Unfortunately, we may find ourselves resisting this concept because it seems to place events beyond our control.

And perhaps change is neither planned nor emergent – it is both/and.

Chaos often breeds life, when order breeds habit.

Henry Brooks Adams

A moment’s reflection can confirm that there is something in this. When we look back on change, we usually rationalise what happened into a coherent story. But we know it was not really like that.

It was actually quite messy and what really happened seemed to happen in spite of the plan rather than because of it.

Planned and emergent

The current thinking is that even projects that are highly planned are still ‘emergent’. A flaw at the root of much management practice is the assumption that good management is about being in control. The reality is that much of the time we are not actually in control. So a change project needs to be planned and managed – yet in a way that leaves room for the emergent process to flourish.

This has major implications for the way projects are set up, planned and managed.

Can you manage emergence?

This sounds like a contradictory question. The answer comes back to the difference between leadership and management.

Key point

You cannot manage in the direct control sense – you can lead, by providing clarity of purpose and direction, together with appropriate support.

What is an emergent process like?

Just think back on any kind of change that you ‘planned’ and remember how it really was. Remember how the plan wasn’t followed to the letter, and yet things got done anyway.

So you need to be thinking about how you will build in space for emergent events. To help you, here is some background to why change is always emergent to some degree.

  1. Because of complexity. Quite simply, organisations and people are so complex that it is nonsensical to imagine that everything can be planned and controlled. For example, you cannot control people’s motivation, though you might try to influence it. You cannot possibly predict all the consequences of your actions. The unintended can be important – negatively or positively (see Matsushita quote).
  2. Because of Complexity. Yes, capital C – and here we are talking about the complexity sciences. We are not going to blind you with science here, but if you understand this better it will resonate with your daily experience of organisations and of life. There are three aspects to this that are particularly worth considering here:
  • Self-organisation

We often notice that things hardly ever work as planned and yet ‘we get things done anyway’. This is noticing self-organisation. This is how things are, naturally. We, organisations, the universe are not machines. Coherence, patterns, order emerges through self-organisation. Dee Hock, the founder of Visa, describes this process vividly in his book, Birth of the Chaordic Age.

  • Change through connections

Self-organisation is natural, but it needs interconnections between the elements that make up the system. It follows that the more connections that take place, the more dynamic will be the self-organising process. So encourage as much conversation about the change as you can, across all levels in the organisation, as this is where the connections are made.

  • Amplify difference

We constantly experience the differences between people: different interests, motivation, style, attitudes, abilities and so on. We often experience this as a problem, being aware that it can cause conflict. Complexity science teaches us to value difference, not simply because it is good to be tolerant, but because it is through the differences and connections that novelty arises, and thus emerges where it can be useful.

If we reflect on all this, we may well intuitively feel this is right – but then go on to fall into the trap of rejecting it in favour of doing things that allow us to feel that we are in control.

There is enormous pressure on managers to submit to the prevailing myth that we are ‘in control’. This is dangerous.

Influencing emergence

Two metaphors might help here – a football team and a jazz band. Would you agree that their performance and success cannot be controlled?

A successful football team has

  • A clear purpose – to win (1–0 will do!)
  • An outline of a strategy – at most
  • Skills – developed over time
  • Different skills and roles
  • The ability to notice and adapt to each other
  • Motivation – from within, not imposed
  • Commitment to the team and its aim.

A great jazz band does not have a conductor, it has

  • A strong sense of purpose – to make great music
  • An outline of a strategy – the tune around which they improvise
  • Skills – developed over time
  • Different skills and roles
  • The habit of listening and adapting to each other
  • Motivation – from within, not imposed
  • Commitment to the band and its aim.

What similarities do you see between these metaphors and your organisation?

Notice that a great deal of hard, organised and controlled work has got these individuals and teams to where they are. That is why, when it comes to performing they can improvise.


From these metaphors produce a similar list to explain how you understand this approach to managing or leading in your organisation. Think about each point as the football team or jazz band would experience it, rather than in terms of how those words are used in your organisation. Expand on each point to capture your meaning.

Then, for each point, describe the sort of things you can do to help it to become a reality for the change that you are envisaging or are involved in.

Project struggling?

Probably because of insufficient attention to the emergent issues!

What is the normal reaction when a project is going over budget and/or not meeting deadlines?

It is to tighten up, get back on track, put more pressure on, modify standards or de-scope the project – in fact to apply the rational and mechanistic project management process more rigorously.

Of course the process needs to be rigorous, but...

Rarely do we look beyond this to see the causes of the problems – it is usually assumed to be lack of control. More often than not, it will be due to the emergent process being too tightly constrained.

The seeds of problems are usually sown in the way projects are set up.

Make sure these two factors are in place at the beginning of projects:

  1. A requirement and willingness to commit to work content, resource requirements, timescales and costs – when very often these cannot be known in any detail in advance.
  2. Attention to the reality of emergence and of the factors influencing emergence.