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On Emergence

When it comes to the business of transformation, educational institutions largely continue to adhere to the method of analyse, conceptualise, and execute. In other words, analyse ‘how we do school,’ conceptualise some new outcome for one or two parts of that model, then execute by imposing that new concept on the organisation. Everything lives within the locus of control of the organisation itself, which is why the method endures — it provides familiar comfort. Schools, which we interpret as all educational institutions spanning the K-20 spectrum, often talk about being adaptable to change, yet so many transformation efforts fail. Indeed, across industries outside of education, most transformation efforts are unsuccessful; a 2021 Forbes article cited a 70% failure rate. 

In a recent article in Rotman Management (“The Adaptive Organisation: First Principles for Business Transformation”), Joerg Esser calls our attention to the complex adaptive systems that organisations are, and points to something that causes discomfort: even in adaptive organisations, there is an underlying assumption regarding transformation that is harming organisations: the assumption that organisations are still trying to get from Point A to Point B, as if the organisation were some sort of machine with simple inputs and outputs that can be designed for with a high degree of reliability. As he writes, organisations follow the formula of: “Make the necessary changes here and there, flip these switches, turn this dial up or down, and the machine will start humming along effectively once again.” He goes on to say, “Adaptation today is not about getting from A to B, tinkering at the edges, or fine-tuning your strategy. We need a revised view of what transformation means” (65). His advice is to look at the domain of science, and specifically at what Aristotle called ‘first principles,’ i.e., the basis from which a thing is known. A first principle, in other words, is “the basic assumption that cannot be deduced from any other assumptions.”

Esser proffers that organisations are not static machines; rather, they’re more akin to complex adaptive systems (66), described as ‘systems whose overall behaviour is complex, yet whose fundamental parts are simple, constantly adapting to the environment.’ He goes on to argue that adaptive systems such as these rely on what he calls the dynamic of emergence — “the idea that small things form big things with properties different than the sum of their parts when interacting as part of a greater whole.” He posits that, to be an adaptive system, an organisation needs to emulate this dynamic itself (i.e., emergence), rather than trying to emulate certain features. Embrace the dynamic of emergence, that is to say.

Helpfully, the author suggests five principles that an organisation might observe, as a means of adapting and transforming in a highly uncertain environment (our world).

Principle 1: Scenarios Over Predictions. Spend less time predicting, and more time modeling scenarios with identified tipping points.

Principle 2: Ambition Over Masterplan. Focus on ambition rather than detailed actions. Don’t get bogged down in micromanaged solutions. Specify the overall intent, and go with it. Adapt along the way.

Principle 3: The Wisdom of the Many Over the Expertise of the Few. Leadership is delegated and distributed, in order to find solutions, especially by those who are at the forefront of implementation.

Principle 4: Homemade Solutions Over Store-Bought. Instead of copying practices from elsewhere and trying to impose them on your organisation, engage your organisation in the process, and develop solutions customised to your context. Such an approach will reduce push-back from those in the organisation.

Principle 5: Exploration Over Optimization. Explore new partnerships and solutions, as opposed to optimising existing systems and processes. 

For schools that aren’t already following some (or all) of these principles, it is tempting to go all-in on embracing the dynamic of emergence. However, a word to the wise: most school/organisational cultures have plenty of talent accustomed to what Esser calls “straight lines and fixed frameworks” (68). Schools would do well to consider where (e.g., in a controlled initiative) they might try to embrace these principles of emergence, as a means of demonstrating how it can be done, and what exactly is valued as part of the approach. Only then consider scaling it. To head straight-on into the dynamics of emergence, at scale, is likely a recipe for disaster. Emergence may well be the desired future state, but turning the ship takes a steady hand on the tiller, and relentless identification and visualisation of the shoreline. 

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