Embracing Emergence – Part 1

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Posted by Eileen Ellsworth.

This is the first of two blog posts on a recent article in Stanford Social Innovation Review entitled “Embracing Emergence: How Collective Impact Addresses Complexity” by John Kania and Mark Kramer of FSG.

Since their important article in the spring 2011 issue of Stamford Social Innovation Review on collective impact, John Kania and Mark Kramer of FSG have further clarified the elements of successful cross-sector coalitions addressing complex social issues.  In this most recent article on the topic, Kania and Kramer focus on one such element in particular:  Emergence.

Drawing on ideas from the study of complexity science and organizational behavior, Kania and Kramer encourage the practice of collective impact in philanthropy by helping those who would engage in it to anticipate emergent, not predetermined solutions. In essence, the article is an exercise in setting expectations about what the collective impact process holds for the participants.

Entrenched social ills are complex and we all know this.  There are no easy answers.  When the problems are this complex, no predetermined outcome will succeed. Therefore, if a predetermined outcome is baked into the cross sector collaboration as it leaves the gate, it will shortchange if not sabotage the entire collective impact process.

“Embracing Emergence” is an attempt by Kania and Kramer to reset this thinking.  Their core message is to accept and even embrace the notion that group decision making is a process.  It has its many moments of uncertainty, unpredictability, and just plain “not-knowing.”  This is normal.  This is good.  During such periods, holding a mindset of curiosity, discovery, and learning can be enough to sustain the process and keep it going.  Then and only then do solutions “emerge.” They emerge from the collective soup of words, actions, thought, intention and complexity that are the hallmarks of group decision making.

Collective impact is difficult to achieve for these and other good reasons also described in the article – such as the difficulty in bringing new partners together, overcoming competition, building trust, avoiding being high-jacked by “self-anointed backbone organizations,” just to name a few. But at the very least, Kania and Kramer’s collective impact process holds a promise that the isolated impact of individual organizations does not:  There are more eyes on the issue, more diverse points of view at the table, and therefore a deeper reach into the root causes of the problem and its potential solutions.

My next blog post on “Embracing Emergence” will describe in more detail this promise of collective impact, a promise that can only be realized when the coalition overcomes its “I don’t know where this is headed” jitters, trusts the process, and lets the answers emerge.

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