• Jewlya Lynn

Unpacking Emergent Strategy, Part 2

This three part blog offers a 101 level introduction to how emergent strategy has been explored by leading thinkers, and some of the ways to pull these threads of insight together. It is NOT a complete and thorough review of the concept, nor does it represent the full range of voices and insights about emergent strategy. It is also my interpretation of both the concepts and what each author is bringing forward, recognizing they offer a great deal more than we have space to explore here. We all have our lenses – I hope you have and will continue develop your own interpretation and insights about emergent strategy. To this end, there are links and resources throughout this document to support your learning journey.


Learning from adrienne maree brown: The relational orientation


adrienne maree brown is an author and activist with a deep understanding of social movements. Her work is grounded in her study of Octavia Butler’s speculative fiction that has advanced critical insights about race, sex, and power. brown’s book, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, was published only 4 years ago, but already has tremendous momentum. She embraces many of the same concepts of emergence that have been proposed by others (including bringing ecosystem metaphors to life) and brings a deep understanding of nature, humanity and relationships within emergence:


“Emergence shows us that adaptation and evolution depend more upon critical connections. dare i say love. the quality of connection between the nodes in the patterns.” brown’s blog post on flocking


As with the two previous thought leaders, there is much that could be unpacked. A few highlights that are particularly relevant to philanthropic work in systems change include:


Learning from ecology


brown reminds us to learn from the patterns in the natural world as we seek to change systems. She highlights metaphors from nature that help us think about how social movements (and one might argue, broader systemic change) emerge over time. Three that I find very compelling are:

  • A flock of starlings: The flock’s synchronized movements, which are guided by simple rules, allow them to react to the environment as a group. They have no leader, yet they can transform their actions together.

  • A fern: Ferns are shaped as fractals – which is an object that displays the same shape as any scale, though it may have more layers and complexity as it grows in size.

  • A dandelion: Dandelions, described as a weed, are resilient with roots that make them hard to get rid of. They change rapidly, overnight moving from flower to seed heads, and spread wide and far.


Being like water


In philanthropy and non-profits, we love to predict the future (often narrowly, based on our own strategies and goals). Yet, when seeking to change systems, we must let go of our desire to control the future (which also gives us the opportunity to let go of our anxieties about that future). Chances are that your experience exploring systems concepts has including grappling with the non-linear nature of systems change; yet, it is likely your work also uses linear theories of change or other strategic plans that make claims suggesting that if we intervene in these ways, the system will change in these other ways, which will contribute to these guiding stars/long-term goals. In other words, we continue to predict a very specific future.


To remind us of the falseness of these predictions, brown quotes Peter Hardie: “The universe is both orderly and chaotic. We understand it to a point, and then there is mystery.” What we do with this mystery is what matters.


Be wrong


This is easily one of my favorite insights in any emergent strategy reading (and it comes up a lot!). brown grounds this concept in not just our openness to being wrong, but how we show up when we are wrong. She reminds us to be wrong, be open to being wrong, and be particularly open even after you’ve been a strong defender of an idea. To be soft when you are sure you’re right, and be aware that there are multiple truths – not one definite, unquestionable truth about a system and a strategy. Being wrong (or failing, making mistakes, etc.) is part of systems change work and emergent strategy.


By the way, in addition to being wrong, we also have to be kind when others are wrong. brown reminds us that “the line between constructive critique and hater is a hard one to navigate.” Instead of focusing on critique, we can focus on learning, on being curious, on having genuine interest in what has happened and why, on the thinking others brought to the work.


Taking care of ourselves and others


Finally, brown includes in her description of emergent strategy the health and wellbeing of the people who are helping the strategy emerge. She challenges some of the core norms of our (western) way of working, ways that prioritize productivity, are driven by deadlines, are grounded in competition, and reject our emotions as part of how we work together. She also reminds us that we are praised and rewarded for being good at what we do (which makes doing what we don’t know deeply uncomfortable, even risky). Yet, when we seek to change systems, we are often doing the impossible and unimaginable.


These norms deserve to be challenged in our work. Building on brown’s insights, in my experience, one way to challenge them is to NOT seek the leaders of your emergent strategy and systems change from among those who have succeeded the most due to these norms. The person who can achieve productivity in themselves and others, master a skill and be an expert, and deliver on a deadline, may not be the person who can create an ecosystem ripe for emergence. Find the greatness in those who are right now being overlooked.


In the final blog in this series, we'll weave these three thinkers together and explore the implications for engaging in emergent strategy in our own work.

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