Fundamentally Curious. In a complex world does emergence need evidence?

I had a to and fro recently on twitter about whether in the context of emergence, evidence has any use. The argument was that evidence is always about the past – what has been; rather than what could be; and that for a future to emerge you needed to be open to possibility but not shackled by evidence. Now as you may know, I see evidence both as context and as a signpost, it is part of the data that helps us determine ‘what now?’ or ‘what next?’. Its not the only source, but its an essential part of the journey.

Systems are perfectly formed to do what they are doing, and even if its not working in some people’s view; it is actually doing what its supposed to do  (or else it wouldn’t keep going). What changes any system is perturbance (a bit like being repeatedly prodded), that comes from information, relationships and identity neatly described here Wheatley and Rogers 1996. The self-organising power of a system is in:

  • Identity – sense-making, the lens through which the system views the context, its impact, its relationships, its challenges
  • Information – how it uses that lens to understand data
  • Relationships – the connections that allows possibilities to emerge from information

To change any system you have to provide more/different data (or sometimes just some data!); create the space for sense-making to be expansive, and diversify relationships.  Doing this repeatedly (that’s what makes it perturbance) will lead to change.

Emergence of new possibilities and futures comes from inquiry about what now/next. Evidence provides context for that inquiry, giving data about what has worked where and how. But, to be clear, the evidence is not there for you to replicate what happened or worked somewhere else, but for you to translate that intelligence into your context. It provides data that helps you as a system make sense of your own work and relationships. Evidence is a guide book, it provides ideas and experiences, and intelligence about what worked in a particular set of circumstances, and guides you to think about your own systemic choices. But its not the answer. The ‘Best Practice’ narrative is the kiss of death to innovation. What works there wont necessarily work here in total, but some of it might. So for instance evidence from high performing health systems tells us that you need to promote professional cultures that support teamwork, continuous improvement and patient engagement; leadership activities that embrace common goals across the system; information as a platform to guide improvement; to name just some from Baker and Denis 2011. You wouldn’t ignore that in designing a whole system collaboration, but you would look at what does that mean here and for what purpose. You would unpick those features and think about how that might guide the shape of your endeavour. It would be part of your work on an emerging future.

Innovation isn’t brand new (that’s invention) – its ‘new to here’. Rob Trimble in his blog about the Bromley By Bow Centre model describes the job of translation rather than replication. You cant ‘do’ the Bromley By Bow Centre in a ‘lift and drop’ but you can learn about their journey and look at what that tells you to avoid or amplify.

I’m pretty immersed in the ideas about emerging futures as I’m on week 6 of the MIT MOOC Transforming Business, Society and Self with U Lab, and for those of you that are familiar with the Sharmer U – the newest book is Leading from the emerging Future – you will know that it requires you to work through a learning journey with a team who are committed to discovering a new future for the system.


This includes discovering and learning by ‘go seeing’ (deep dive journeys); suspending your voices of fear, judgement and cynicism; letting go of your attachment to ‘what was’ or your own prejudices and assumptions; listening for and finding what you can commit too; being clear what it is you can and want to commit too together; and then prototype and iterate the new until you find a form that works. That final phase of testing is seeking what feels right and what shows up as right (so getting data to help you iterate is critical).

So I remain committed to inquiry and evidence, but I’m finding that emergence needs a new space, not a hectic scrabbling and arguing, but a discovery and patience, and a commitment to listening. We have to be fundamentally curious.

Have a great week.