Picture Credit: Doug Priebe, Shutterstock
This is the first article in an ongoing series on the Emergent Era. Learn how to write for Quartz Ideas. We welcome your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. (Comment: IAI believe that this is one of the most important insights I’ve read about business innovation in years. What’s compelling to IAI is that this presents a workable model for the Adaptive Business Culture).
In the wake of Brexit and the election of US president Donald Trump, it’s clear that big global changes are afoot. But before we can begin to explain how these unexpected, tumultuous events will impact our lives, we have more fundamental questions to answer. How has our widely accepted picture of reality fallen so far behind the true scope and pace of change? How can the systems we use to synthesize our collective opinions and motivations keep pace? What other major, near-term events might be in our blind spot?
One of those frameworks is known as emergence. Up until recently, it’s been used primarily to explain natural systems. Basically, the term describes how, when individual agents interact en masse according to a set of simple rules, highly complex structures and behaviors emerge. The billions of neurons that join together in a brain, the multitude of birds in a flock, and the individual ants in a colony are all examples of emergent systems in nature
We’re seeing this same dynamic everywhere today—but in human systems. Emergent properties are what allow the ranks of individual circuits, weak on their own, to join together into a powerful computer. And because of computers, and especially their continuing extension into the physical world via the Internet of Things, emergence has become one of the key forces reshaping our institutions and essential systems.
One characteristic of emergent change is that it seems impossible until it happens, at which point it feels overwhelming, sudden, and inevitable. The moment when water droplets and wind combine into a hurricane is one example. Another example is the moment when, at about 11:00pm Eastern Time in the United States, election predictions made a wild and irrevocable swing in favor of Trump.
Picture Credit: IAI – Modified picture of the October 2016 Supermoon
Two of Silicon Valley’s most celebrated and studied start-ups, Uber (worth $62 billion as of this writing) and AirBnB (worth $25 billion), are precisely these types of companies. Neither invented or makes the key asset they trade in (transportation in the case of Uber and lodging in the case of AirBnB). But both provided a new stream of information that equipped individual agents (people with smartphones) to respond in new but consistent ways to the real time location of those assets. The interaction of Uber and AirBnB users as a network lead to the emergence of new behaviors and new markets built on them.
It’s as if ants were given a new set of rules by which to respond to their immediate environment, or brain cells a new set of commands to relay signals. In any system with the potential for emergence, a small change in what economist Thomas Schelling calls micromotives can lead to radically different macrostructures. And in The Emergent Era, with its profusion of new, ambient information streams, human micromotives are changing all the time.
An adaptive business culture begins with a radically open communication system. It’s only when people have access to real-time data and believe they have permission to both pass it on and act on it, that you get the speed and resiliency that characterize emergent structures.
Really empower them. No matter what our official title in an organization may be, everybody needs to get over the illusion that by controlling others, we can control outcomes. Because of accelerated change, we are all, by necessity, becoming collaborators rather than merely managers and employees. In the Emergent Era, it’s best for organizations to mimic emergent systems in nature by distributing the decision making process as widely across the network as possible. In effect, to empower individual “cells” to relay signals and respond to their local conditions as they see fit, when they see fit.
By M.O. I don’t just mean modus operandi, a characteristic way of doing things. I also mean “mission objective” and “mindset orientation.” A good M.O. is an intuitive habit of mind that connects the larger vision of an organization with the immediate, tactical objectives of a person or team. It is part habit and part intuition, somewhere between mission and mindset. Leaders provide a vision while allowing their teams to find their own route to achieving it, with room to experiment along the way.
Don’t be afraid of feedback—seek it, give it, use it—but make sure it’s the right feedback. Healthy, adaptive systems tend to be highly feedback tolerant. That doesn’t mean they merely amplify the signals that flow through them; they sometimes dampen those signals by incorporating “negative” feedback. Despite the negative connotation of the phrase, the results of negative feedback are actually positive. It’s the mechanism our bodies use to maintain the right temperature and blood sugar levels, and it’s the way people and processes in organizations stay in accord with larger strategies and goals.
In a company where the information flow is obstructed by bureaucracy, or by managers who create a culture which disproportionately rewards people who confirm existing beliefs, healthy feedback is impossible. For a system to be adaptive, it needs to create regular conditions tolerant of both positive and negative feedback.
5. Learn to Live in the “In-Between”
Learning to live in the In Between is a mindset change—perhaps the defining mindset change—of The Emergent Era. It means abandoning the idea that we can operate with total knowledge, or even with the certainty that the tools we have are sufficient to address the possibilities and problems that face us.
The work of the future won’t be dominated by people or technology. It will emerge from the collaboration between people and technology.
For companies and individual employees, the combination of a good M.O. and a powerful A.I. will seem at first impossible, then inevitable, and finally invincible. In the Emergent Era, companies that combine a transparent, reliable information flow, a sound feedback system, and meaningful intelligence will see solutions to their problems consistently and spontaneously emerge—before they become a catastrophe or emergency to confront. Emergence-ready organizations need to adopt an agile, adaptive decision-making formula optimized for our accelerating world—with its unprecedented levels of speed and unpredictability.
But even in this new era, some things will remain the same. Emergent organizations will still need leaders to hire the right people, define goals, values, and beliefs, and provide and point to sources of inspiration and renewal. Ant colonies and brain cells don’t need visionaries—but human institutions always will.