Dealing with Emergence in the Management of Projects and Companies, Practically Speaking

Recently a frequent topic of conversation in my circle of colleagues has been one of complexity, and more specifically, emergence, in management of companies, portfolios, and projects.

By emergence, I mean ‘situations or properties of a given system that would not have been predicted by those observing the parts of the system’.

Some time ago, @daviding copied some terminology considerations down on ingbrief that are highly relevant. Here’s one that compares emergence (and emergent properties) and reduction, where emergence is conceived as, among other things, an actualization of potential relationships between parts (and therefore a functional reduction).

While you’re there, I personally find a nice pairing with this entry on wholism and reductionism.

My interests are highly pragmatic in this context. It seems to be the case that, among my circle, which is a group of relatively seasoned project/program managers with varying technical and non-technical backgrounds, that despite a well-intentioned start, and rigorous analysis of a given set of project requirements, team compositions, etc., a sort of ‘emergence’ takes place, where the ‘management system’ intended for the project is designed for a particular set of conditions, and those conditions change rapidly the point that the management system becomes it’s own burden.

This reminds me of Alex Ryan’s article on ‘systemic design’, which claims there’s a ‘boundary condition’ for ‘smooth water approaches’:

“The familiar approaches have been designed for sailing fast on a smooth lake. They quickly become liabilities in a white-water world.

Smooth-water approaches include:

  • Divided organizations that fragment and compartmentalize objectives, responsibilities, and incentives;
  • Linear processes that cleave workflows into neat boxes and sequential decision cycles;
  • Reductionist tools and models that ignore context and messy realities in favour of the abstract, the idealized, and the measurable;
  • Analytic mindsets that justify decision-making primarily through deductive logic, linear causal chains, quantitative data, trend-line extrapolation, and rational argument; and
  • Habitual patterns for who we consult, who we collaborate with, and which levers we employ to make change.


At a certain point in this progression, however, we may begin to notice something that troubles. With increasing complexity, the marginal benefits of our methods begin to diminish while their costs escalate. This means there is a boundary condition for smooth-water approaches, beyond which their costs exceed their benefits. Worse, if we push smooth-water approaches too far beyond this complexity limit, they become not just costly, but counter-productive. “ (above link)

Traditional project management would, I’d argue, be categorized in this way (as would a number of quality-based practices, and other management practices identified by Ackoff as problematic due to their lack of systems orientation). I’m also reminded of Snowden’s take on scrum in this case as a good example of holding states of liminality.

I wonder if anyone here has any thoughts on this? Specifically:

  • Are there any great models on emergence as related to the management of companies, projects that come to mind?

  • Is there any evidence that certain practices work, across differing cultural, company or operating conditions?

  • Is this even a real phenomena, or is it something closer to one of the definitions on ingbrief, that is:

“2.”a) Properties which emerge as a coarser-grained level of resolution is used by the observer.

b) Properties which are unexpected by the observer because of his incomplete data set, with regard to the phenomenon at hand.

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Just wondered if there might be an intersection with Frederic Laloux’s Reinventing Organizations. Ordered the book but I have not got it yet.

That’s an interesting take. I had a quick look through (I have a digital copy that I’ve yet to fully read), and I think you’re on the right track generally.

As I’m sure you’re aware, the book generally focuses on the development of the ‘teal’ organizational model, which I do find interesting. I believe you’re in Toronto - you may or may not know that The Moment Consultancy in Toronto has embarked on a Teal transformation, which you can read about here.. I’m not sure exactly where they are at there, except there was a thought that maybe they would move from Teal to Holocracy, which you can read about here.

I mention it because this organization has posted a bit on one of our ‘sibling’ projects, the Strongly Sustainable Business Model Group.

Anywho, I suspect (and I have no grounds on this, just these and associated articles), that the sort of conditions I’m speaking about above were partly the motivation for considering these organizational forms. I’m not sure how well it works as a resolution to this ‘problem’, and if it does, and it’s the viable path forward, that’s a bit scary - I don’t think holocracy is going to pickup to overtake dominant models anytime soon (more like it works in certain circumstances, in certain industries, within certain organizations - and in that case can work very well, e.g. some of the self-management models that are somewhat popular).

Thanks for giving me some space to learn with humility. Not sure I have properly digested your insights. Sounds like you might be interested in systems changes practices. @daviding has surfaced the following on interventions which has been a part of my co-learning journey recently Dealing With Emergence. Enjoy and have a nice weekend.

Thanks for resurfacing …

Following those definitions, emergence can be seen as behaviours that appear in the group that do not appear in its members. We can draw parallels to the property of wetness in water, that is not present in either hydrogen or oxygen. The wetness can be seen as part of the synergy.

  • We are reminded by @davidlhawk that while many expect synergy to be positive, it’s also possible to have synergy that is negative.

It sounds like the “management system” might not be following the Design Principles of SocioTechnical Systems theory.

While in mechanistic systems (i.e. machines), function and structure coincide, that’s not necessarily true for human social systems.

The metaphors of “smooth water approaches” and “turbulent waves” is better covered in Causal Texture Theory. I reposted a summary of my friend Doug McDavid’s writing on “Causal Texture of the Environment” that includes:

  • (1) A “placid, randomized environment”
  • (2) A “placid, clustered environment”
  • (3) A “disturbed-reactive environment”
  • (4) “Turbulent fields”

(I’ve lectured on these before, but not recently, so I can’t provide audio-visual content on that).

Actually, the Design Principles are mostly the organizational system, looking inwards. Causal Texture theory is more ecological, looking outward.

The term “emergence” wasn’t used by Emery and Trist (or in the Tavistock Institute) in the way that managers use it today.

In the early 1980s, I read the original Emery and Trist articles as part of my master’s program on Organization Design. I noticed that by the late 1990s, students might have only read summaries in textbooks. My guess is now that they’ve been completely forgotten, except for scholars in organization design.

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Unfortunately, the softcopies of Laloux’s book in English are not searchable on Google Books.

However, there’s a French edition on Google Books, and searches on Trist or Tavistock give zero hits.

I’m sure that the French business schools were exposed to the work of Eric Trist, since Rafael Ramirez – who studied directly with Trist – taught at HEC Paris.

I do have a searchable english copy if anyone is looking for anything in particular. I can confirm the same in this edition as you find David.

I can say, that in my quick breeze of the book, Teal organizations (defined via case study), are considered to “three major breakthroughs”:

Self-management: Teal Organizations have found the key to
operate effectively, even at a large scale, with a system based on
peer relationships, without the need for either hierarchy or consensus.

Wholeness: Organizations have always been places that encourage people to show up with a narrow “professional” self and to
check other parts of the self at the door. They often require us to
show a masculine resolve, to display determination and strength,
and to hide doubts and vulnerability. Rationality rules as king,
while the emotional, intuitive, and spiritual parts of ourselves
often feel unwelcome, out of place. Teal Organizations have
developed a consistent set of practices that invite us to reclaim our
inner wholeness and bring all of who we are to work.

Evolutionary purpose: Teal Organizations are seen as having a life
and a sense of direction of their own. Instead of trying to predict
and control the future, members of the organization are invited to
listen in and understand what the organization wants to become,
what purpose it wants to serve. (pg. 56)

Laloux’s take on the organizational metaphor:

This paradox cannot be understood with the unspoken metaphor
we hold today of organizations as machines. In a machine, a small turn of
the big cog at the top can send lots of little cogs spinning. The reverse
isn’t true―the little cog at the bottom can try as hard as it pleases, but it
has little power to move the bigger cog. The metaphor of nature as a
complex, self-organizing system can much
better accommodate this paradox. In an
ecosystem, interconnected organisms thrive
without one holding power over another.

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