Designing Systems for Emergent Opportunities

Designing Systems for Emergent Opportunities

Nearly 100 years of manufacturers and MBAs have taught us that planning begets thriving and waiting begets losing. But, here's the thing: we don't live in the industrial revolution anymore.

Many of us have heard it said that “culture eats strategy for breakfast” but how many of us really hold things loosely when it comes to developing our own organizations?

Nearly 100 years of manufacturers and MBAs have taught us that planning begets thriving and waiting begets losing. But, here’s the thing: we don’t live in the industrial revolution anymore. Quarterly planning doesn’t work in organizations that are changing faster than a Gantt chart. Pivots don’t take years anymore, they take months. Weekly task lists get disrupted by massive shifts in competitor businesses, capital markets that are unpredictable, platform announcements that make product improvements moot. The world is moving at a rapid, rapid tick.

There is a growing tide, both in business and society, suggesting that what it will take to thrive in the 21st century isn’t planning, but rather something called “sensing.”

I was first exposed to this term “sensing” in design school when I learned about a field called “emergent design.”  One 2014 blogpost aptly describes it as follows:

We perceived…that the code needed to influence the design. It wasn’t a one-way street. No matter how much design we did on its own, as soon as we began to express it in code, the design needed to change. We expressed it as the code telling us what the design wanted to be.

In this sense, design becomes a sort of conversation, a process of incredibly rapid expression, communication, and iteration between the members of a creative team, the designs themselves, and the designs’ users. Form doesn’t follow function or function form, rather the two mutually and gradually derive their nature from the world as it emerges.

Within this emergent world, effective leadership is about consciousness and adaptability, rather than command and control. The best-laid plans, of course, only work when you know to what destination you’re headed and that’s not always, or perhaps even often, the case in a truly emergent world.

To illustrate this point, imagine with me the following scenario: you are on a trip traveling to another part of the world. On this trip, you have planned to travel from New York to Paris by plane, and then from Paris to Hong Kong by train. When you begin your trip, the weather looks pristine and you’ll need to pack a light sweater for your time in Europe, and an umbrella for the blistering sun in China. So, you get everything ready and pack a light, easily carryable bag that will allow you to quickly move from plane to train to bus to taxi. For clothing, you pack layers, comfortable shoes and a raincoat just in case. You also read up on all the different cuisines and cultural norms so you can be at your best in each locale. All sounds well and good, right?

Let’s imagine, now, that a bombing takes place in Paris near the airport, which happens approximately 5 hours after you take off from New York. Your airline decides to reroute you to land in London instead of Paris. Shortly after you land in London, a massive snowstorm makes certain parts of your train route impassable, and grounds planes throughout much of Europe. Direct flights from London to Hong Kong are fully booked for several days. On this trip, you have two options: reroute your way to the original Hong Kong destination or change your destination. In command and control style leadership, the only option is Hong Kong. Using presencing, a new world of possibilities lies at hand: an overland excursion to a nearby locale to spend a week at a bed and breakfast with some new friends; a lavish week in London exploring its arts, culture, and history while staying with a rich distant cousin; or an EasyJet adventure to nearby Spain for a gastronomic tour with the three Spaniards you met at the airport. This presencing attitude derives itself from the ultimate goal of your trip: leisure, rather than its ultimate destination: Hong Kong. Arguably it emphasizes the means and the ends less, and focuses instead on letting both emerge over time. As MIT’s Presencing Insitute defines it, presencing is:

To sense, tune in, and act from one’s highest future potential—the future that depends on us to bring it into being. Presencing blends the words “presence” and “sensing” and works through “seeing from our deepest source.”

The presencing sort of leadership isn’t about knowing where we will go but about feeling where we need to go to attain our highest good. It does not mean pretending to have the answers, and it often means learning how to lead without all the facts. But, it doesn’t mean leading carelessly or without intentions. In fact, presencing leaders tend to emphasize values-based decision-making moreso than leaders who emphasize outcomes. And here’s the crazy thing: this approach works.

How might the story of the Hong Kong bound traveler apply to your organization? Where have you ended up in London when you wanted to head to Hong Kong? And how are you behaving now that things haven’t gone just according to plan?

More on this topic, and the broader topic of organizational development soon.


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