Emergent or Structured


My friend Nirmala asked a question on facebook which a lot of people are asking. What she asked is how we can learn to accept what is non-linear and be happy with emergence. I dont believe the issue is really about geometric shapes, so instead of looking at linearity, i think we could rephrase the question to ask how we can learn to be comfortable with a scenario where not many things can be predicted and simple cause-effect relationships are not so simple at all. In other words:

How can we get to be comfortable with unpredictability and observe and learn from emergence.

I dont pretend to have the answer any more than the next person. But i think over a period of time i have made the transition to some extent. Let me explain how. Over the years i have worked as a trainer and as a consultant. Let me explain the difference in the way these two professions operate and you will get an idea of what i am talking about.

An instructor, when he walks into a class, has a well-defined curriculum which needs to be covered in a definite period. The topics that need to be covered are predefined and the total duration of the course is predefined. Not only that, the time you need to allot to a particular topic is also predefined by the people who developed the courseware. Extend this and even the demonstrations and exercises are very well-structured, to the extent that the courseware also tells the trainer how much time to spend on which exercise or on which demonstration. Now this doesnt work like clockwork but the trainer has quite a good understanding of whether the training is behind schedule at any given point of time, and if so, it is quite simple to find out the things which need to be done to bring it back to schedule.

On the other hand consider working as a consultant implementing packaged software like SAP, Oracle, PeopleSoft and so on. As any consultant will tell you, requirements are notorious for being highly undefined. The client will come to you with a particular set of requirements, and by the time you configure a solution to meet those requirements, they change. Even if they dont, when you deliver the solution to the client the realize that this wasnt what they wanted after all, and so you need to go back and redefine the solution. Add to this something any consultant or project manager will tell you about, that is scope creep. You could define a solution based on a particular scope for the solution and halfway through they come and tell you that the scope has changed and so the solution needs to be redesigned. Or the additional reports which the client asks for, or changes to existing reports which the client asks for at a later stage of the project. Anyone who has been a consultant would know these.

As you can see the scenarios are different. The question now is how managers can make the change from one to the other. One thing which is important for this is to be able to enjoy the proces of creation, re-creation, refinement, and so on. We would agree that this is easier said than done. Having said that, there are aspects which can help us here. One is to understand that monitoring is not the same as controlling. And controlling is the opposite of enabling people to do more and different things. Now this could be more about the motivation for the change. On an ongoing level, it is important for managers to be able to see maybe two steps forward and to be able to see the various possibilities which exist there. Once this can be done it is relatively simpler to find out what they would want to do for the possibilities which are more probable, and how the next two steps can be managed to arrive at an outcome which is better than the current reality. And if this is treated as a project (no, not literally, but rather as being somewhat similar in terms of structure or nature), and each step of the process by which a scenario emerges is treated as a milestone, it becomes a little simpler for managers to handle uncertainty and manage scenarios which are unpredictable.

This is of course not to say that projects are run in totally unpredictable ways. Project managers agonize over project plans, and a lot of activities associated with them. But, there is still a lot of uncertainty when compared to the training scenario i described. And the question we are asking is not how to remove uncertainty (which is probably not possible) but how to make the transition from the predictable timetable kind of scneario to one with higher levels of uncertainty. This doesnt take care of uncertainty, nor would it enable managers to eliminate uncertainty, but by creating an understanding that emergence by itself is a process, though not structured, managers can appreciate the various steps towards emergence of a new reality. Or, to put it differently, by understanding the process, managers can see the emergence of something new at every step to the emergence of the new scenario.

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2 Comments on “Emergent or Structured”

  1. Nimmy says:

    Good post, Atul! I agree….learning to enjoy the journey (process) is a great way to cope with emergence and uncertainty. It is somewhat philosophical….but, again, learning to let go, accept surprises (pleasant or otherwise), control but only to a reasonable extent and keep a tab on futuristic thoughts may work wonders! Thanks for this post… đŸ™‚

  2. Thanks Nirmala. I agree that this is more philosophical but probably another thing to look at it we are more comfortable with near term than with long term so if we could somehow come to near term emergence derived from long term it may be easier to manage?


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