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  • Writer's pictureNick Smith

E is for Emerging

'Emerging' - make you think of the Creature from the Black Lagoon, or is that just me? Perhaps more usefully, emerging, or emergent, is a word I associate with my favourite strategy guru Henry Mintzberg. Pretty much anything he's written on strategy is worth reading, with one of his most powerful insights being that strategy comes in many forms - not just as plan, but (for example) sometimes as an emerging pattern. Mintzberg says:

a key to managing strategy is the ability to detect emerging patterns and help them take shape ... not just to preconceive specific strategies but also to recognize their emergence elsewhere in the organization and intervene when appropriate

Identifying patterns that emerge, letting them underpin our strategy development, adapting our plans to them - it's a theme occurring beyond the working world. It's there in grass roots orientated movements like Extinction Rebellion. It's there, too, for example, in the labelling of developing patterns of 'doing church' as 'emergent' or 'emerging church'. Those in emerging church talk a lot about 'adaptive change', change approaches that are less tied into firm plans, and more linked to recognition and response in an agile (yes, definitely a lower case 'a') manner.

This seems an important approach for now - as we know that working patterns will not revert to pre-Covid ways of doing things, but can't be certain exactly what patterns will take hold and become 'norms'. If Bill Gates' insight about over-estimating short term change and under-estimating longer term change is right (and surely it's proven), then the ability to recognise patterns and strategise and plan in ways that are adaptive seems critical.

So, what are the implications of this way of thinking for how we effect change? Here's four potential implications for starters ...

  1. If fundamental, necessary or advantageous change emerges, rather than being carefully planned in advance, then our task has to be to 'get behind' it - to enable it rather than manage it. That's a view of change (enable more than manage) that sits at the heart of Epion's thinking and approaches.

  2. When patterns of change begin to emerge in an organisation (especially 'on the front line'), those who are best placed to understand their impact and how they can be adopted successfully are typically those involved in them at the front line, not those in a central function. That means our change interventions have to include more of empowering of those impacted by the patterns of change and less of determining for them the shape that adoption will take. Again, this is central to how Epion thinks about effecting change.

  3. As much of the technology enabled change (often associated with digital transformation) is about making possible new ways of working, it has a degree of optionality associated with it. For example, in the short term at least, teams and individuals can stay away from online collaborative document creation and review, and continue to work in a linear fashion (cf the deployment of a new ERP-based invoicing system). This optionality means that effective application of digital tools in any specific organisation is as likely to emerge as it is to be imposed. People undertaking tasks will spot how to do things differently and better. So, an approach to change that identified and responds to these emerging patterns of adoption, that is adaptive and iterative rather than linear, will be needed (and more effective).

  4. Just because change emerges, and people figure things out and adopt, does not mean we sit back and let it happen. if we want to inhibit unhelpful patterns of change, to accelerate awareness and adoption of helpful patterns, and if we want to equip teams to adopt emerging ways of working - we have to be more intentional and targeted in our change interventions than ever. Our task grows, not shrinks.

What other implications would you highlight? And just how scary is that creature from the black lagoon?

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