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Emergence - not always what it seems

Updated: Feb 17, 2022

Things emerge. It was impossible to predict that this plant would grow in this crack - or what it would look like. Even now that we can see it, we can't explain exactly why it grew in this way.

In complex projects and organisations, emergence can be terrifying. Who has not experienced unforeseen crises (or opportunities) that are hard to explain and even harder to deal with? Such challenges are all too common.

Over time, we can end up being really good at ‘crisis management’, seeing it as a key capability and something to be proud of. Unfortunately, that means we might also misunderstand what is really going on. We might even believe that in complex environments, wicked problems and crises are inevitable and unforeseeable.

Yes, wicked problems do exist and they can be so systemic, subtle and emergent that we really can’t anticipate them or fully understand them. Yet that obscures the truth that most unforeseen crises, even those that are obviously complex in nature, arise from root causes that are visible much earlier. We could have (and perhaps should have) acted earlier and better. To some extent, we failed.

So next time someone near you waxes lyrical about being great at managing crises, remember that blaming emergence for our failure to anticipate possibilities is almost always misguided. It's false confidence and it does not help us to learn.

So what are we not seeing, and why? What do we really need to be better at? What are the lead indicators of our future success?

Contact RiskIQ for ways to assess your organisation’s Proactive Capability Agility – the key lead indicator of future performance.

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