by Mark McKergow
As a management consultant, I help people make progress when things are tough. Taking a complexity perspective helps this task enormously; an “emergent view” of the world removes the last possibilities of finally understanding – in a mechanistic way – how the world works. Instead, this perspective points the way to a more pluralist and pragmatic position, where different views can be valued, affirmed and utilised to build ways forward.
It may be that “emergence” (see wiki link) is much closer to our everyday experience than we think. Take ordinary conversations, for example. In a book chapter just published (McKergow, 2011), I argue that conversations are an emergent phenomenon. Each move builds on the last, in a way that is unpredictable and yet recognisable (within grammatical constraints, more or less).
The result of this process is ‘narrative emergence’ – the construction of story-lines that can reinforce our existing understandings or (more rarely) begin new lines of thought and action. It is with the latter end in mind that “Solution-Focused” (SF) practice is carried out. From roots in therapy to wide applications in management, education and social spheres, SF work shows a way of working WITH the complexity already present in everyday life and conversation, to start to build better ways forward where none seem feasible.
1. The difference between explanation and description. When we look for explanations, causes and reasons, we do so in search of some kind of overarching mechanism, which helps us understand how things ARE. But think about it: even if we can find such an explanation, we are shoring up the idea that change is likely to be difficult because we consciously have to follow some cause and effect. I call this ‘stability-focused language’. However, the act of describing better futures (in great detail) and supportive events in the past (which show examples and contributing features, overlooked events which may be significant) can quickly establish a dynamic of progress – leading to clear action steps. Experience in SF practice shows that the latter is a reliable and useful way to get away from causal thinking and into something more useful – what I call ‘progress-focused’.
2. The difference between internal mentalistic language (beliefs, thoughts, feelings) and interactional language (descriptions of ongoing everyday life from a variety of perspectives). The former echoes Freud in terms of hydraulic causes of behaviour rooted in an individualist perspective (as if we are all acting independently of one another in response to our brains, emotions, thoughts etc). Interactional language – ‘external’ everyday descriptions of who does what with whom, seems to increase our awareness that all acts take place in response to other people and other acts. Thus, behaviour is seen in a wider context, which also provides more points for action and leverage.
3. The difference between goals (targets set in the future) and small steps (things to do quickly to move in a desired and defined direction). This may be the single most important conclusion for progress in a complex world. If things are ever-shifting, then what’s clear today may not be so clear tomorrow. Focus on small steps, to be done quickly in order to find out more about what works (rather than in the expectation that everything will be instantly resolved) seems to give people a sense of control and purpose in a confusing and muddled world.
Perhaps once we realise that even ordinary conversations are emergent, it might help to increase our confidence of taking an emergent perspective over issues of public policy and corporate governance?
McKergow, M. (2011). Language, complexity and narrative emergence: Lessons from Solution Focused practice. In Tait, A. and Richardson, K.A., Moving Forward with Complexity. (pp. 309-327). Litchfield Park AZ: Emergent Publications, ISBN 978-0984216598