Working with complexity, not against it: Emergence in real life and everyday conversations

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.

This book chapter – viewable online via this link or, leads to at least three ways to help conversations build towards useful narrative:

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


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5 Responses to “Working with complexity, not against it: Emergence in real life and everyday conversations”

  1. Harry Korman says:

    Brief, clear and elegant. Complex things described simply, perhaps pointing towards a new and perhaps very useful understanding.
    One critical remark or question though – perhaps due to my superficial understanding of these fhings – I think one problem with talking about emergent conversations is that levels of descriptions become blurred. Meaning is emergent in conversation is a different level of description and I get a little bit confused by the idea that conversation is emergent. Isn’t this using the word emergent in two different ways?

    • Hi Harry, very interesting point. One possible difference is that we can see clearly (in my view) how conversations are emergent – proceeding a step at a time in ways that are not predictable, yet recognisable. Meaning emerges too – in a less visible and clear way, perhaps. And the meaning can continue to develop long after the conversation is finished. So, both are emergent and these two levels of description, as you put it, are not the same. Maybe there is connection though – emergent conversations can clearly be a source of emergent meaning.

      • Arthur Battram says:

        Hi Mark,

        Agree with Harry, very elegant and brief piece.

        For myself, I realise that I’m more interested in how meaning emerges than in how conversation is emergent – almost certainly because emergent conversation is an idea I have lived and worked with for a long time.

        Whenever I work with a group to facilitate the conversation (aka ‘dialogue’ in the sense popularised by Senge and Isaacs from Bohm) I’m always struck by how meaning, consensus, purpose, action, plan and so on, emerge as ‘a whole thing’ from the interactions.

        As you know I compare this emergence (glibly) to the emergence of swarming in flocks of birds and the like.

        I still find myself exhorting groups to tolerate the feelings of uncertainty for as long as they can, to delay moving to summary or action, to hold off advocating and keep inquiring (to quote Senge’s source, Chris Argyris), to let the thing emerge from our very focussed LISTENING to the conversation, whilst being PART of the conversation.

        Like other practitioners, in OpenSpace and the like, I ask people to trust that emergence will happen.

        I use the term the ‘cloud of contradiction’ and describe the cloud as ‘cracking’ like a rain cloud. Haven’t particularly articulated this before, but the analogy is to a super-saturated solution – like when boiling saturated copper sulphate cools and the solution cracks and suddenly crystals ‘all appear at once’.

        It’s this ‘all’ and ‘at once’ which characterises the sudden emergence of the ‘whole thing’ (we could chose to call it a ‘holothingon’, except that I don’t think reification is helpful – we need to stay in the realm of plain language. Shades of David Grove’s ‘clean language’).

        Cracking isn’t quite right (although people seem to like it) because the emergence is much smoother than the term ‘crack’ implies. The flocking metaphor is better, because as we observe a flock (which I never tire of doing, the paradigm being urban starlings in an open space in a town centre approaching dusk) we can sense that the individuals are falling under the spell of the Langton rules at the same time as seeing the self-directedness of the individuals, then suddenly, yet quietly and unnoticeably there is a flock, glittering in the air.

        Reviewing what you said, after writing this just now, I realise that I’m describing a more general aspect of interactions between entities, which is, I believe useful to us, inasmuch as it needs to be captured in description (oh yes, I’m trying not to explain, merely describe, or as I prefer ‘point to’). Ways of seeing, ways of observing, expectations and trust.

        (I’ll see if I can dig out what I’ve written on this, I think it is from internal briefing documents I produced for an MBC back in 2001.)

        • Hello Arthur,

          Thanks for these thoughts. Part of the point of the piece is to put forward the view that since conversation is ALREADY emergent, not special kind of conversation is needed to work with or engage emergence. There is a great deal written about the latter, much of it in terms of some special kind of ‘dialogue’ or something being important. That’s as may be, but I want to draw attention to the emergennt properties of ALL conversation and to posit that change – of the narrative emergence variety – comes from this. This is a fore-runner of ‘meaning’ in my view, which only becomes clear as things go on.

          • Arthur Battram says:

            hi Mark,

            thanks for your reply. (This is the sort of ‘conversation’ we didn’t get to last week, for various reasons.)

            as I said in my opening remark, I’m used to operating in the perspective of all conversation is emergent.

            But I’m seeing a definitional problem here, a problem of utility in labelling. It seems to me that if we adopt your view in its extreme or hard form, in the context of ‘management’ in ‘organisations’ it just takes us back to the perennial starting point: why are the conversations / utterances/ communications/ call them what you will/, so poor and ineffective?

            If we say that managers often fail to communicate, as they often do, and simply transmit orders with no feedback to be misinterpreted or ignored (a straw man, I know) then we would find ourselves advocating ‘conversation’.

            If we accept that managers ‘communicate’ but wish to promote ‘effective conversation’ we find ourselves promoting ‘dialogue’ or similar.

            For what it’s worth, I agree with you (if indeed you are implying) that much of the malarkey purveyed as OpenSpace (I’ll exclude Harrison himself from this jibe) world Cafe, Big Conversation and the like, not particularily deserving of any special elevation as a conversational discipline. (My own diligent study and discovery in this area confirmed my initial view that the methods are often not much more than packaged recipes masquerading as great insights and deep skills).

            Your own notion of ‘Host Leadership’ and my own wee ‘Pattern Management’ are examples of a special approach to conversation aren’t they? Surely they are examples of ‘special types of conversation’ in the way you describe? (Or perhaps you would want to call them examples of ‘space design for conversation’ – containers not interactions, or something….)

            But I’m still not sure what we gain by asserting (almost truistically*) that all conversation is emergent, at least (and this is probably the point) in the management consultant’s context.

            is that a word?

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