Four Keys to Managing Emergence

In volatile and uncertain environments, managers must encourage and enable the spurts of participatory innovation that lead to emergent processes and solutions.

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In recent years, much has been made about the uncertain and continuously dynamic nature of the environment in which today’s organizations operate. Research has repeatedly demonstrated that managers contribute to a company’s bottom line in such an environment by enabling the emergence of work processes in real time, in which the outcomes are not predictable and employees must continuously make sense of, and adjust to, a changing situation. It is generally accepted that new product development, customer service or any knowledge process conducted in a dynamically changing marketplace must be an emergent one if a company is to turn unpredictability to its competitive advantage.

While much has been written about the need to manage emergence, however, most advice to managers focuses on establishing an infrastructure for encouraging effective improvisation by workers responsible for emergent work processes. Contingency plans must be prepared, alternative future scenarios must be developed; the right people placed into the work force; the environment closely monitored; and reward structures encouraging experimentation established. While it is true than an infrastructure supporting emergence is clearly critical, managers have received insufficient guidance about what exactly they should be doing to enable it.

Having collectively spent years managing companies facing highly uncertain environmental and competitive pressures, we have come to believe that managers must be actively engaged in the emergent process in a way that does not simply offer exhortations or ensure that the infrastructure is working. Nor must they wrest control from employees because only confident, empowered workers will successfully adapt their processes and knowledge to unpredictable events. Instead, successful managers of emergent processes must have their own unique work processes — they must actively facilitate the confluence of participatory “spurts” of innovation.

An innovative spurt is a quantum leap in insight. It occurs when parameters are in a state of flux, plans have broken down and a real-time adaptation is required. It is participatory when it is the product of any and all stakeholders who have an insight to contribute, not just those whose job description gives them the specific responsibility to innovate. An engineer who reframes a problem from building a bridge to affecting the flow of traffic is engaged in an innovative spurt. The Red Cross’ redirection during the Katrina disaster from a direct-service delivery model to an information broker role was an innovative spurt. Subcontractors, customers, insiders, pundits — all can contribute to innovative spurts.


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Comment (1)
Jamie Roux
Spurts of innovation is a fascinating concept and something which can should be encouraged in all businesses whether small or big. Management should constantly create an environment which will encourage all individuals in the workforce to come forward with creative suggestions which will be to the benefit of the company and everybody involved. The best way of doing this is to put a financial reward system in place and to nurture a sense of proud and belonging in everyone.