Emergent, Creative Business in Volatile Times
Business gurus rarely agree in unison on the way things are and going to be; yet one thing they do agree on is that we are facing increasingly volatile times economically, socially and environmentally. So, the question of the decade is: How do businesses redesign for resilience in these volatile times? The good news is we can take inspiration from nature which has been dealing with dynamic change for billions of years. Let’s take a look.
All biological systems have an emergent quality, as all living structures (including social and organisational) are emergent structures. Emergence has a self-generating quality, where individual parts of an ecosystem interact to provide an emergent order (an unfolding of events that are self-fuelled by the actions and interactions of the parts). Emergence is when an organised, complex and/or cohesive pattern or result arises – often unpredictably – from a series of individually simple component interactions. This is the nature of nature.
Conventional thinking suggests that if you want to accomplish something, particularly something complex, you need to fully articulate the desired result, analyse the situation, create a step-by-step plan, gather needed resources, and then execute the plan to completion. If all works well, you will end up with the desired or predicted result. While operating in volatile, dynamically changing environments, there is also a need for innovative and radical redesign, to drive towards as-yet-unimagined results, to accomplish things that have never been done before. How do you accomplish results you cannot even describe? How do you tick boxes that don’t yet exist? Like nurturing seedlings in fertile soil, if you put the right resources together under the right conditions, emergence just happens. It is what happens naturally when all players understand their context, and the speed, scale and scope of what is needed, being empowered to execute the collective vision through individual interactions and emergent behaviour.
The principles that allow this to happen are simple, yet profound. They seem easy, but in practice, they often oppose ingrained conventional ways in which we navigate our everyday work activities. They take re-learning, as Michelle James of The Centre for Creative Emergence insightfully puts it www.creativeemergence.com .
Michelle James, as well as Michelle Holliday, Belina Raffy and others, is exploring the application of improvisation acting (known as ‘improv’ for short) for creative emergence in the work place. In her article on Improv as a Complex Adaptive System, Michelle writes:
The following are 7 basic improv principles – all of which tie in to complexity theory. There are others, but I have found these to be essential.
1. Yes and. Fully accepting the reality that is presenting, and the adding a NEW piece of information – that is what allows it to be adaptive, move forward and stay generative. Each performer (agent) interacts with what is offered and offers a unique contribution.
2. Make everyone else look good. That means you do not have to be defending or justifying yourself or your position – others who will do that for you and you do that for others. Without the burden of defensiveness or competition, everyone is free to create. Complex characters can form that enable unpredictable complex actions and directions to emerge.
3. Be changed by what is said and what happens. At each moment, new information in an invitation for you to have a new reaction, or for your character to experience a new aspect of them. Change inspires new ideas, and that naturally unfolds what’s next. You adapt as one structure dissipates and re-organizes into a new structure that expands, yet includes, what was before.
4. Co-create a shared “agenda.” This principle involves the recognition that even the best-laid plans are abandoned in the moment, and to serve the reality of what is right there in front of you. You are co-creating the agenda in real-time. In order to keep the play going, you respond to the moment and an “agenda” co-emerges that is more inclusive than anything that could have been planned. It is not consensus, which reduces. It is co-creation, which expands.
5. Mistakes are invitations. In improv, mistakes are embraced – they are the stimulating anomalies that invite the performers into a new level of creativity. By using improv techniques such as justifying any mistake can be transformed into surprising plot point or dialogue that never would have happened in following a conventional pattern. In improv, justifying creates order out of chaos. Mistakes break patterns and allow new ones to emerge.
6. Keep the energy going. No matter what is given, or what happens, you accept it and keep the energy gong. Unlike in everyday life, where people stop to analyze, criticize or negate, in improv you keep moving. A mistake happens – let it go move on. The unexpected emerges – use it to move on. Someone forgot something important – justify it and move on. You’re lost or confused –make something up and trust the process. Just keep moving. The system is not static – it is alive and dynamic.
7. Serve the good of the whole. Always carry the question, “How can I best serve this situation?” and then you have a better sense of when to run in and when to stay back, when to take focus and when to give it, how to best support your fellow performers and how to best support the scene. By focusing away from how you will look into serving the larger good – the aliveness of the system – you have more creative impulses and resources available to you at any moment. And the choices you make are more in alignment with the higher levels of creative integration that form a coherent play.
As Michelle James says in her blog The Fertile Unknown, improv takes you to the edge of chaos – the inflection point – filled with fertile creative potential. We are natural meaning makers, and left to our own devices, our brains naturally seek to evolve order, coherence and meaning. Once you allow yourself the freedom to explore and play; set the initial conditions; and then get out of the way, creativity can develop and unify all kinds of things that otherwise would seem impossible.
The principles of improvisation serve a much larger purpose than performance – they have the ability to create the life-giving container for cognitive, personal, organizational, social, political, and spiritual transformation.
For instance, Michelle Holliday and Belina Raffy run workshops where participants use the principles of improv along with inspiration from nature. Nature holds vital lessons for today’s organisational leaders. Nowhere else do we find such high levels of innovation, adaptability and resilience. Their ‘Thriving In Complexity’ workshop invite says it all:
In our bodies and in other living systems, this creative process happens naturally. But not so in organisations. There, we need new perspectives and techniques to respond creatively and collaboratively to unexpected circumstances. In other words, we need to develop the skill of applied improvisation. Only in this way can we hope to thrive in a complex world.
For more on these workshops see: Maffick