Every living system occasionally encounters points of instability, at which some of its structures break down and new structures, or new forms of behavior, emerge. The spontaneous emergence of order--of new structures and new forms of behavior--is one of the hallmarks of life. This phenomenon, often simply called "emergence," has been recognized as the basis of development, learning, and evolution. In other words, creativity--the generation of forms that are constantly new--is a key property of all living systems. Life constantly reaches out to novelty.

Detailed studies have shown that the points of instability, at which emergence occurs, are the result of small fluctuations that are amplified by feedback loops. Think again of the off-hand comment in a network of conversations! So, the feedback loops in the network are critical for the system's creativity, and this creativity is manifest in the processes of emergence.


During the long history of evolution, all living structures on the planet evolved through emergence in a never-ending display of creativity and adaptation. In other words, all non-human structures on the planet are emergent structures. I said, "all non-human structures," because with the evolution of the human species, structures of another type were created. In human evolution, language, abstraction, conceptual thought, and all the other characteristics of human consciousness came into play. This enabled us to form mental images of physical objects, to formulate goals and strategies, and thus to create structures by design.

In human organizations, both types of structures are always present. The designed structures are the organization's formal structures, which are depicted in its official documents and describe the organization's mission, its formal policies, its strategies, and so on.

In addition, there are always emergent structures. These are the organization's informal structures-the alliances and friendships, the informal channels of communication (the "grapevine"), the tacit skills and sources of knowledge that are continually evolving. These structures emerge from an informal network of relationships that continually grows, changes, and adapts to new situations.

The two types of structures-designed and emergent structure- - -are very different, and every organization needs both kinds, Whereas designed structures cannot grow, emergent structures adapt, develop, and evolve. They are expressions of the organization's collective creativity. If we think of the relationship between emergence and design in terms of a continuum, we can say that a system "drifting" too far toward design will become overly rigid, unable to adapt to changing conditions.

On the other hand, if an organization drifts too far toward emergence it will lose the ability to efficiently produce goods or services.

The designed structures enable the organization to operate according to certain specifications. They allow the formulation of the rules and regulations that are necessary for the day-to-day management of the organization. So, the challenge for any organization is to find a creative balance between its designed structures and its emergent structures.


It seems that two different kinds of leadership correspond to these two types of structures. The organization's mission is generally the result of a design process. The traditional idea of a leader is that of a person who is able to clearly formulate this mission, to sustain it, and to communicate it well and with charisma.

The other kind of leadership would be the facilitation of emergence. This type of leadership is not limited to a single individual. In self-organizing systems, leadership is distributed, and responsibility becomes a capacity of the whole. Leadership, then, consists in continually facilitating the emergence of new structures, and to incorporate the best of them into the organization's design. In such in organization, there will be a continual interplay between emergence and design.

How does one facilitate emergence? You will facilitate emergence by creating a learning culture, by encouraging continual questioning and rewarding innovation. In other words, leadership means creating conditions, rather than giving directions.

Above all, facilitating emergence means building up and nurturing a network of conversations with feedback loops. The first step toward this goal might be loosening the designed structures and thereby creating more flexibility.

Another important aspect is creating an emotional climate that is conducive to emergence. This means a climate of warmth, mutual support, and trust; but also a climate of passion with plenty of opportunities for celebration.

Finally, we need to realize that not all emergent solutions are viable. Therefore, a culture fostering emergence must include the freedom to make mistakes. In such a culture, experimentation is encouraged, and earning is valued as much as success.

One of the main problems, in business as well as in education, is that organizations are still judged according to their designed structures, not according to their emergent structures. But I would hope that in schools promoting ecoliteracy and systems thinking, there will be more attention to emergent structures and to the leadership that facilitates that emergence.

'Juanita Brown and David Isaacs, "Conversations as a Core Business Process," The Systems Thinker, Pegasus Communications. Cambridge, MA, Dec. 1996/Jan. 1997

This excerpt is taken from Creativity and Leadership in Learning Communities by Fritjof Capra. Click the link to download the PDF.

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• © 2005 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated on March 16, 2005