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LILA Thematic Arc for 2017-2018: Emergence in Organizations: Shaping the Future as it Unfolds

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Emergence in Organizations: Shaping the future as it unfolds

We live in a transformative time – one where often, old paradigms no longer help us solve the challenges we face and where new ways have not fully evolved. There is much we do not know about how to perceive, understand, and approach the issues we face. In past years, LILA has embraced themes addressing this dilemma, themes such as Unlearning, Managing Complexity, and Adaptive Cultures. For the coming year we outline another such theme, one that directly engages organizational structure and structuring in the context of continuous change and distributed activity: Emergence in Organizations.

Typically, organizational structures (teams, divisions, cross-divisional structures, etc.) get established at some point and then endure for a considerable period of time. Fueled by power dynamics, traditional cost models, inertia, and other forces, they often outlive their utility. When approaching challenges finally become conspicuous –for example new market opportunities, fresh areas of need, competitive pressures from the other side of the world – a common reaction is restructuring. But there are downsides to such abrupt, structural interventions. They can easily be seen as too little too late. Moreover, the reorganization itself often introduces turmoil into the existing ecology, causing deep rifts that are not easily bridged. Worse, this can lead to “yo-yo” effects, going from one structure to another, and back, without achieving desired results.

Imagine instead organizational practices that build in nimble mechanisms of engaging with crises and opportunities. In such organizations, work structures, relationships, and workflows get continually (re)constructed in sensitive near-real-time reaction to emerging problems and opportunities. Of course, these emergent states need some connection to enduring features to function well. The emergent parts of the organization operate within a containing framework of broad goals, purpose and protocols for reconfiguration, and possibly some conventional divisions for standard and stable functions. These active tensions between enduring and emergent features, between planned and emergent purposes, and between practices that ensure stability and those that invite emergence, hold great power as levers for shaping how organizations evolve and adaptive cultures unfold.

This year at LILA, we will explore what it takes to foster adaptive emergence in organizations: such as through practices and protocols that enable the organization and its members to sense, learn, and recombine to adapt to signals surfacing in the extended ecosystem, the organization, and its surround. We will address such questions as: What is emergence and how does it differ from other forms of change? What shifts in knowledge and mindset are needed to understand emergence as a viable and valuable part of the organizational change process? What types of leadership and organizational practices are necessary for engaging with emergence in ways that harness the adaptive potential at the core of this dynamic while honoring deeper shared purposes and intentions at the core of organizational missions? What challenges do leaders and others face as they engage emergence with the intent of shaping a more adaptive future?

Harvard Graduate School of Education