Emergence: Babies and Bathwater, Plans and Planning

blueprints

 

“Emergent” is a word that I run into from time to time. When I do run into it, I’m reminded of an exchange from the movie Gallipoli:

Archy Hamilton: I’ll see you when I see you.
Frank Dunne: Yeah. Not if I see you first.

The reason for my ambivalent relationship with the word is that it’s frequently used in a sense that doesn’t actually fit its definition. Dictionary.com defines it like this:

adjective

1. coming into view or notice; issuing.
2. emerging; rising from a liquid or other surrounding medium.
3. coming into existence, especially with political independence: the emergent nations of Africa.
4. arising casually or unexpectedly.
5. calling for immediate action; urgent.
6. Evolution. displaying emergence.

noun

7. Ecology. an aquatic plant having its stem, leaves, etc., extending above the surface of the water.

Most of the adjective definitions apply to planning and design (which I consider to be a specialized form of planning). Number 3 is somewhat tenuous for that sense and and 5 only applies sometimes, but 6 is dead on.

My problem, however, starts when it’s used as a euphemism for a directionless. The idea that a cohesive, coherent result will “emerge” from responding tactically (whether in software development or in managing a business) is, in my opinion, a dangerous one. I’ve never heard an explanation of how strategic success emerges from uncoordinated tactical excellence that doesn’t eventually come down to faith. It’s why I started tagging posts on the subject “Intentional vs Accidental Architecture”. Success that arises from lack of coordination is accidental rather than by design (not to mention ironic when the lack of intentional coordination or planning/design is intentional itself):

If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.

 

The problem, of course, is do you want to be at the “there” you wind up at? There’s also the issue of cost associated with a meandering path when a more direct route was available.

None of this, however, should be taken as a rejection of emergence. In fact, a dogmatic attachment to a plan in the face of emergent facts is as problematic as pursuing an accidental approach. Placing your faith in a plan that has been invalidated by circumstances is as blinkered an approach as refusing to plan at all. Neither extreme makes much sense.

We lack the ability to foresee everything that can occur, but that limit does not mean that we should ignore what we can foresee. A purely tactical focus can lead us down obvious blind alleys that will be more costly to back out of in the long run. Experience is an excellent teacher, but the tuition is expensive. In other words, learning from our mistakes is good, but learning from other’s mistakes is better.

Darwinian evolution can produce lead to some amazing things provided you can spare millions of years and lots of failed attempts. An intentional approach allows you to tip the scales in your favor.


Many thanks to Andrew Campbell and Adrian Campbell for the multi-day twitter conversation that spawned this post. Normally, I unplug from almost all social media on the weekends, but I enjoyed the discussion so much I bent the rules. Cheers gentlemen!

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2 thoughts on “Emergence: Babies and Bathwater, Plans and Planning

  1. For some reason I thought about the Road less traveled poem by Robert Frost.
    Maybe the man road is the intentional road and the less traveled road is the path where innovation may emerge? The trick is to be aware that innovation may occur at any time and be prepared to take advantage of it.
    Here is the poem:

    Submit

    Verse > Robert Frost > Mountain Interval

    NEXT

    CONTENTS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
    Robert Frost (1874–1963). Mountain Interval. 1920.

    1. The Road Not Taken

    TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
    And sorry I could not travel both
    And be one traveler, long I stood
    And looked down one as far as I could
    To where it bent in the undergrowth; 5

    Then took the other, as just as fair,
    And having perhaps the better claim,
    Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
    Though as for that the passing there
    Had worn them really about the same, 10

    And both that morning equally lay
    In leaves no step had trodden black.
    Oh, I kept the first for another day!
    Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
    I doubted if I should ever come back. 15

    I shall be telling this with a sigh
    Somewhere ages and ages hence:
    Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
    I took the one less traveled by,
    And that has made all the difference.

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    • I see his taking the road less traveled as an intentional act. Rather than flip a coin, the traveler chose (even took the time to consider that he would probably not return to re-make the same choice at a later date). I wouldn’t equate being intentional with not being innovative. in fact, a haphazard manner may inhibit innovation by making it harder to develop valid experiments and exploit successes.

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