In an emergent learning conversation, the more diverse the set of experiences and perspectives represented, the greater the potential for “robust” insights to be developed — insights that hold true across a variety of situations. Inviting the people who care about a question and who have an active role in addressing it to think together about what they have learned from their collective experience leads to a greater level of ownership for the hypotheses that get generated and agency for testing them out. Note that this is not just about who is at the table, but how their experiences are invited into the conversation!
Why is it important to invite diverse voices to the table?
Emergent Learning is foremost about helping whole ecosystems think, act, and learn together to achieve aspirational, complex goals. We in the Emergent Learning Community firmly believe that in order for this to be successful, we must also shift out-of-balance power dynamics that get in the way of this work. We talk about social change initiatives as being more like a team sport than a chess game — every ‘player on the field’ needs to have the agency to draw on their experience and perspective and have the freedom to act based on that, not constrained by a predetermined top-down plan. When those actors are engaged in the thinking process, they have more agency on the field.
Secondly, in Emergent Learning conversations, the more diverse the set of experiences and perspectives represented, the greater the potential for robust insights to be developed — insights that hold true across a variety of situations. Inviting the people who care about a question and who have an active role in addressing it to think together about what they have learned from their collective experience expands and deepens the inquiry and thinking of everyone else at the table and expands the number of ideas and options available.
Another important and related principle of Emergent Learning is Holding Expertise in Equal Measure. It is not just about who is at the table, but how their experiences are invited into the conversation. Whether one’s perspective comes from working at a strategic or tactical level; from a current role or a previous job; from a position of professional expertise or lived experience, creating the space for every perspective to have an equal voice in the room is essential to growing the kind of shared agency and expanded opportunity that creates a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.
What does this principle look like in practice?
The presence or absence of a diversity of voices in an initiative or project can manifest itself in a number of ways. Here is what we have observed:
- If it’s present: There are lots of stories to “rub together” to compare and contrast; to seek out patterns and explore surprising outliers. Counterexamples are welcomed. By lingering in inquiry mode, participants often find themselves asking new and more powerful questions. What looks like a barrier to one person may look like an opportunity from a different perspective.
- If it’s missing: The amount of experience to draw from is limited and leads to hypotheses that are risk-averse and reinforce the status quo. The conversation may default to what other people who were not invited to the table should be doing.
How Emergent Learning practices support this principle
The practices of Emergent Learning work together to support inviting diverse voices to the table:
- Framing Questions transform static expert-driven problem-solving or planning into an invitation to participate in a dynamic conversation that is relevant to everyone at the table. They invite everyone to bring their experiences to answer a “What will it take…?” question in a way that simply stating a goal cannot do.
- Emergent Learning Tables are explicitly designed to draw on a range of “Ground Truth” data and stories (the first quadrant) in order to use comparison to learn more deeply about the question at hand. Facilitation techniques like using sticky notes encourage all participants to have the time and space to add their experiences, their insights, and their hypotheses. Rather than seeking consensus as a default, the fourth quadrant, “Opportunities,” encourages each participant to identify their own pathway to applying what they have learned and ways to connect with others along the path.
- Before and After Action Reviews are intended to be like a sports team huddle — where every person who has a role in ensuring that an outcome is achieved is involved in resurfacing and even refining that outcome and then preparing to succeed together.
Many leaders in the social sector recognize the need to change the status quo and the deeply ingrained power dynamics that reinforce it, but do not have a clear pathway to making it happen. Together, the principles and practices of Emergent Learning offer very concrete and practical ways to approach shifting to a culture that makes sure that all voices are involved in a meaningful way; where everyone who should have agency does, and where people have the freedom to experiment and learn together around the work that matters.