The “Product” of Emergent Learning (and why it plays well with others)

What is the product of Emergent Learning? Many of the organizations that are beginning to adopt Emergent Learning (EL) are accustomed to thinking about products as concrete results that, ideally, can be measured. Our EL practitioners can find themselves struggling to make the roundness of EL fit into that square hole.

The product of Emergent Learning is not something that can be captured on paper or measured. The product of EL is about the learning that happens — the potential that gets created — along the path toward achieving concrete results; in the interstitial spaces that aren’t captured in a plan, a logic model, or a strategic framework. What do we need to learn in our complex environments to keep moving toward our north star? What do we do if we hit a roadblock? Are there other pathways we could take to adjust? That’s where learning happens. It is focusing on and expanding that in-between space — that emergent potential — that makes it possible for a group of partners working in a complex environment to keep moving toward their shared goals, regardless of what gets thrown at them.

In a call with our funders, we were asking how they would think about “impact” for a project like the EL Community. Deborah Bae from Robert Wood Johnson Foundation observed that it’s not the volume of change so much as it is the adaptive potential that each action creates — a lovely definition of emergence. The most useful steps on the path create the greatest potential; the largest number of options for next steps — options that could potentially shift the work in ways we never could have imagined from the start. 

One of the things we are discovering as we continue to study the impact of Emergent Learning is that, as practitioners, we need to notice the significance of our many small, often unpredicted, wins — to see them as seeds to be nurtured. As we at 4QP help practitioners write their stories of EL “micro-moves” and what happened as a result, we are aware of just how significant and full of potential some of these small wins can be — how many possible options they open up. There’s a sort of meta awareness of the significance of these wins that we as practitioners develop as we become more advanced in our practice. Gregory Bateson would say that we are learning to learn. And if and when we can get to the point of helping those around us see and understand the significance of these moments of breakthrough, learning accelerates even more. As my old Army buddy, COL Joe, would say when everyone up and down his chain of command was doing AARs, “learning goes vertical.”

Focusing on these interstitial spaces is not something we are trained to do. We have to unlearn some deeply rooted mental models about where to focus if we want to learn how to unleash the potential contained within these spaces. It’s been a journey for the EL Faculty to learn how to help others (and ourselves) unlearn these long-held mental models. Some of our practitioners will remember that we used to begin our year-long EL program by having people write one big framing question about their work. We’d workshop it and refine it in that first session. Then people would go home with the goal of practicing BARs and AARs and EL Tables. When we came back six months later for the second session, we’d sometimes hear: “I didn’t practice much because I couldn’t get the right framing question.”

The product of Emergent Learning is not about writing the perfect framing question or hypothesis or learning agenda. It’s great to have the skill to do these things, but they are a means to an end. Now, my favorite session in the EL Intensive is session 2, where we practice asking questions in a hallway conversation that starts with, “So what are you working on these days?” and helps people learn to ask EL questions in a natural way and to listen for hypotheses — all in order to help our colleagues make their thinking visible in the small but important spaces that exist in our everyday conversations; spaces where we have the opportunity to expand our thinking and our options for walking the path of complex social change.

That the focus of Emergent Learning is on the in-between spaces can be challenging in our organizations that are designed to focus on products and metrics, but it is also a benefit. It is exactly because Emergent Learning focuses on the interstitial spaces more than on what can get captured on paper that it ‘plays well with others.’ Almost every framework or approach used in the social sector — from Collective Impact to Equitable Evaluation to Systems Thinking to Trust-Based Philanthropy — has spaces in between the boxes that call, implicitly or explicitly, for learning. But these frameworks generally don’t map out what that should look like. That’s where Emergent Learning fits in — to help partners learn their way through the framework. What does centering on racial equity really look like in our everyday decision-making? What will it take for us to come to, and maintain, a common agenda? What will it really take for us to be transparent and responsive with our partners? How will we recognize if we are succeeding? Emergent Learning helps partners keep their goals as their north star and experiment along the path to adapt the framework to fit their own ever-evolving situations.

And because some of the most powerful EL micro-moves are just asking the right question when a practitioner notices that a group is unclear about its line of sight or not making its thinking visible, framework-weary groups do not need to ‘sign on’ to yet another framework in order to benefit from EL.

In her case for certification, Brittney Gaspari from The Winston-Salem Foundation described how she was using Emergent Learning to support the foundation’s work in Trust-Based Philanthropy. Brittney interviewed grantees to hear their experience. One grantee observed: “When you have the capacity to experiment and grow, you’re going to reach your goals that much faster.”

That’s the product of Emergent Learning.