When should you invest in an emergent approach?

The core idea of emergence is that it is nonlinear; it should create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts — a compelling idea to funders who are striving to create a sustainable impact on complex problems with relatively modest investments. As we announced in a 2016 post here on the CEP blog, my colleagues and I at ELCP launched a research project (supported by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation) by asking the question: What’s the value proposition of emergence? We wanted to know what an emergent initiative really looks like in practice and what funders should expect to get out of investing in one.

We asked readers to nominate examples of initiatives that were in some way emergent — meaning that ideas emerged from a diverse set of people doing the work (rather than being designed in advance and rolled out), the path to success could not have been completely predicted in advance, and the solutions were fit to their environment and continued to evolve over time and circumstance.

From a pool of 45 nominated initiatives, we chose seven and spent the next two years comparing and contrasting them, trying to understand: 1) if they were, in fact, emergent; 2) what that looked like in practice; and 3) what difference it made in what they were able to do.

We saw some remarkable results from a wide range of initiatives, from a multinational health initiative to very small, local initiatives that produced an outsized, sustained difference in the problems or communities they targeted. Our report and case studies are available on our website.

But we learned from studying these cases that there are tradeoffs to consider. Based on what we learned from the initiatives we studied, here are some questions funders should consider when thinking about investing in an emergent approach.

Can you feel the complexity of the problem?

Complexity can take a number of forms. It may be obvious — such as when you’re working across widely varying geographies or trying to improve quality of life in a single neighborhood dealing with many interacting factors that feed the status quo. But in the initiatives we studied, the level of complexity itself was less important than the recognition of it.

Funders of initiatives that succeeded in getting the most emergent results had a felt experience that the problem was complex enough that they could not rely on their own expertise to develop the best solution a priori — or had tried and not succeeded in solving it using more funder-centric strategic frameworks. They had the humility to recognize that they depended on the experience and perspective of their partners on the ground doing the work, and, therefore, gave partners the latitude to experiment with different approaches.

How pressed are you to demonstrate a predetermined, measurable outcome?

Of the initiatives we studied, the one that was most urgent — a response to a crisis — was the most driven to deliver predetermined outcomes. The other initiatives we studied generally were not driving to measurable outcomes. Yet, they each had a recognizable goal and held themselves accountable to staying focused on it. They used their goals to orient themselves and learn, but were not constrained by predetermined deliverables.

Whether because of modest funding or low perceived risk, the less in the spotlight an initiative was, the more freedom funders and their partners seemed to have to draw outside the lines. And those most emergent initiatives welcomed and learned from outlier ideas and results that had not been pre-planned.

How important is it to you to prove a theory or promote your solution?

Let’s be honest. Funders often have a stake in more than just moving the needle on a social problem — they want to get credit for it. And funders or their partners are sometimes interested in demonstrating the value of their preferred approach so they can brand it. For the most emergent initiatives, moving the needle was always more important than proving a favored hypothesis. We heard from grantees how different it felt to be part of an emergent initiative in which they were not being asked to implement a “cookie-cutter” solution; but rather had their context, perspective, and experience taken seriously.

This led us to ask: Can emergence be propagated? If an initiative achieves remarkable results and an emergent design is one of the contributors, what does it take to “replicate” those results elsewhere? We will be tracking a couple of examples of initiatives that are in the process of being branded and propagated.

What’s your appetite for learning?

This may be the most critical factor in choosing to invest in emergence. Across our seven cases, we discovered that the biggest challenge — and one that each initiative would have benefitted from tackling — was the ability to return learning to the system. This is a fundamental driver of emergence. Akin to honey bees coming back to their hive and doing a “waggle dance” to communicate where they find nectar-rich flowers, initiatives needed to include some way for partners to be able to quickly and easily share with each other what they were doing, what results they were getting, and what they were learning from it.

In some cases, funders invested in learning as best they could, but could have done more. In others, learning was an afterthought. When funders stopped being hands off and actively engaged in learning from and with everyone in the system, they were setting the stage to create a whole greater than its parts.

The value proposition for emergence can be compelling. But we encourage funders to be honest with themselves about whether they are prepared to let go of the need for credit and recognize and welcome the experience and perspective of everyone in a system to help solve today’s most challenging social issues. There is much more to learn . . . always.

Originally published as a CEP blog