Why We Need Emergent Learning

Whether the focus is on racial justice, economic opportunity, or climate change, we in the social sector are feeling a growing sense of urgency to make more progress, in hugely dynamic environments where no assumptions are safe for long.

Yet many of the work processes we use in philanthropy and nonprofit management are based on assumptions that lead us to think of our environments as more linear and predictable than they are, and that we can control our resources — human and financial — to achieve a goal that we can establish in advance, “behind closed doors.”

We work in environments that are both dynamic — making it hard to pinpoint a predictable strategy, and complex — meaning that we need the heads, hearts, and hands of many other actors outside of our scope of control to achieve our goals, and that, to get there, our goals need to be shared. We need to recognize that “no plan survives first contact” and be ready to adapt our plans based on changing conditions. We also need to recognize that our complex environments call for an emergent strategy, which is less like a chess game — where the chess pieces can be moved around to respond to an opponent, and more like a team sport — which relies on the real-time thinking and coordination of a whole team.

Emergent Learning supports strategies that are both adaptive and emergent. It helps us break through our assumptions and work habits so that we can think and learn together to achieve impact in these complex and dynamic environments.

Emergent Learning is inherently democratic. It explicitly calls to invite diverse voices to the table and to treat equally all of our expertise — including the lived experience of everyone touched by the challenges we aim to address. The practices of EL are designed to engage everyone involved in achieving social goals together, thinking and learning together across organizational boundaries. To that end, the practices of Emergent Learning are deliberately simple, so that they can be shared across a network of actors. They can be employed to think and learn together about everything from strategy to program or project planning, to convenings and relationship management to logistics. They can be used to support a range of strategic priorities and frameworks.

Emergent Learning responds to the sense of urgency that surrounds much of our work in social change. EL can complement conventional evaluation and learning cycles that bring input from a broader array of sources and may have longer timeframes. But it also enables teams to rapidly and regularly surface insights that can help them respond to unpredictable challenges and opportunities in real time.