Redefining what we mean by “Learning Agenda”

Language is so fundamental to how we engage with the world and with each other. We mostly choose the words we use to convey an idea, to coordinate our understanding of a thing, or to connect with other human beings. But in the process, we may also either reinforce or challenge existing biases, habits, and power structures.

We at Fourth Quadrant Partners (4QP) have spent a lot of time talking about the definition of “learning” in Emergent Learning — the disciplined attention to data and insights that emerge from our work and the deliberate application of these to improving future results, and the implication that the place where learning actually happens is in the work itself.

The term “Learning Agenda,” however, means something very different to many people in the social sector. Two examples:

  • “A learning agenda includes: 1) a set of questions addressing critical knowledge gaps; 2) a set of associated activities to answer them; and 3) products aimed at disseminating findings and designed with usage and application in mind.” — USAID
  • “Learning agendas are a set of prioritized research questions and activities that guide an agency’s evidence-building and decision-making practices.” — Urban Institute

We believe that these definitions of “learning” convey two assumptions that can reinforce existing power structures.

The first assumption: Each one starts by listing a set of questions. Who defines the questions that are most important is unstated, but in practice, the questions are commonly defined by the entity funding an initiative. We believe that this fundamental, implicit assumption needs to change: The funder should not be the only one with the agency to decide which questions are important.

That is not to say that a funder has no right to identify questions that matter to them. But it does mean that each set of actors in a system also needs to have the right — and we would say the responsibility — to identify the questions they need to learn about, at the moment in time when they are most relevant to their work.

The idea of any single entity creating an agenda of questions to answer is problematic in many ways. In the EL community, one challenge that gets raised over and over is this: There are just too many questions! This is a natural reflection of the complexity of the challenges we’ve set out to address. How do we avoid creating a laundry list of learning questions to answer? How do we choose the most important questions to focus on?

The very notion that any single group can identify a set of questions at any one point in time has become even more questionable in the face of COVID and the increased attention to racial injustice. A list of questions that seemed important six months ago now feels out-of-date. Yet we may still be accountable to senior staff to answer them. These two disrupting themes have fundamentally upended our thinking and feelings about which questions matter most and how and when to ask them. And, perhaps most importantly, who gets to choose.

The second assumption: By these definitions, the responsibility for learning has been exported either to the learning and evaluation staff or to an external resource. They are responsible for finding “the answer” (including making meaning of any data they gather in conclusions or recommendations) and handing it back to the organization to assist with decision-making or disseminating it to the field. There is no role in this process for the people doing the work to contribute to, or make meaning of, the answer. The fact is that in complex and dynamic work, there is no single answer. We can do all the research we want. But history tells us that unless and until we — the actors in a system — try to apply those findings and recommendations to our own messy, complex environments, full of human beings, they will remain answers-in-theory, not answers-in-practice.

Distinguishing between research, evaluation, and learning questions

Within the frame of Emergent Learning, we would say that these two definitions by USAID and Urban Institute describe a research agenda. To begin to shift our habits and understandings, we think that it is important for the social sector to learn to distinguish between learning questions, evaluation questions, and research questions and where to use which ones and why.

Broadly speaking, a research question is posed by or to a researcher and involves surveying and analyzing what exists outside of our own boundaries, typically to help inform the field’s future actions or our own decisions. Broadly speaking, an evaluation question is posed by or to an evaluator and involves collecting data on the results of a team’s activity to assess performance against expected outcomes and, often, to provide feedback along the path.

A learning question, on the other hand, is posed by and to ourselves — the actual people doing the work. A learning question asks us to look forward — to think about what we’re trying to accomplish, what we know so far, and what it’s going to take to achieve the outcomes we have set for ourselves. And then it asks us to test our thinking along the path, in order to improve our results over time. That’s what we mean by “learning.”

Example: Research, Evaluation and Learning Questions for a Leadership Development Initiative

Research QuestionsWhat  skills and resources do leaders need in order to be able to achieve racial justice in their communities? How do these skills and resources vary, based on the characteristics and needs of different types of communities?
Evaluation QuestionsTo what extent did the curriculum and networking provided by our grantees prepare leaders to achieve racial justice in their communities? What were the contributing factors?
Learning QuestionWhat will it take to build a network of leaders who are committed to achieving racial justice in their communities?

This distinction should not be new to practitioners of Emergent Learning. But this other understanding of “learning” is so fundamentally woven into the way senior leaders, boards, program and evaluation staff think about learning that it’s going to require a very deliberate and visible effort to shift our shared mental models and habits.

To help address the overwhelming number of possible questions to ask; the question of who has the agency to choose the learning question and when; and who does the learning, we created the idea of a layered learning agenda. The notion of layering, or nesting, will sound familiar to EL practitioners — it is an important part of developing line of sight. What will it take to…? And what will it take to do that? And so on.

A sample layered Learning Agenda for a leadership development program

In this simple example of a leadership development initiative, the actors who own pieces of answering this larger question include foundation leadership, foundation program staff — and their work and the questions that matter to them are probably different; grantees who have responsibility to deliver leadership programs, and the fellows who are participating in those programs and who are expected to use what they learn to lead in their communities.

At each layer, the most profound overarching learning question is this: “What will it take to [achieve our part of the larger goal]?” For example, for grantees in this initiative, the overarching question might be simply: “ What will it take to build a network of leaders who are committed to achieving racial justice in their communities?” Beyond that, the questions they ask might change over time, driven by circumstances and by the opportunities in front of them — in this case for example revising the curriculum or welcoming a new cohort or, as is the case for all of us now, figuring out how to do all of this virtually. It keeps their own work at the center.

In practice, each layer of actors could create their own detailed learning agenda at their level that might include participants, indicators, potential data sources, reporting expectations, etc. And, in reality, some layers of learning may remain tacit, but mapping out the whole learning ecosystem can help those of us who are stewarding learning to know where to focus and what questions matter the most at any moment in time.

It also meets the needs of the funder to ask the questions that matter to them, and includes the possibility of asking parallel research or evaluation questions at each layer, without shifting the responsibility for learning away from the people doing the work itself.

Taken together, a layered learning agenda can help to create a learning ecosystem with a shared line of sight — actors at each level addressing the questions they are best able to address, in a way that rolls up to a larger body of knowledge. Senior leaders often ask learning staff to demonstrate how the learning they are doing at the program level rolls up. This is one way to help demonstrate that relationship.

We offer one caveat: In fact, layering a learning agenda like this makes the focus of the agenda much simpler at each level. But to a new audience that is unfamiliar with Emergent Learning, the larger framework may appear complex and labor-intensive, so take that into consideration if you choose to share this framework with your colleagues.

Regardless of what your learning agenda looks like, being thoughtful about who the actors are and finding the overarching learning question that is most relevant to them is consonant with the principles of Emergent Learning. It can create the kind of passionate commitment to learning that extends beyond the bounds of a funded initiative — the questions don’t go away when you leave the building. And authorizing and encouraging those actors to identify the questions most relevant to them is an incredibly more efficient way to figure out which questions to ask, when, and why.

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Learning our way through this defining moment

Like many of our colleagues, friends and fellow citizens, we have been dismayed by recent incidents of violence against innocent people that have gone unchecked and not brought to justice yet again. We are heartened by the overwhelming public yet peaceful outcry against these acts, against the prejudice and systemic racism that underlie their existence, and by the express unwillingness to have these conditions persist. They have been allowed to continue for far too long.  

It has been said that there will be no peace until the person who has not been wronged is as indignant as the one who has. We have taken note of a new phenomenon that gives us hope and the courage to take the stand that this time shall  be different:  that of a passionate commitment to make this pain our own, to learn about and internalize what we are witnessing, so that this stops now. Once and for all. For good.  

It has also been observed that the only emotion in which true learning can take place is love, the allowing of another to arise as a legitimate other in our experience (Humberto Maturana, “The Biology of Love”). May this learning be taken so deeply to heart in every one of us, out of this most recent human tragedy arising from America’s persistent racism, that we commit individually and together to learn how to transform our fear of ‘the other’ into love for all. 

This won’t happen in the abstract. We can only transform how we see and think and act one step at a time, every day, as we make a conscious choice about our next interaction to intend something different; to do something different. This includes dialogue, understanding and appreciating the history and direct experience from which each of us acts; doing things together that promote our knowing each other. We need to actively educate ourselves and those close to us about the history and the conditions that have contributed to these continuing injustices to identify leverage points and actions we can take in our communities to right them. We are ready and willing to bring everything we have to that aim. 

We at 4QP are taking some specific actions to contribute to this future to which we aspire:

  • In our continued commitment to diversify the field of Emergent Learning practitioners, we are  experimenting with new ways to build capacity in Emergent Learning that make it more accessible to a broader range of social change agents, and particularly now for those who are directly addressing this current social transformation.
  • We are already in the process of building an “advanced practice” cohort that will explore the intersection of Emergent Learning and equity.
  • We are launching a Community Resource Center to make available a wide range of materials at no charge that can be used to support shared thinking and learning around the questions that matter to communities most affected by the events around them.

And yes, renewing our commitment to conserving our democracy by voting as if our lives depended on it; and also by actively participating in the exercise of these principles at every level of our civic engagement, learning our way together into the ‘more perfect union’ to which our constitution aspires.

We invite you to join us in these endeavors.

— Heidi, Jillaine, and Marilyn

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What the Times Are Calling For: A Letter to our Community

March 31, 2020

The times we find ourselves in today are unprecedented in ways that go beyond the physical realities of the COVID-19 pandemic. We simply don’t know what’s going to happen next. What we thought was true two weeks ago seems quaint and naive today. We can’t “control” this situation. Everything is being called into question. Now, more than ever, no one person knows the answer. And importantly, more than ever, we actually realize what we don’t know. 

The shock of COVID-19 is forcing the social sector to shift our focus to what’s most urgently needed now. Momentum has stalled and, in the abrupt absence of business as usual, people are asking: “What’s needed now? What of our current strategies and projects do we need to preserve? What do we need to let go of? What should we set aside for now and come back to later?” 

In recent virtual conversations, we are seeing a huge shift in attention and in spirit as we are together confronting daunting challenges everywhere in society — from procuring sufficient supplies and ICU units to how to home school children while maintaining two offices in our homes. There’s a new need and also permission to talk about how this crisis is affecting people personally. We at Fourth Quadrant Partners just launched a new training cohort in Emergent Learning around the question, “What will it take to survive and thrive — both in our work and in our lives — in our current environment?” The words that surfaced were ‘gratitude,’ ‘appreciation,’ ‘love’ and ‘balance.’ These were offered up as what people actually needed in order to do their work most effectively right now. 

In “normal” times, we often hear that learning tends to get treated as an afterthought. As much as we pay lip service to the need to learn, it can be hard to make a case for prioritizing it in the midst of the bustle of getting things done. But now is different. We are sensing a new reality where everyone realizes that everything is new and nothing is known; that we need to learn our way through this together.

In the midst of the fear and confusion and contradictory messages, we are seeing a real hunger for data and an eagerness to learn from those who are further down this uncharted path. Our learning muscle is getting exercised. We naturally seek out data from different countries about “the curve,” about what different countries are doing to flatten it, and what happens when they fail. We are recognizing other people’s experience and solutions as worthy of our attention; something we would do well to ask questions of and learn from. Humility and curiosity, which can be hard to come by in “normal” times is plentiful today. As is a sense of urgency. And courage too.

All of this means that now is the time to lean into learning. There is a felt, immediate need to do what might otherwise seem like a “good thing to do”…later. Our line of sight has suddenly become clearer. Our minds and our hearts are open to learning what we must do differently to live as well as we can in our new reality, while protecting ourselves, our families and our communities. We are also unusually open to asking different questions…and asking questions differently; to learning from our current experience while it is happening, not as a ‘post-mortem’ exercise. And we at 4QP are seeing that people are grateful for principles and practices that help them sort out this confusing current reality.

We are turning to each other even as we distance ourselves socially. As we share our experiences and thoughts with each other, we start to form a bigger picture of what’s possible. We can see this unique moment in time as an opportunity to build the habit of learning. We can intentionally make what we know visible, explore each other’s thinking, test out multiple possible responses, compare notes with our peers, and be prepared to adjust and adjust and adjust as we go. As we learn to do this together, we are developing the collective practice and habit that will help us evolve a new and better reality while we make our way through, and emerge from, these challenging times.

— Marilyn, Jillaine, Heidi

Special thanks to Anne Starr for her contribution

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Returning Learning to the System

When a honey bee finds a patch of nectar-rich flowers, it returns to the hive, deposits its find, and does a “waggle dance” to let fellow bees know the direction and distance of those flowers from the hive. According to Complex Adaptive Systems theory, this is what a system needs to do in order to adapt. The more frequently members of a system communicate with each other about what they are seeing, what they are doing, and with what results, the more quickly that system as a whole is able to adapt to changing conditions in order to survive and thrive.

Fourth Quadrant Partners just completed A Whole Greater than Its Parts, a research study on the role of emergence in complex social change initiatives. We wanted to explore truly emergent initiatives — initiatives that are designed to allow the whole system to learn and adapt. What do they look like? What does it take to create them? And what do they make possible? We predicted that emergent initiatives would be better able to survive and thrive. They would:

  • produce non-linear results — results that are greater than the sum of the inputs
  • produce results that were more fit to their diverse and changing environments
  • expand agency and ownership and, therefore, be less dependent on sustained outside support

We put out a call in 2016. Out of 45 nominated initiatives, we selected seven to study — three initiatives that had been in existence for over ten years and four more recent initiatives. They ranged from an initiative to improve reproductive health in five countries in Africa and Asia to a place for children to gather at a local flea market in Gallup, New Mexico.*

One thing we were looking for was their version of the “here’s where I found the nectar” bee dance. People across an initiative needed a way to easily and regularly communicate to peers about what they are seeing and doing, and with what results, and a way for the community of peers to compare these stories, look for patterns, make meaning from them, and adjust their work accordingly. They needed, in other words, to return what they were learning to the system.

We saw several different kinds of learning happening — from annual peer-learning events to reflection days for community residents to storytelling and participatory evaluations. Across our seven cases, those that did the most “waggling” got the most emergent results. But even still, this quality of learning was mostly not happening often enough to be a true engine of emergence. The reasons will be familiar:

  • In the rush to deliver, one initiative team did not prioritize time to stop and reflect.
  • Local initiatives had an advantage. An initiative that was spread across several countries did the best they could, which was a lot by compared to common practice. But with the support of today’s technology, they could have connected the whole system of actors more easily and more often.
  • Interestingly, where initiative teams held a strong boundary between themselves and agents working on the ground — whether to control the level of complexity or to protect the freedom of intermediaries and grantees to make their own decisions — it reduced their ability to return learning to the whole system in a way that supported emergent results.

People spread across a system trying to create change can’t afford to wait for a once-a-year convening or a five-year evaluation report to learn from and with each other. The best example of returning learning to the system in our study is funded by Community Foundations of Texas (CFT). In Working Families Success (WFS), the foundation created a data-rich online platform and encouraged frequent interactions between social agencies to compare notes.

CFT deliberately has not positioned itself as the hub. They encourage peers to communicate with each other independent of CFT, and model a learning stance itself as they have learned and adapted their own thinking with each initiative cohort. While it’s still early, all of this investment is producing a lot of energy and culture shifts and new partnerships among local agencies. It is getting agencies to rethink long-standing programs that aren’t contributing, and to double down on others based on their own deliberate experimentation and discovery. “Rather than telling them what to do, you coach them through the decisions they need to make,” observed Wende Burton, CFT’s Community Philanthropy Director.

Funders can help return learning to the system. As the WFS initiative suggests, it may be useful to think about multiple kinds of learning supports — places to collect stories and have access to data; easy ways to ask for help from peers; frequent but fit-for-purpose learning events; and decision-making processes that incorporate reflection on past results. And when funders convene grantees and partners, focusing on this question, “What will it take to return learning to the system?” may help make visible ideas and solutions that no one person could have thought of on their own and that continue to evolve to adapt to changing and complex environments. Because, as we say in the report, there is much more to learn … always.

*The 4QP research team thanks the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation for their generous support of this research.

Originally published as a GEO Perspectives column

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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 Fourth Quadrant Partners 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 here.

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

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The journey is the reward

Our research into the role of emergence in complex social change is finished . . . sort of. In fact, it’s really just a step on a longer journey that we talk about in our cover letter for the report (p. 4), which you can now download from our website: www.4QPartners.com.

When Steve Jobs and his team were working on their new project, the Macintosh, he would motivate his team by reminding them that “the journey is the reward.” From my conversations with people who were working at Apple at the time, the phrase took on almost mystical importance. The team applied it to everything associated with the project — the computer’s design and the way it was to be marketed, but also to how they thought about every aspect of their own work as a team. This simple idea created a coherence around the project that left space for members of the team to exercise their creativity about how to approach their work. And while today we might see the original Mac as horribly antiquated, this small computer with a graphical interface that said “hello” when you turned it on did, in fact, start a revolution in the way we work today.

One of the things we learned in our own research into the role of emergence in complex social change is that, for those initiative teams that were creating emergent results, what they were doing was not revolutionary. They used networks, data platforms, participatory meeting methodologies, and participatory evaluations. What they did that seemed to support emergence was to apply what they were thinking about and learning from their initiatives to their own work in a way that amplified their results. It unleashed agency and creativity in a way that an initiative that had been pre-designed and rolled out by some external set of funders and experts could not have mustered.

It is in this spirit that we started our research report with the statement that we have been on a long journey. Many readers of this blog will understand when we say that we essentially conducted a two-year-long Emergent Learning Table, populated with seven case studies that we continually compared and contrasted as new questions arose. As much as possible, during the project, we applied what we were learning to the opportunities of our own client work, our certification program on Emergent Learning, and to how we operate ourselves as a partnership. We just intuitively believed that we would learn more and produce better research if we were trying these ideas out ourselves along the path.

The research led us to focus in particular on how we use our own learning log and weekly learning calls — creating the space to discover and explore patterns across the research and our own work. Sometimes we would start with a research question but, just as often, we just dove in to discover what struck us. “Have we seen this somewhere else? What do we think about it?” These conversations would lead us to ask a different question or try something out we hadn’t thought of before. The next week we’d bring back what we discovered. We found ourselves asking new questions, experimenting more and returning learning to the system as much as possible. This is changing the questions that our clients and our community are asking as well, and we are keenly aware now that the better we get at doing this ourselves, the more quickly we will amplify learning across our own ecosystem.

Our research report represents where we are today on our journey. We invite your comments, questions, critiques, ideas. We also invite you to share other stories that you think might represent emergence in complex social change. As we say in the report,  there is much more to learn . . . always.

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Learning Our Way through Uncharted Waters

Well, the election is over. You could say that we’re stepping into “interesting times.” I used to work with a CEO in the corporate world who talked a lot about needing to prepare for “right-angle turns” — changes in the environment where you simply couldn’t see around the corner, but you still needed to be prepared to act and adjust, act and adjust. That pretty much sums up, I think, what’s probably in store for us in the year ahead, regardless of your politics. The one thing you can predict is that what worked last year may not work now. It’s a time to re-think assumptions.

From a learning perspective, this change in the national political landscape provides a significant opportunity, if not a mandate, to bump up your game. That’s where the field of Emergent Learning really shines. Emergent Learning is literally about learning that emerges from tackling the real-world challenges in your day-to-day work — how to make thinking visible to each other and test it out, then bring what you learn back to your colleagues to help refine your shared thinking, and so on. It’s especially valuable when you can’t take your assumptions for granted.

My partners and I have spent a lot of years of research and practice in environments full of right-angle turns, in both the corporate sector and the social sector. We’ve also been long-time students of research into how complex systems adapt. The confluence of these has led us to advocate that, if you really want to adapt as quickly as possible, you need two things:  1) really strong line of sight, so that everyone knows what success would look like, and, at the same time — and this is important — 2) to make sure that everyone has as much freedom to experiment as humanly possible. It’s not a time for putting all of your eggs into a single strategy. Times like these in particular call on the wisdom of all of us — to stay the course in terms of your big goals and, at the same time, to be very deliberate about experimenting with new moves.

This also means is that it’s not a time to defer to a single source of expertise. In a complex environment, no one person holds enough perspective to be able to come up with a complete solution on their own. It really does “take a village.” At 4QP, we talk about the importance of seeing each other as ‘experts in equal measure.’ That it is about all of us, ideally including your grantees and partners, learning our way through these potentially challenging times together. This is hard to do, but essential in an unpredictable environment like the one we are facing in 2017.

It also means that our normal cycles for strategy, for grantmaking, for evaluation, are far too long to be useful in complex environments. I wrote a research report a few years ago, “A Compass in the Woods” that described this problem. Like ants looking for food, we need to be rubbing our antennae together a lot more often.

May you succeed in turning the unknowns that lie ahead into truly transformative opportunities to make a difference in the lives of the people you serve.

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Complex Adaptive Systems: a definition

As we launch our new sponsored research project, Exploring Emergence in Complex Social Change Initiatives, we realize that the field of work on which it is based might be new to many of our colleagues. While much has been written about the field of Complex Adaptive Systems, much of it is written for scientists and often incomprehensible to non-scientists. Here is our attempt to define this important work in layman’s terms.

A complex system consists of many, diverse parts, all of which interact with each other and, in so doing, create patterns that are more sophisticated than any one part operating on its own. Human languages are capable of an endless variety of meaningful communication, using a fairly small set of letters and punctuation marks, with some rules about how to combine them into words and how to combine words into sentences. Snowflakes are formed in beautiful patterns, all of which are made through the random interaction of ice crystals. Both snowflakes and human communication are endlessly varied, without having to be consciously designed in advance. Human beings are also examples of complex systems. We are composed of many, diverse cells, each of which have limited capabilities. But through the cells’ many interactions, the behavior we are capable of is endlessly rich and complex. If our cells did not interact, if ice crystals did not adhere to each other, this quality of rich behavior would be impossible. These richer patterns of behavior are said to “emerge” from these many random interactions.

As a system, we are also adaptive. Unlike a snowflake, our collection of cells is capable of having a goal — survival, reproduction, comfort, wealth — and to adapt to feedback from our environment in order to achieve it. The same can be said for our immune system or an ant colony. Collectively, through the constant interaction of individual entities, or “agents,” as they are called by complexity scientists, the larger system of which they are a part, is capable of responding to our environments in ways that take us closer to a goal than any individual agent would be capable of on its own.

A complex adaptive system is non-linear. It can be distinguished from a machine, which exists because it had a designer who could predict in advance how a particular combination of components would operate together to produce a specific behavior. Complex adaptive systems are not predictable in the same way. Researchers at the Santa Fe Institute, an important center for complexity science, have done fascinating research using complex adaptive systems as a frame, for example, to understand how cities and economies behave.

As we describe in the announcement to our research on Emergence, the social sector has begun to understand that the systems it hopes to impact are also highly complex, which suggests that we need to think differently about what it takes to achieve the kinds of impacts we aspire to create.

For example, complexity scientists emphasize that agents in a complex adaptive system behave according to simple rules and it is through the simplicity of those rules that rich patterns of behavior emerge. A frequently cited example is how birds flock. The rules that generate that behavior are very simple and do not include identifying a leader, famously modeled by Craig Reynolds in his BOIDS simulation. The corollary to that, described by Stephen Johnson in his book Emergence, is especially relevant to philanthropists: “Emergent systems can grow unwieldy when their component parts become excessively complicated. Better to build a densely interconnected system with simple elements, and let the more sophisticated behavior trickle up.”

We anticipate that our research will help us understand better how to think about the process and benefits of emergence and help funders, grantees and other partners in the social sector understand what they can do to improve their impact as they work to achieve complex goals in complex systems.

For more information on Complex Adaptive Systems, we recommend Emergence by Steven Johnson as a comprehensible and enjoyable description of how this theory can be applied to understanding everything from ants to brains to cities to software design. A Hidden Order by John Holland gives an in-depth description of the principles of complex adaptive systems theory.

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Emergent Strategy, iPhones and Social Impact

I am just back from the 2015 Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) Conference, where Phil Buchanan invited Patti Patrizi and me to bring together — for the first time — our many collective years of thinking and doing work in the realm of Emergent Strategy and Emergent Learning.

Patti talked about the great article she and colleagues Liz Thompson, Julia Coffman and Tanya Beer wrote for Foundation Review in 2013, “Eyes Wide Open: Learning as Strategy Under Conditions of Complexity and Uncertainty.” She talked about how, in complex environments, conventional strategic processes first developed for more predictable environments lead to common “traps.” Philanthropic leaders search for certainty through simple, linear logic models; become overly dependent on measures that are developed too quickly to actually measure anything of importance; and, perhaps as a result, “outsource” learning to experts like us, at the expense of respecting their own good thinking.

She and I agree that, in complex and evolving environments, as she described it, “strategy cannot be engineered a priori” because no one has the crystal ball it would take to completely predict a future that is yet to unfold in complex ways; and, finally, that it requires trial and error by a whole community — i.e., an emergent strategy — to achieve real social impact. She shared the great story of Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and their effort to address end-of-life care. After investing in one big bet and visibly failing, they humbly acknowledged that they were going to need to learn their way to a solution. After lots of smaller experiments, including some stops and starts, and through collaborations with other partners like Open Society Foundations, they ultimately helped spur and grow the now successful field of palliative care — a result that no one could have engineered in advance.

As we were putting our talk together, I was reminded of my favorite example of emergence (in the complexity science sense). I love this example because it is a great big experiment in emergence that all of us not only know about but in which we are all active participants.

This is how I described it in our session:

“Steve Jobs was brilliant, but if the iPhone could only ever do those things that Jobs and his team thought up themselves, it would not be the powerful tool we use today. In essence, they designed a platform, which created a whole new field of play, which is itself emerging. Because all of these designers are learning simultaneously how to design for it and users are learning how to interact with it, our collective ecosystem is making it possible for designers to create even more innovative apps that no one could have thought of, much less being capable of designing or using, even two years ago. And no one person can predict how we will use them two years from now.”

Imagine creating that kind of social impact from your investments.

For readers who are familiar with the tools of Emergent Learning, you will know that we talk about them as a “platform.” This is intentional. Just as how Apple designed the iPhone created a “field of play” that resulted in the emergence of powerful new apps, we intend for the tools of Emergent Learning to help foundations set the stage for the emergence of powerful new solutions to complex social problems.

In our session, Patti and I challenged foundations to have the courage and humility to shift how they approach their initiatives. We challenged them to shift from funding, say, “Education and Displacement” initiatives with complex frameworks and expert models they expect grantees to implement, to asking a Framing Question like, “What will it take to ensure that displaced youth living in refugee camps achieve the same level of education as their peers?” A question like this invites to the table the collective wisdom and experience of everyone in the system; it gives everyone the latitude to experiment with solutions simultaneously — like the community of mobile app developers — to see what rises to the top and becomes the foundation of true social impact.

— Marilyn Darling

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A 4QP talk at Systems Thinking in Action

2013 was a stand-out year for us at 4QP.

Our first annual Emergent Learning Community of Practitioners completes their year-long Certification Program later this month. As we predicted, their experiences and perspective have expanded our own understanding and practice of the craft.

Our rich conversations over the year reminded us of the theory in which this work is rooted. We had the opportunity this fall at the Systems Thinking in Action Conference to talk about one of those roots: Complex Adaptive Systems theory.

We often say that there are two ways to think about the “Emergent” in Emergent Learning:

Most immediately, Emergent Learning is learning that emerges from the work itself, in the course of doing the work, with as little overhead as possible, so that groups of people accelerate their results together by being deliberate about testing their thinking in real time.

On a more macro level, complex behavior (think “mastery”) emerges from lots of individual interactions among “agents” (think “people”). We talk about “rubbing our stories together.” These interactions generate rules that make it possible to interact in more catalytic and sophisticated ways to achieve results in very dynamic environments.

We owe a debt of gratitude to John Holland, a pioneer in the field of Complex Adaptive Systems theory, for validating our intuitions about why and how this happens, and what it takes to adapt as quickly as what’s called for by the environments in which we operate. (We recommend his book, A Hidden Order, for its description of how this process works.)

You can see us describe Holland’s ideas and link them to Emergent Learning and its principles and tools in this video from the STIA conference.

Our wish for you is that 2014 brings you many wonderful opportunities to learn something new and empowering!

-Marilyn, Heidi and Jillaine

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