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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