And to define my terms, because words are tricky things at the very best of times, let me tell you what I mean when I say “emergent.” What I mean is that it is impossible (underline, highlight, italic, bold), impossible, to describe the entire solution at the beginning of the project. In fact, many elements of the solution are unknowable until we are mid-flight. The simple truth is that we trust that the simple truth will show up.
Some (foolish) people equate this to a lack of confidence – either in our project management skills or our ability to predict the future. And while the former may be questioned with some validity, our ability to tell the future is about as good as everyone else. We’re at least prepared to be surprised. How many projects do you know of where there is the expectation that the project will go to plan?
We have all lived through emergent situations. If you’ve ever driven a car in unfamiliar territory at night, you know the experience of only being able to see as far as your headlights can reach. As you move forward through the night, new territory becomes visible, and the path forward becomes clearer. And…you’re here, reading this, so something must have turned out well in that emergent driving process of yours. Even with GPS and Waze, things happen. We didn’t program my GPS to say “Donkey, we’re lost!” for no reason, you know.
Working with complex human systems – living systems that are in constant flux – while the broad directionality is often available through codified governance or strategic documents, the actual tactical path – and even some of the more strategic success elements – only get uncovered through time.
I once wrote a blog entitled “Holding Hope.” Part of why we need to hold hope – often for months at a time – is because the human beings driving through the snowstorm at night sometimes forget that there is safe harbor, and that it is possible to find it – through tenacity, through clarity of purpose, through the effective use of scarce resources. It’s never easy to work in emergent environments, but it’s more and more necessary, as time moves forward in this interconnected world of ours.