“Innovative organizations regularly change the ‘rules of engagement’ with ideas, isolate and define problems in new and unusual ways and look harder for plausible solutions.” -Emergent Innovation: A New Strategic Paradigm via The Journal of Strategic Leadership
What we often fail to realize is that innovation is already occurring across our organizational landscapes on an ongoing basis. Whether or not we are open to recognizing it is a very different story. Pockets of positive deviance exist, both individually and organizationally, providing new ideas and novel solutions to the problems that endlessly plague our organizational ecosystems.
Unfortunately, especially in times of change, we fail to allow space for the emergence of that innovation. Most often, we lack the will or ability to engage those novel and new ideas and solutions in constructive ways that spread and scale at any level.
In most cases, we find organizations sporadically searching out external consultants and ideas, hoping to ride the promises of the quick wins and quick fixes that abound within the ecology of education. Rather than taking the time to recognize the possibilities and bright spots that are already emerging within and across the organization.
And while we can see the success that these positive deviants are creating within the system, we avoid those novel and new solutions for the fear of the disruption, disequilibrium, and instability that those ideas have power to create across the organizational landscape. Or we look to find excuses to the “why” and “how” these bright spots are determining ways towards creating success within the system, with the same resources and support. As they often say, it is difficult to be a prophet in your own land.
Especially, in the midst of the chaos and turbulence that erupts in times of great change, we spend little time in recognizing the innovative opportunities that are emerging. Rather, we spend more time recoiling back from the volatility that ensues from these disruptive forces, insulating the organization in a facade of safety and stability, predicated on the comfort of static, status quo processes and structures. We find ourselves resorting to reactive actions, rather than engaging in proactive feedback loops.
Rather, we spend minimal time and provide little to no space for the emergence of the novel and new. Let alone the recognition of the positive deviance spread across the organizational landscape and how to effectively engage the learnings of those bright spots within the organizational ecosystem in an effort to scale up the innovation that is emerging and emanating from those bright spots.
To engage this emergence, Goldstein, Hazy and Lichtenstein share in their work, The Complexity and the Nexus of Leadership, four phases that “operate together to bring about adaptive emergence.”
Those four phases they include are Disequilibrium Conditions, Amplifying Actions, Recombinations, and Stabilizing Feedback.
Let’s take a quick look into each of these phases and how they support emergent innovation:
Disequilibrium Conditions: for emergent innovation to take hold, there must be a level of disequilibrium that is occurring within and across the organization. It requires moving past “the use of models of stability” and “enforcing top-down structures” that protect and insulate organizations from the discomfort that change is creating, and recognizing the novel and new ideas and innovations that are emerging through this disequilibrium. Too often, this disequilibrium is too uncomfortable to tolerate, pushing both individuals and the organization away from what is emerging and the implications of that emergence. Organizations that are able to push through the discomfort, open themselves to what Goldstein, Hazy, and Lichtenstein refer to as “opportunity tension” which allows for leadership to “engage, plan, pursue and capitalize on the potential.”
Amplifying Actions: as Goldstein, Hazy, and Lichtenstein share, “As disequilibrium increases, most organizations will see an increase in stress and tension, as well as an increase in in experiments in novelty.” Unfortunately, in the midst of this disequilibrium, leaders will look for ways to de-stress and stabilize the system, instead of increasing their innovative efforts to push forward into this change with more effective ideas and solutions. Leadership will often look fervently to past practices to keep the organization locked in linear and predictable processes and structures that provide some sense of stability. As Goldstein, Hazy, and Lichtenstein add, leadership needs to learn to “live with-and-even-embrace-the discomfort of disequilibrium, encouraging experiments and amplifying successes in whatever form they may come.” Which is a reason that many organizations never reach a state of change, as they tend to recoil back in the face of the stress of this instability. As the authors add, “As stress and intensity grows, the system approaches the possibility of a state of change.”
Recombinations: Goldstein, Hazy, and Lichtenstein share that, “Once a critical threshold is crossed, the system’s inertia has been overcome. The organization now enters a period when it can be influenced by forces for emergent order.” What is vital to this, is the understanding that individuals and the organization must push through the disequilibrium brought on by these change forces, rather than giving in to the discomfort and recoiling back to the safety and stability of what it has always known, what it has always done. It is in this phase that individuals and the organization can be driven by the learning that accompanies ongoing experiments in novelty and determining how that learning can move the organization forward more effectively and relevantly.
Stabilizing Feedback: as Goldstein, Hazy, and Lichtenstein put forth, “Finally, new emergent order, if it is indeed creating value, will stabilize itself in order to retain this increased capacity.” For which they add, “As this stabilizing process takes hold, the system finds the appropriate ways to position itself for overall sustainability in the ecology.” It is at this point that change truly takes hold in the organization and moves from the novel to a new way of operating and working. It is where the innovation diffuses across the organizational ecosystem.
Understanding these phases of emergent innovation better prepares our individuals and organizations to withstand the disequilibrium and instability that can often accompany the change of the new. It provides a framework for pushing through the discomfort that is often at the core of embracing emergent innovation and the organizational change accompanies it.
“Emergent events are driven by an entrepreneurial opportunity that pushes the organization outside its normal ruts and into taking new directions.”
“A state of disequilibrium or instability…led to an unexpected outcome, namely, the emergence of the unexpected.” -Goldstein, Hazy, Lichtenstein via The Complexity and the Nexus of Leadership: Leveraging Nonlinear Science to Create Ecologies of Innovation