Rike Pätzold

"Practical Emergence" - Building a Bridge or Squaring the Circle?

What may good leadership look like in times of great uncertainty, when planning and controlling have lost their effectiveness? How can we facilitate generative emergence in organisations?



Our world is becoming increasingly complex. All living and non-living beings are interconnected in so many ways that it is ever more difficult or even impossible to plan or control anything. This state of affairs is particularly challenging in times of urgent problems on a global scale that require collective action. And what does that mean for organizations? How can people work together and facilitate transformation instead of blocking it? How may leadership look like in times of uncertainty when planning and controlling have lost their effectiveness? How does “the new” come into the world?

Those and countless other questions have been our companions for many years and in 2020 we decided to dedicate more space and time to them and provide a platform for others to join us. We are a handful of people who have been working with organizational change and transformation for many years – some of us for over two decades – and together, we created the Institut für Praktische Emergenz (institute for practical emergence).The name of the Institut für Praktische Emergenz (IPE) is tautological, because emergence is of course always practical. So why “practical emergence”? Moreover, our name is not only tautological, it’s also a simplification, as it should really be “Institute for Emergence for people who are dealing with transformation in practice,” or something along these lines. But that seemed a bit bulky, especially for our purpose, so we shrugged and sacrificed accuracy for snappiness.

What is our “purpose”? To extend an invitation to people who have to do with “urgent” transformation on a daily base and yet share our sense of collective stuckness in our paradigm – an invitation to look beyond the well-trodden paths, the familiar methods, the known ways of doing things, of “mastering” crises, of finding answers and solutions. It is an invitation to those who feel we might be going in circles with our usual strategies and approaches. Like us, these people will be wondering what a new paradigm might look like if the old one no longer fits (and maybe never has).

At the same time, they are entangled in structures and dependencies that make any kind of movement difficult. They are, for example, mayors, human resource managers, decision makers in organizations, city planners, and politicians who are looking for something different. Who ask themselves, how does the new come into the world and what role do we play in it? They are wondering how they can take others and their organizations along with them, how they can not be an obstacle to emergence. They realize that, just as with entangled threads, the more they pull on their problems, the worse the entanglement gets.

Take cities, for example: In many cities, there is an awareness that transformation is urgently needed, but existing political and administrative structures make any form of change very difficult. If an elected city council decides on something, the administration is instructed to implement it, or, more accurately: the respective department is instructed to implement it. But many topics (like climate change) concern more than one department and the current structure in many city administrations makes cooperation between people of different departments very difficult, if not impossible. Implementation can be arduous and take a long time – so long that, in the meantime, the political landscape of the city council has changed again…

The whole structure of the administration with its compartments and hierarchies resembles a machine more than a living system. And a city council is yet another system with different inner workings and agendas that can be hard to reconcile with those of the administration, and results and measurable effects tend to be put above people and process. But organizations like a city government are adaptive living systems and as such they are networks of relationships. How might an organization look like that takes people and process into account?

Through our years of experience with organizational transformation, we are painfully familiar with the sense of urgency, the hustle and bustle, and the fierce competition in many organizations. There seems to be no time for slowing down, no space for relationships, no room to stop and pause to observe and feel. Things need to get done, yesterday. But by desperately trying to force transformation, to fix our problems and crises, we only seem to be perpetuating them instead, fixating and not fixing them.

Which comes as no surprise since we cannot fix what is maybe not ours to fix. We cannot fight what is not to be fought. We seem to love the imagery and metaphors of warfare even when it comes to supposedly improving something. Fight the pandemic. Fight the climate emergency. We often think this is the only way – give up or fight. Or, of course, we deny that we have a problem in the first place.

At the IPE we want to explore more ways of being and doing in this world. We wish to discover what lies beyond the binary of fighting/mastering and giving up. Beyond being ushered into actionism and solutionism. Beyond good and bad, right and wrong. We wish to investigate what it means to make room for something else to – well – emerge.

Emergence is not controllable, not calculable, not enforceable. It happens when it happens – if and when the conditions are favorable. Does that mean the only thing we can do is to sit there and wait? Maybe. But also, maybe not. Nothing against sitting still, but at the IPE we are more interested in playfully exploring and experimenting.

What are the conditions for SOMETHING to emerge, what do they look and feel like? Can we foster them? For example, how do structures look like where information can flow freely? Regarding the focus on people and process, how can impulses be passed on? How can generative encounters take place? What kind of attitude might help? What does more leeway and agency look and feel like? What does response-ability actually mean?

To what extent is something new tolerated in existing structures without being immediately rejected by the organization's immune system? Where, metaphorically speaking, can seeds be planted, where can experiments be conducted, where can things be tested? What good practices exist already and where can we learn something?

How can we not only endure uncertainty but appreciate it? How can we learn better to bear the fact that there may be no solution – at least not in our familiar paradigm? What lies beyond right and wrong, good and bad? How can we deal with paradoxes and contradictions? We approach these questions by using practical situations and examples from the everyday lives of the people with whom we work, the people on the ground, in the trenches. 

So, how do we do that? At the IPE we focus on three areas: Enabling, Connecting and Consulting. We offer workshops and training programs to support people in fostering conditions for emergence. In order to connect people, we organize events and groups like our ThinkPlayDo Tank Faktor Em, where we listen, experiment, observe, try things out, and share our experiences and observations. By finding and giving practical examples, our participants find it easier to carve some time out of their busy firefighting schedules – time they wouldn't otherwise allow themselves to take. Everything is urgent, constantly, always, everything must be solved immediately (IMMEDIATELY!) in their daily business. There is usually no room for pausing and reflecting and imagining the future.

We try to pull the brakes a little bit by saying: look, there is something else here to discover and it also has practical relevance. No ivory tower or philosophical discussion, but no instruction manual either. An encouragement to play and explore, to connect and cooperate.

Is it possible to catalyze emergence? Is it necessary? Does it help emergence to create a fertile environment that fosters connections and creativity? More questions! We don’t know the answers, but we feel very drawn to continuing to explore. 
Words by Rike Pätzold
Rike Pätzold consults, writes, teaches and is passionate about emergence, collaboration, futures literacy, systems change and how to deal well with uncertainty and complexity. In her work Rike is all about systems change. As Head of the Institut für Praktische Emergenz, she explores new ways to change living systems from the inside out. She helps leaders from a wide range of industries, organizations and institutions to go off-script and supports teams in working together towards transformation. She teaches at universities and colleges. As co-founder of NxF | navigate by fiction, Rike developed a process for collaborative future prototyping for organizations in economy and politics using science fiction.