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How Emergent Order Creates Thriving Organizations

The world is a fascinating place.

Ever wonder how we are able to accomplish so much without one person directing all the moving pieces? iPhones, Wikipedia, cars, the shoes you wear, last night’s dinner; all these things were made possible through the efforts of thousands of people each pursuing their own ends, and in doing so they cooperated to make our lives better.

Economists call this emergent order, more commonly known as self-organization.

Although difficult to wrap our heads around, emergent orders are actually very common. Markets, law, and language are all examples of unplanned systems that evolve naturally through our interactions. The beauty of emergent orders is that they are able to thrive because they constantly change and adapt to new circumstances.

Organizations, on the other hand, are commonly thought of as “islands of planning in a sea of emergence.”  That thought is more or less correct; organizations involve layers of managers directing employees to address different challenges. But underlying that structure are rich environments of employees and teams connecting and cooperating to achieve great feats.

Self-organization is the life force that enables “work” to happen.

Because it’s difficult to pinpoint, it often goes unrecognized. Therein lies a significant organizational culture opportunity.

Below are several examples to help illustrate the relevance of and importance self-organization:

Organizational Culture and Values

Why do different departments use drastically different terminologies for the same thing? Why are some organizations more cohesive than others?

The answer is simple, although the mechanics behind it are pretty complex: Coworkers have a lot more influence on each other than we give them credit. Our attitudes and actions are as much a product of ourselves as they are the people around us. As we intermingle, our values cross-pollinate and shape the organization’s overall culture. And in doing so, the culture can take on a life of its own.

When one person has difficulty shaking habits that have emerged over the years, changing the culture becomes challenging. But within this challenge lies a hidden blessing: with enough positive enforcement, new habits can form and shape the culture over time.

Social Networks

Here’s a bold claim: the majority of work gets done outside the traditional chain of command.

In other words, people, driven by their desire to do their jobs successfully, self-organize to achieve their mutual goals. If you look at social networks within organizations, you’ll find that it may look very different from the org chart. The hubs are not necessarily managers, but rather employees with the broadest social connections who are able to bridge the gap between departments.

Given the ability and motivation, employees will diligently seek out solutions to their problems by building partnerships and sharing ideas. This is really a textbook case for emergence.

Rules, Policies, and Regulations

Sure, a lot of rules and regulations are cumbersome. Most people grudgingly accept them, and in a lot of cases they can be somewhat arbitrary.  But, behind each rule there’s a history, an event, or chain of events that brought it into being.

For example, recently gothamCulture has engaged in a long-term effort to create a culture of safety for one of our clients. Most organizations have safety policies, resulting from years of trial and error, and a process of learning from their successes and failures.

This particular organization simply didn’t sit down and lay out an ideal set of safety policies. In many cases they had had to figure things out the hard way; piece by piece.  In all cases, accidents, as unfortunate as they are, force organizations to reevaluate the way they protect employees from harm.  Rules are constantly evolving, and policies change, bit by bit, to ensure certain standards are maintained.

Sometimes policies are well-intentioned missteps, but the process behind it involves the nuanced interplay among people’s values, attitudes, and actions over time.

Why It Matters

So why does self-organization matter? How is emergence relevant to you or your organization?

Work is inherently social. It is a rich ecosystem that is constantly moving toward some end.  We cannot effectively understand organizations, let alone start to change them, without appreciating the role emergence and self-organization played in how getting the organization to its present state. By doing so, we reveal the many different avenues to implement change effectively.


Below are some great resources on emergent orders:

I, Pencil – Leonard Read

Valve Corporation and Spontaneous Orders – Yanis Varoufakis

Emergence – Jane Adams

The Use of Knowledge in Society – Friedrich Hayek

Where Good Ideas Come From – Steven Johnson

Leadership and the New Science – Margaret Wheatley

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