Emergence: Babies and Bathwater, Plans and Planning
Blog: Form Follows Function
“Emergent” is a word that I run into from time to time. When I do run into it, I’m reminded of an exchange from the movie Gallipoli:
Archy Hamilton: I’ll see you when I see you.
Frank Dunne: Yeah. Not if I see you first.
The reason for my ambivalent relationship with the word is that it’s frequently used in a sense that doesn’t actually fit its definition. Dictionary.com defines it like this:
1. coming into view or notice; issuing.
2. emerging; rising from a liquid or other surrounding medium.
3. coming into existence, especially with political independence: the emergent nations of Africa.
4. arising casually or unexpectedly.
5. calling for immediate action; urgent.
6. Evolution. displaying emergence.
7. Ecology. an aquatic plant having its stem, leaves, etc., extending above the surface of the water.
Most of the adjective definitions apply to planning and design (which I consider to be a specialized form of planning). Number 3 is somewhat tenuous for that sense and and 5 only applies sometimes, but 6 is dead on.
My problem, however, starts when it’s used as a euphemism for a directionless. The idea that a cohesive, coherent result will “emerge” from responding tactically (whether in software development or in managing a business) is, in my opinion, a dangerous one. I’ve never heard an explanation of how strategic success emerges from uncoordinated tactical excellence that doesn’t eventually come down to faith. It’s why I started tagging posts on the subject “Intentional vs Accidental Architecture”. Success that arises from lack of coordination is accidental rather than by design (not to mention ironic when the lack of intentional coordination or planning/design is intentional itself):
If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.
The problem, of course, is do you want to be at the “there” you wind up at? There’s also the issue of cost associated with a meandering path when a more direct route was available.
None of this, however, should be taken as a rejection of emergence. In fact, a dogmatic attachment to a plan in the face of emergent facts is as problematic as pursuing an accidental approach. Placing your faith in a plan that has been invalidated by circumstances is as blinkered an approach as refusing to plan at all. Neither extreme makes much sense.
We lack the ability to foresee everything that can occur, but that limit does not mean that we should ignore what we can foresee. A purely tactical focus can lead us down obvious blind alleys that will be more costly to back out of in the long run. Experience is an excellent teacher, but the tuition is expensive. In other words, learning from our mistakes is good, but learning from other’s mistakes is better.
Darwinian evolution can produce lead to some amazing things provided you can spare millions of years and lots of failed attempts. An intentional approach allows you to tip the scales in your favor.
Many thanks to Andrew Campbell and Adrian Campbell for the multi-day twitter conversation that spawned this post. Normally, I unplug from almost all social media on the weekends, but I enjoyed the discussion so much I bent the rules. Cheers gentlemen!