Change and choice as emergent LO5390

Dave Birren, MB-5, 608-267-2442 (
Tue, 6 Feb 1996 09:38 CST

Replying to LO5363 --

Responding to Tobin Quereau and Julie Beedon in the thread "Change from
the Bottom up" (the last post was Tobin's, LO5363):

I've heard a number of references to emergent phenomena on this list, and
I'd like to make some connections with two particular threads.

The previous thread about choice being an illusion was illuminated for me
by the idea that choices emerge from our understanding of the situation
we're in. Our choices change as our understanding becomes broader and
deeper, which is to say that things emerge differently depending on how
much we know (and I mean "know" in all its many forms).

This idea of emergence takes on more light in view of Tobin's and Julie's
conversation, snipped and attributed below:


change needs to start somewhere??? - unless it could just emerge??


at the end of the day only 'people' can change.... the change to them as
individuals may mean that they change the system... which will have wider


I wonder if this is entirely the case. Many times, it seems to me, the
system changes _before_ the people change and that is one of the problems
we face. By focusing on individuals and how they change we may be looking
at the cart and not noticing the horse which is heading down the road at
full speed.

My comment:

Taking this conversation in the sense of change as an emergent phenomenon,
perhaps organizational change is a process of individuals assessing a
given situation, generally a complex one, and discovering what appears to
them to be the proper course of action. For some it will mean radical
change, for others stolid resistance, with most falling somewhere in
between. The challenge for organizations is to find a course of action
that most, if not all, of the individuals can live with. Change
management, as we have discussed on this list, becomes a process of
helping those more resistant to the group re-direction to accept it. It's
a process of alignment, of developing a shared awareness of both the
situation and what it calls for.

This is difficult for a variety of reasons: partly because our ability to
perceive any given situation is limited; partly because we have trouble
getting out of our own "stuff" and seeing what the situation calls for,
however we understand it; and partly because reasonable, well-intentioned
people will disagree about what's best.

Tobin continues:

I would suggest that it might be the people who change last for the most
part, and the system--which is much larger than any one organization in
it--that is busy transitioning to new states before we are even aware of

My comment:

It's the people who make up the organization and the system. Therefore, I
would suggest that as the system (however we characterize it) changes, it
affects our understanding of the situation (however we define it) in which
we find ourselves, which changes our sense of what's to be done.
Completing the circle, as our limited understanding changes, so too does
our sense of how we can best contribute to the system as well as get the
most out of it. Perhaps the more we learn about how the system works, the
better we can accept - and perhaps even understand - the variety of
emergent phenomena happening continually all around us. Maybe even learn
to give up our paradigms and models and accept the flow of the river of
life (oops - didn't mean to slip into philosophy).


how do we decide where to start....? my sense is that we need to continue
to develop ways of bringing the whole system together.... top, bottom,
middle, inside, outside, etc... and work to understand how the whole
interacts... how everybody's problems create a system mess..... and stop
trying to start top down... or bottom up... or middle out... but work on
the whole simultaneuously... oh but... this might need leaders who are
prepared to do this ... oh dear now where do we start!!!!


This makes a lot of sense, since we may not know where to start as
individuals, but we may be able to figure something out as a group that
takes into account more of the complexity which confronts us.

One alternative which is also attractive to me is to do all of these
things at once--start at the bottom, middle, top, outside, _and_
everywhere as well. This has the advantage of giving everyone a chance to
take a part of the action and come up with some results. Hopefully by
working at all of the edges (a la Uri Merry, Mike McMaster, Doug Seeley,
etc.) we will begin to precipitate the essential changes that need to
occur so that we can find them by their results. But maybe this is what
you were saying to begin with...

My comment:

This is consistent with (in fact, it help me to formulate) what I've been
saying - change and choice are happening everywhere around us, all the
time. I suggest that if we can see them as qualities that emerge from a
complex, many-sided awareness that includes all of us as participants,
then we will discover that conflict is not inevitable and to progress is
in our nature. All we have to do is let go a little and see things as
they are. Then our actions as individuals will accord with what's best
for the larger whole.

Hmm, I seem to have misplaced my copy of the Tao Te Ching; surely there's
an appropriate quote somewhere in there...


Anyway, the puzzle is intriguing and the process challenging. At least we
can try to have some fun as we work on it.

My final comment:

Bravo, Tobin! That's what keeps me in this list.

Sorry to have gone on so long. This thought process is more for my sake
than anyone else's, and I thank whoever took the time to plow through it.


David E. Birren                          Phone:   (608)267-2442
Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources     Fax:     (608)267-3579
Bureau of Management & Budget            E-mail:

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. (from T. S. Eliot's "Little Gidding")

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