From a systems perspective, emergence is a phenomenon in which something new arises from interactions among smaller or simpler components. The economist Jeffrey Goldstein describes emergence as “the arising of novel and coherent structures, patterns and properties during the process of self-organization in complex systems.”
My colleague, David Bradford, tells the story of the birth of National Training Labs, a pioneering center for the study of group behavior that began shortly after World War II. Leland Bradford, David’s father, was one of NTL’s founders.
In 1946, there was a workshop led by my father and his two colleagues, Ron Lippitt and Ken Benne. The purpose was to train community leaders to facilitate discussions in their own towns about housing for minorities. The participants were from the state of Connecticut. The workshop’s leadership team included Lippitt’s mentor, Kurt Lewin, and Lewin’s graduate students from MIT who were doing research on group process.
During the conference, in the evenings, the workshop leaders got together to hear the observations from the graduate students discussing the day’s events. It so happened that one evening a couple of the participants wandered into the room during the evening discussion. Lewin’s high regard for democratic principles likely played a role in allowing those persons to stay.
The next evening, more participants joined. And then something remarkable happened. One of the graduate student observers said, “At 10:20 this morning, Mary Jones made a comment that stopped the progress of the group.” But Mary was there and said, “No I didn’t.” Then another participant said, “Yes, you did and I was bothered.” This led to an open exploration among everyone in the room about what was actually going on.
What became apparent to the workshop leaders and participants was that these kinds of discussions – open, honest, vulnerable, emotionally charged, and inclusive of differences – were more real, authentic and useful than the role playing exercise and discussions that were being used during the day. The possibility that a different kind of learning could be achieved through such a raw experiential exercise became the seed idea that blossomed into the National Training Laboratory for Group Development, later shortened to NTL and eventually the NTL Institute for Applied Behavioral Science.
Welcoming Emergence, as a practice within the field of Collective Wisdom, is about the capacity to recognize new patterns. Related practices, such as deep listening, suspending certainty, tolerating discomfort, and keeping the whole system in mind, support the conditions for such new patterns to emerge.
Welcoming emergence is far more than being surprised or confronted by unanticipated events; it is the widening of our perceptual lens and the ability to see what is quickening on the horizon. The story of NTL’s birth is a metaphor and exemplar of this kind of capacity. In 1947, one year after the Connecticut conference, NTL was founded in Bethel, Maine offering pioneering training in group-facilitated dialogue, grounded in the methodology of experiential learning. The legacy of this innovation continues today as the most popular elective course available at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.