Traditional Project Management vs. Promoting Emergence – Webinar Questions Answered

Traditional Project Management vs. Promoting Emergence – Webinar Questions Answered

In a recent FSG and the Stanford Social Innovation Review webinar discussion on complexity in collective impact, John Kania, coauthor of SSIR’s “Embracing Emergence: How Collective Impact Addresses Complexity,” Blair Taylor, of Memphis Fast Forward and Mark Cabaj of the Tamarack Institute explored how leaders of successful collective impact initiatives have embraced a new way of collectively seeing, learning and doing that marry emergent solutions with intentional outcomes.

In the fourth post in this 5-part blog series, Blair and Mark continue the discussion, answering thought-provoking questions from webinar participants on emergence in action and Developmental Evaluation in collective impact. This post discusses how traditional project management and emergence can be a boon for organizations when used together, and touches on how to convince others that emergent strategies are key to solving complex problems.

From Blair Taylor:

Q: How do you reap the benefits of both traditional project management and emergence?

A: In my experience, traditional project management and emergence work hand in hand.  Once you have a performance management structure in place – shared goals and strategies, shared metrics/definition of success, defined partner roles and accountabilities, a quarterbacking/backbone entity of some sort, implementation tracking and troubleshooting mechanisms – you’re 75% of the way to taking advantage of emergence.  The best way to condition the team to be flexible and vigilant about emergent strategy opportunities is to establish taking advantage of those opportunities early as a performance goal of the work. Then track emergence, and celebrate it as progress, throughout the life of the initiative.

I think many people, businesses, and organizations already understand intuitively that their plans have to be responsive and adaptive because life is unpredictable. There’s a great article in the May edition of Harvard Business Review about the expanding trend toward “lean start-ups” and “the fallacy of the perfect business plan”.  It describes a more agile, iterative, incremental and efficient process that provides lots of insights into how we should be approaching our collective impact projects.  And I love that failure is a valuable part of the process!  Reminds me of a movie “Meet the Robinsons” where the hero messes up his demonstration of that peanut butter and jelly machine in front of his whole new family, cringes miserably for about two seconds until the whole family starts to cheer about his failure as a step forward.”

From Mark Cabaj: 

Q: How do you convince those trained in old mindsets and paradigms that complex problems need emergent strategies? Are there disruptive questions that help get people out of old mindsets and paradigms?   

A: Convincing others that complex problems require emergent solutions is one of the most important challenges of the 21st century. Our ability to tackle complex issues successfully depends on our ability to work adaptively, and to resist the temptation to fall into well-rehearsed patterns of linear strategy, planning and management practices. There are at least four options to encourage people firmly embedded traditional approaches to seriously consider an adaptive approach.

1. Make the case for situational leadership and management. When we are dealing with issues that are well-defined, the response clear, the context stable and the outcomes predictable, then it's appropriate to follow a deliberate strategy, or to "plan the work and then work the plan". When we are wrestling with complex issues, where problems are ill-defined, solutions unknown and imperfect, contexts constantly shifting, and outcomes unpredictable, it's important to work adaptively. This requires that we acknowledge the uncertain and emergent nature of the situation, and proceed with a learn-by-doing process. Show those who need convincing examples of situational leadership in action from your own work and from the private sector. 

2. Shift the burden of proof. Ask the reluctant person to make the case for doing more of the same and against working adaptively.  Ask them to show compelling evidence that evidence that that treating complex issues like "simple issues on steroids."  In other words, why is investing enormous time to research and planning in order to cope with implementation efforts ready to implode under their own weight, rarely unfold as planned, and generate very wobbly results, worth sustaining. 

3. Use Reverse Marketing. Use reverse psychology to convince those with a deeply held worldview, strong personal preferences and patterns of practice. Trying to convince someone to question (or let go of) a deeply held worldview, personal preference and pattern of practice is tricky, unpleasant, and usually unsuccessful. It's sometimes more effective to use reverse psychology.   For example, I I recently responded to a United Way board member – who was skeptical of employing an adaptive approach in their efforts to create community impact on high school completion, crime rates and poverty – by saying, "I think you are right. I think it's better if you invest your time and resources in activities that may not yield much in the way of results, but at least are predictable and manageable. Investing in adaptive approaches to complex work is high risk, high return, and probably too messy and unpredictable for your tastes.  Just be sure to communicate to your donors and grantees that your low risk strategy is apt to yield modest returns at best." He ended up asking the board to invest some of the organization's resources in adaptive responses.

4. Don't try to convince the laggards. One of the central lessons of social innovation is that when trying to encourage a new pattern of practice, it is important to both:

  • Focus on innovators, early adopters, and those "enablers" who want to support them, and

  • Avoid trying to convince the late majority and laggards 

It may dramatically reduce the number and variety of allies around the table to tackle the complex issues but it substantially improves the probabilities that the group will move forward and make some progress on the issue.

Blair Taylor leads Memphis Tomorrow, an association of CEOs of Memphis’ largest companies who work collectively, primarily through public/private partnerships, to advance prosperity and quality of life in Greater Memphis.  As President, Blair has guided the engagement of top business leadership in addressing some of the community’s most pressing challenges. As part of her work coordinating the Memphis Fast Forward initiative, Blair serves on the boards of the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission, the PeopleFirst Partnership, Healthy Shelby, the Growth Alliance and the Greater Memphis Chamber.

Mark Cabaj is President of the company From Here to There and an Associate of Tamarack Institute. His current focus is on developing practical ways to understand, plan and evaluate efforts to address complex issues.  He is particularly involved in expanding practice of developmental evaluation, a new approach to evaluation which emphasizes evaluation and learning in emerging, messy and sometimes fast-moving environments. 



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