What the Heck is Emergent Learning?

Since the start of the year, I've had a handful of conversations with changemakers who have shared how they are discovering that the problems they are trying to solve do not have known solutions.  They are trying to figure out what to do to move their work forward as they are grapple with the complexity of the problems they are trying to untangle and the ambiguity of the environments in which they operate.

I understand their frustration!  And in social problemsolving, I can see why folks are feeling so weighed down.  But, I also think that we have contributed to this problem with our mindsets and practices.  What do I mean by this? There is a terrible phrase “don’t bring a knife to a gun fight.”  Yet, in social change work, that’s often what we're doing.  We're bringing 20th century mindsets steeped in "market-based" solutions to the challenges of the 21st century that have resulted from market failure.  What does this look like?

  • We spend long periods of time developing plans that are relatively static and then trying to implement them. This idea of doing this is steeped in the ways of the past when things changed more slowly, when the world was less integrated, when technology hadn’t already helped us achieve such efficiencies;
  • We are holding on to mindsets and language of the industrial era, still talking about piloting and scaling solutions to problems that are growing faster than our solutions ever could.   
  • Because it’s clearer and more concrete and maybe easier and certainly there's a potential market angle, we often focus on addressing the byproducts of our problems (e.g. poor children don’t have shoes), and not reshaping the world so the problem doesn’t exist in the first place (e.g. there are no poor children).

The problems we face today are complex, and getting more so.  And when I use the word complex, I mean it in a very specific way, because complexity is state where there are not cause-and-effect relationships between inputs and results.  This means that we can’t make a plan and know that by changing one thing, the result will also be effected.  Instead, in navigating complexity, there are many policies, practices, behaviors, institutions, and mindsets that contribute to the problem, and it is only through “probing” at a range of them that we will be able to identify which inputs, when changed, lead to different outcomes.

So, how the heck do we do it?  In a social change space that has largely focused on developing 3-year strategic plans, best practices, and quantitative data-informed decisionmaking, how might we work differently to create solutions to our most intractable problems?  How might we be able to build processes, mindsets, and practices that help us navigate complexity and ambiguity?

To which I say, part of the solution is building our practice of emergent learning!

What is Emergent Learning?

Emergent Learning is a powerful process for navigating ambiguity & complexity! It starts with articulating an open-ended framing question, and then layers on a set of process tools that enables individuals, teams, organizations, and cross-sector collaborations to collectively learn from experience and adapt their strategies in real time. In contrast to traditional planning processes, emergent learning invites more people into the thinking, makes learnings visible – including failure – to encourage discussion, develops and tests out hypotheses about what the group should do to move the work forward, and shares insights across the community.

Having access to the wisdom and perspective of others is powerful! Painting by Yayoi Kusama

While this way of working requires a significant shift for many individuals, teams, and organizations, it also yields significant benefits. As Marilyn Darling and Charles Parry (2007) wrote, at least three of the major benefits of working in this way are, “1) it generates more robust solutions that take into account a range of situations; 2) it creates more ownership for the solution rather than imposing it; and 3) it sets the stage for learning and adaptation at every level of implementation.”

I was fortunate to be introduced to this work six years ago by the originators and leaders in the development of emergent learning, 4th Quadrant Partners, LLC. From a personal perspective, I can add that working in this open, iterative way has been very freeing.  It relieves the pressure of having to figure out all the answers on my own, and instead provides a process to access collective wisdom, a supportive culture to identify and test out new approaches relatively quickly, and a forum for feedback, analysis, and creativity.  So how does emergent learning actually work?

4 Process Tools Used in Emergent Learning

If the above definition is feeling a bit too theoretical for you, then hopefully, you’ll like this section better!  There are four process tools that underpin the work of Emergent Learning:

1. The Framing Question – at the center of emergent learning work is a framing question, an open-ended question that enables a team to organize its knowledge and orient its proposed solutions so it can determine if they’re effective. A couple of examples from Optimistic Anthropology’s past:

  • How might we support our grantees to build stronger cross-sector collaborations?
  • How might we integrate a culture of play into a city’s ecosystem?
  • How might we improve quality and control cost of health care in our region?

2. Learning Logs  -- From what I can tell, the learning log seems to be the emergent learning tool that gets the least attention, but I’ve personally found it to be the most useful in my own work.  Basically it is a spreadsheet or a document where you track how your assumptions, knowledge, and interpretations of how to address the framing question change over time as you test out your hypotheses.  If you were a scientist working in a laboratory, it would be your lab notebook.  For instance, when I was doing some work on the question, “How might we support our grantees to build stronger cross-sector collaborations?” I would create a short entry for every meeting I had about the work that I was developing (date, who I met with) or article I had read (title, author, link). After reading the article or wrapping up the meeting, I’d spend 2 minutes jotting down the most salient insights that I gained through the interaction. And then I’d answer the question – how has my thinking changed?  The feedback and insights that others shared related to the work helped to strengthen it immensely.  A learning log is a process tool that is likely used daily.

3. Before Action Reviews/After Action Reviews – A BAR is a process tool which “requires teams to answer four questions before embarking on an important action: What are our intended results and measures? What challenges can we anticipate? What have we or others learned from similar situations? What will make us successful this time?” The answers to these questions are then used in an After Action Review, which is “a method for extracting lessons from one event or project and applying them to others.” (Darling, Parry & Moore 2005)  Before and After Action Reviews are most effective when they are used to help a team discover new insights (and hopefully not continuously be re-discovering the same ones).   This process tool was originally developed in the military, and in contrast to what is now common parlance about learning, the military, “does not consider a lesson to be truly learned until it is successfully applied and validated.” (Darling, Parry & Moore 2005).  In the military it is used almost daily, but for most organizations, it would be a tool that would more likely be used at specific points in the development and implementation of a body of work. 

4. Emergent Learning Table – An emergent learning table is a 4 quadrant process tool that enables a team of people to come together around their framing question, and share what they have learned thus far about the ground truth (data), develop interpretations of what the data means (insights).  It then builds on the shared knowledge of the group to generate ideas for how to move the work forward (hypotheses) and identify opportunities where the hypotheses can be tested out (events).  While not something you would use every day, this facilitated process can be incredibly useful for a team to come together and go deep into the work (they usually take ½ to a full day) at key transition points in the work’s development and implementation, or even on a quarterly or semi-annual basis. 

In What Contexts Would I Practice Emergent Learning?

Emergent Learning isn’t the right approach for every job.  But, it can be incredibly powerful when ambiguity and complexity are involved, and you need a process and a set of tools that can help you develop a pathway forward.  Darling and Parry (2007) provided a great description of the situations in which it can be of use, so I’m just going to quote them:

Whether we work in the public, private or nonprofit sector, we all encounter circumstances that call for bringing people together and trying to learn our way through an important challenge or a wildly new situation. In a constantly changing environment, closed-door planning by a few people is not enough to ensure success. some of the most common triggers include:
Preparing a broad response to a crisis or emergency
Preparing for a major discontinuity on the horizon
Learning across teams, organizations or communities tackling similar challenges
Seeking fundamental solutions to an intractable problem
Creating a cultural transformation

Final Thoughts

On paper (or your screen) implementing the work of Emergent Learning might seem relatively simple.  While the process and tools are fairly straightforward, it is often the shift in mindset and culture that trips up teams and organizations in understanding and embracing this work.  This work requires individuals to approach and track their work differently, and to develop skills at asking questions, communicating openly, raising critique, making connections, and noticing when they are learning.  It also requires teams to create open, communicative, and trusting cultures where there are strengths in sustaining feedback loops, facilitation, and helping team members see their progress (because solving complex problems can feel like a long slough.)  That is why at the end of the day, I believe “Keeping learning in the forefront is, indeed, a leadership act,” (Darling and Parry, 2007).


And if you are interested in exploring how Optimistic Anthropology can support you in taking up emergent learning work, please say hello to Alison at Alison@optimisticanthro.com.

Resources Cited

Darling, Marilyn and Parry, Charles. Growing Knowledge Together: Using Emergent Learning and EL Maps for Better Results. Reflections - The SoL Journal on Knowledge, Learning and Change, volume 8, 2007.

Darling, Marilyn; Parry, Charles and Moore, Joseph. Learning in the Thick of It Harvard Business Review, July-August 2005.

Also, if you are considering integrating the process of emergent learning into your organization, you might want to check out this piece. While it refers to the work as “developmental evaluation” they are by-and-large the same practice.  Developmental Evaluation: 3 Questions to Consider Before Your Organization Takes the Leap.

For additional and more recent resources on Emergent Learning, I also recommend 4th Quadrant Partners' Research & Publication page.