What the heck is emergent strategy?

Earlier this month, I had the good fortune to participate in a 4-day Emergent Strategy Ideation Institute in my home town of Washington, DC.  In this blog post, I’m sharing some of the basics of emergent strategy, and in another post I make meaning of my experience at the Institute in DC. I wanted to share these in order to encourage others to check out adrienne maree brown’s wonderful book Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds and to consider applying for future Ideation Institute sessions taking place in other cities (I know there will be sessions in Durham, NC, Detroit, MI, and Oakland, CA before the end of the year).


What the heck is emergent strategy?*

I love a good methodology or framework because they can create a shared language for describing things that many people are observing or experiencing, but haven’t had a way to communicate about clearly with one another. Emergent strategy is one such framework, so I figured that I’d share a short primer on its foundational concepts pulled directly from the pages of Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds by adrienne maree brown (which I highly recommend you buy or take out of a library if you want to go deeper).

First, what’s emergence?:

 “Emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions.” (citing Nick Obolensky on page 13)

And, I had never given this much thought, but what do we mean by strategy?

“The word ‘strategy’ is a military term, which means a plan of action towards a goal. I want to really emphasize “a”s in that sentence-there is a practice of narrowing down, identifying one path forward, one strategy, one way, one agenda, one leader, one set of values, etc. Reducing the wild and wonderful world into one thing that we can grasp, handle, hold onto, and advance…

I have been in countless meetings where there was a moment of creative abundance and energy, and then someone said we needed to pick one things to get behind, or a three- or five- or ten-point plan. What came next was sometimes very compelling and visionary. Other times – often times—it was reductionist, agreeing on the lowest common denominator, the least exciting thing, because that was the only place there was unity….Authentic, exciting unity takes time, and a lot of experimenting.

The other tragedy of this quick narrowing is that people get left out, not just in a slightly hurtful way, but left out of how we construct every aspect of society, infrastructure and culture. We come up with incredible plans that don’t account for crucial segments of our communities—I’ve witnessed this as well, unity that entails leaving behind people with disabilities’ or trans, Indigenous, immigrant community, and others.

It isn’t that we never need share, directed, focused and even single issue moments–we absolutely do.  It’s just that we live in a system that thrives when conditions are abundant and diverse, in a universe that holds contradictions and multitudes, and we often reject that chaotic fertile reality too soon, as if we can’t tolerate the scale of our own collective brilliance.” (pages 155-156)

I interpret this to mean that emergent strategy is about shaping the conditions through which a group can engage in relatively simple interactions and generate many possibilities (even contradictory ones) AND then explore and try out and adapt these possibilities into actions in support of moving toward shared goal or goals.

In the book, adrienne outlines a set of principles of emergent strategy – and while on the surface they are easy to understand, it is actually quite a radical act to embody them:

These can also be found on pages 41-42 of Emergent Strategy.

At the Ideation Institute, these principles were posted prominently on the wall (see pic above) and alongside them were the Elements of Emergent Strategy:

  • Fractals: the relationship between small and large.

  • Intentional adaptation: how we change.

  • Interdependence and decentralization: who we are and how we share.

  • Nonlinear and iterative: the pace and pathways of change.

  • Resilience and Transformative Justice: how we recover and transform.

  • Creating more possibilities: how we move towards life.

Like with many good frameworks, the concepts are pretty easy to grasp - and evidence of all of them can be found in nature. In fact much of the Emergent Strategy book shares examples of these from nature. The tough part is putting them into practice, embodying them.

If you want to read more about my experience at the recent Emergent Strategy Ideation Institute in DC, check out my other post entitled: Embodying (and Not) the Principles of Emergent Strategy.


*The title of this piece is a reference to what continues to be the most popular blog post on the Optimistic Anthropology website, What the Heck is Emergent Learning? One of the other things I’m contemplating coming out of the Institute is how to incorporate more of the principles and elements of emergent strategy into my work with emergent learning.  I suspect there will be more to come on that front.