You may have noticed that I write regularly about the different mindsets that explain the relative effectiveness of the organisations we work for and with. Things like Theory-X (strong in the Ad-hoc and Analytic mindsets) vs Theory-Y (Synergistic and Chaordic mindsets), and organisations-as-machines vs organisations as social/biological/complex adaptive systems.

One difference I have not touched on much is the part that emergence has to play in the effective organisation.

Gall’s Law

“A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. The inverse proposition also appears to be true: A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be made to work. You have to start over, beginning with a working simple system.”

~ John Gall

Does Your Organisation Embrace or Ignore Gall’s Law?

Ad-hoc and Analytic minded organisations generally believe that systems are best designed, up front, with acts of conscious will and intent. Be they organisational structure, policies, products or a myriad of other systems upon which an organisation depends.

Synergistic organisations learn, by degrees, that John Gall nailed it – complex systems that work require evolution from simple systems that work. For effective (working) organisations, we need to embrace emergence. We need to allow our systems – and our thinking – to evolve to the point where emergence is working for us. This is hard.


Emergence seems messy. Allowing things to take their own course is hard for folks who seek certainty and control as means to getting their needs met. It can often feel like a crowd of people trampling over your nice, neat, manicured lawns. But the properties of beauty and simplicity can emerge more or less unbidden, too.

Whilst we opposed emergence, we lock ourselves into relatively ineffective ways of thinking, and thus, of working.  Only when we embrace and encourage emergence, do we open the door to more effective ways of thinking and working.


One of the fundamental guiding principles of FlowChain is to encourage emergence:

  • Emergence of products
  • Emergence of teams
  • Emergence of methods (“the way the work works”)
  • Emergence of systems
  • Emergence of priorities
  • Emergence of flow
  • Emergence of needs (and e.g. stakeholders)
  • Emergence of purpose (the “why”)
  • Emergence of ideas (i.e. creativity)

Would you be willing to consider, and share, where your organisation is at regarding the role of emergence?

“My ideas have undergone a process of emergence by emergency. When they are needed badly enough, they are accepted.”

~ R. Buckminster Fuller

– Bob

Further Reading

Obliquity ~ John Kay
Systemantics ~ John Gall

  1. Paul Beckford said:

    Hi Bob,

    You’ve hit on to one of my pet subjects. Organisations suffer from ontological myopia.

    They are built on an assumption of “order”, which fits with their basic tenant of command and control. The idea that much of what they do is intrinsically “un-ordered” (complex and/or chaotic), and hence can’t be controlled in a deterministic sense is lost on them.

    The reinforcement of the assumption of order, is a consequence of confirmation bias and the preservation of power structures. If my role is “to be the person in charge”, and hence responsible for determining “outcomes”, then the idea that I have little control and that outcomes are unpredictable comes pretty close to admitting that I, and the hierarchy I represent, are largely irrelevant 🙂


    • Hi Paul,

      Thanks for that cogent and congruent explanation. 🙂

      – Bob

      P.S. Would you be willing to say a little more about ontological myopia?

      • Paul Beckford said:

        Sure. Organisations are ‘blind to the way things actually are”. An ontology is a “specification of a conceptualisation”, or in plain english a way of looking at things.

        At work we can choose to look at the software delivery system as an ordered deterministic system where cause and effect relationships are well understood, lets label this “specification” as “order”.

        We could also choose to look at the delivery of software as a messy system where patterns emerge over time but we are never quite sure how things will work out in advance. Lets call this “specification” un-order.

        Another term that is important is epistemology. How do we know what ever it is we think we know, “a theory of knowledge”.

        Dave Snowden has a paper where he advocates multi-ontological decision making:


        Basically Dave is saying that in organisations there are more then one way of seeing things. He chooses two ontologies: order, and un-order (other then order).

        He uses these ontologies on one axis of a two by two matrix. The other axis is labelled epistemology: rules and heuristics.

        When making decisions, this splits the decision making space into four:
        * order, rules – Process Engineering
        * order, heuristics – System Dynamics
        * un-order, rules – Mathematical complexity
        * un-order, heuristics – Social Complexity

        The myopia comes about where people cling to the tools of one of these spaces, and are blind to the others. The usual scenario in organisations is that all decisions are made through the lense of Process Engineering. Process A is failing so ditch it and adopt Process B instead 🙂 The fad adoption cycle that we are all familiar with 🙂

        What you are advocating in this blog is people opening their eyes to the tools and methods of the other spaces, in particular social complexity.

  2. Ehteshaam said:

    Hi Bob.

    I felt the concept of emergence similar to what I believe in “Life goes in a direction.” By this I believe that life which includes, myself, my thinking, things, people, etc, etc… all that is there in this universe is constantly moving in a single direction. If we accept it, we grow.
    There is a timeline which is moving in 1 direction towards its destination. We (as an organization, basically an organization to me is its people) accept what comes to us and build over it (it can be process, assets, etc etc) naturally.
    This is often termed as evolving. Its not going in a rut cycle, enforcing things. I feel this can be experienced in case of startups.


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