Keep it Small. Keep it Simple. Let it Happen.

I woke up this morning thinking about change, creative consciousness, & something I’m not exactly sure I think of often enough, emergence. This morning’s thought pattern was not only in terms of my life, but in terms of the many projects I am currently involved with and even about one particular that has everything to do with building sustainable communities. I want to use my life as an example of how emergence can sometimes be blocked, change controlled, and creativity used more of as a buzzword than a set of actions or way of being. In building creative communities in sometimes difficult environments, emergence is the magical key that unlocks sustainability, and the right model is imperative to its formation and growth. Before I move on, here’s Andy Hunt with a few thoughts on the subject of emergence in models and systems…

Emergence is one of the founding principles of agility, and is the closest one to pure magic. Emergent properties aren’t designed or built in, they simply happen as a dynamic result of the rest of the system. “Emergence” comes from middle 17th century Latin in the sense of an “unforeseen occurrence.” You can’t plan for it or schedule it, but you can cultivate an environment where you can let it happen and benefit from it.

A classic example of emergence lies in the flocking behavior of birds. A computer simulation can use as few as three simple rules (along the lines of “don’t run into each other”) and suddenly you get very complex behavior as the flock wends and wafts its way gracefully through the sky, reforming around obstacles, and so on. None of this advanced behavior (such as reforming the same shape around an obstacle) is specified by the rules; it emerges from the dynamics of the system.

Simple rules, as with the birds simulation, lead to complex behavior. Complex rules, as with the tax law in most countries, lead to stupid behavior.

Many common software development practices have the unfortunate side effect of eliminating any chance for emergent behavior. Most attempts at optimization — tying something down very explicitly — reduces the breadth and scope of interactions and relationships, which is the very source of emergence. In the flocking birds example, as with a well-designed system, it’s the interactions and relationships that create the interesting behavior.

The harder we tighten things down, the less room there is for a creative, emergent solution. Whether it’s locking down requirements before they are well understood or prematurely optimizing code, or inventing complex navigation and workflow scenarios before letting end users play with the system, the result is the same: an overly complicated, stupid system instead of a clean, elegant system that harnesses emergence.

Keep it small. Keep it simple. Let it happen. —Andy Hunt, The Pragmatic Programmers

Photo by Mark Lehigh

Do we wait for unforeseen occurrence? Or, do we tie things down very explicitly in order to control outcome, circumstance, and behavior? How would a flock of birds do if we tried to control their flying pattern with over-complicated rules, without allowing emergence in their own individual patterns that result in an emergence of the flock? Poor birds, I say.

If we look with a mindful eye, we can catch ourselves (and others) blocking emergence, simply by projecting controlling behavior in the name of a predefined result. Even though we may have thought or knew the best way to an outcome, blocking emergence in these situations is simply what we are doing. If we are not allowing, letting go, and trusting that the desired outcome can come to its own conclusion, emergence, that special magic, cannot bubble up. This does not mean that we disown or remove ourselves completely, but it calls for taking much smaller steps, much quicker, in the most simple way possible — instead of trying to own the whole thing all at once.

All good things take time to form, to emerge, and to happen. No situation is the same. Everyone and everything is its own unique experience. By simply letting it happen we can use much less energy, emotion, & effort in working toward the desired outcome. We can use our skills & experience in smaller, more specific ways. We can learn how to apply simplicity to complex problems & situations by letting go, paying attention, and not being attached to the result. We can offer our advice, our help, our experience, our time, our skills, our resources, but we really cannot control outcome or result and expect it to look the way that we want it to.

Photo by BK

The art of letting go has as much meaning in our personal lives as it does in our professional lives. In community building, technology development, record albums, movie production, and startup projects around the world, I have seen that not letting go of the end result in the beginning can change the entire outcome all together, and very rarely with a more positive spin or value proposition. As people, we love to control, and everyone has a different life experience and thus their view of the end result is different. Managers are best at control, experts are great at agility, and creators (innovators and artists) are best at emergence. Managers try to control behavior, pattern, and result for a desired outcome. Experts, through their experience, have come to understand the value of agility and how to apply it by taking smaller steps and pacing themselves. Creators have found that emergence happens only in the absence of something. These three personas can be found in any community, any project, any relationship, and any walk of life.

When we have two or more people who see the same thing through shared experience or through compassion and humility or out of a desire to let it happen, great things surely will happen. Great communities are formed. Great products are built. Great companies are born. And, most importantly, great relationships are forged and flourish. Today’s lesson for me is to continue to detach myself from the result. To continue to keep things small (one step at a time). To continue to be agile and flexible as life moves and changes. And, to let things happen. This is, after all, how great things emerge.

We are surrounded by situations that we cannot control. Many of which we know could be done differently or even better. At home, at work, on projects or products or in companies…we are surrounded by the lack of control. However, how we influence them is dependent very much on our ability to let go. We know when to walk away from something, and sometime that is what it takes…to listen to ourselves. But when that something is not something we can or want to walk away from…a change in approach is necessary.

Use your energy wisely, the world needs it more than you think. Allow things to emerge. Allow users to experience. Let things happen.


Meaning #1: the gradual beginning or coming forth

Meaning #2: the becoming visible; the act of coming (or going) out; becoming apparent

Meaning #3: the act of emerging


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