Posted: 12 Jan. 2021 8 min. read

Predictions 2021: Emergence takes the change

This may not feel like a good moment for our annual Predictions. Indeed, it seems incompatible with the “new normal,” which is marked by extreme unpredictability and extraordinary disruptions. But there has never been a time in which we needed to understand our future more—nor have we had such an opportunity to tap into the creative force at the heart of this disruption. As leaders, it is our role to mine that energy as a force for growth and continuous reinvention. At the same time, we need a new way of thinking about leading people and organizations to achieve their purpose—and to thrive in a sustainable way.  

Moving from surviving to thriving in this new normal requires a renewed focus on enduring human capabilities and potential, augmented by technology and a common purpose throughout the organization. Moreover, unleashing the combination of capabilities, potential, and technology within each organization’s unique context can lead to solutions and practices that have not yet been imagined. Rather than relying on outdated mindsets and chances to achieve meaningful, sustainable results, leaders need a new paradigm.  Emergence offers such a paradigm and can be described as a sustainable increase in stability, capacity, and influence arising from self-organization in turbulent environments. In our Predictions for 2021, we’ll be exploring how this may look in many of the critical people-related issues leaders are facing today.

Enter Emergence: Changing the Game

We've all experienced the realities of unpredictable environments: shifting customer expectations, unexpected resource constraints, or any other number of internal or external factors. This experience can compel adaptation within a given project team, triggering new patterns or structures to deal creatively and effectively with the problems at hand. The team may also change how it interacts with each other and the external environment to ensure stability and cohesion over time. This is an early manifestation of emergence. 

After some struggles, the team and its ways of working may start to crystalize into something new. This might include innovation around engaging the workforce or new customers, a new brand message in the market, or the creation of intellectual property (such as a patent). At this point, the “new way” of working represents an entity in itself. All of the pieces—people, interactions, technology, and the environment—have come together, both dynamically and sustainably, to create something that could not have otherwise been fully envisioned. It’s at this point that the team’s creativity has been sparked and the new structure is recognized as a “game-changer,” perhaps the most robust appearance of emergence in business.

One recognizable example of this game-changing emergence may be found among the waves of technology that have dramatically changed our ways of living and working over the past few decades. The accessibility of home computers, the connections created through the Internet, and the power and convenience of mobile technology have all given rise to entirely new industries and revolutionary companies that continue to evolve along with them. These game-changers dramatically increase our capacity for work—and our potential as humans to adapt and thrive.

Emergence as a Science

Emergence is a natural phenomenon, but it can also be cultivated in human organizations. About 150 years ago, emergence as a scientific concept began to take shape in areas like biology and chemistry. It entered the management conversation about two decades ago. Interest in emergence is currently growing in academic, commercial, nonprofit, and government circles due to its potential for exploring and explaining why some entities thrive through disruption and why some go extinct.

Now is a great time to embrace the concept of emergence to seek more sustainable, thriving enterprises. Advances in social and data science allow for greater measurement and analysis of the human behaviors and collective outcomes that may lead to emergence. In addition, the technologies in our daily lives present the potential to augment our human capabilities and shape our interactions, promising previously unimaginable innovations in how we live and work.

A discussion on emergence also requires a few admonishments. Emergence is not inherently good—think bad habits left unchecked over time. Also, in order to build a new, sustainable way of living and working, emergence sometimes requires careful dissolution of structures that head in the wrong direction or hinder growth. Reaching our potential as a society, for example, will require deconstruction of some social norms and unconscious biases associated with injustice to make room for more inclusive and equitable systems. Finally, to help organizations understand and benefit from emergence, researchers should continue to develop it as a science and teach learners and workers how to manage for emergence.

Looking Ahead to 2021

There is magic in the moments when old becomes new, when trails are blazed, and when the light bulbs become bonfires. But the trick—in a world of constant disruption—is to not repeatedly fall in love with the next new thing, the next destination. Fortunately, many of the ideas at the heart of emergence are easily described in familiar ways. A focus on the following three concepts can allow for a new type of thinking, acting, and thriving in an environment of uncertainty:

  • Unstable and unpredictable environments. The disruption and turbulence of such environments call for agility, adaptability, and openness to new ways of working. These environments can provide a fertile context for innovation and the seeds of emergence. Experimentation, iteration, and other elements of design thinking offer a way forward.
  • Self-organization. The agility and adaptability so frequently called for in business today requires agency, or the ability of individuals and groups to act on their own in pursuit of common interests. Rather than either command-and-control leadership or a laissez-faire approach in which each is left to their own, leaders focus on appropriately shaping the norms and environment for productive cocreation and customer interaction. Most frequently, this happens at the team level.
  • People as your platform. Because we are preparing to deal with the unknown, workforce strategies need to shift from skills- and competency-based models to a focus on enduring human capabilities and potential. Then, organizations must continuously invest in their people and technologies that allow for learning in the flow of work and coevolution with each other and their dynamic environments.

We are excited to share this perspective with you and to provide examples of emergence on the people side of the business with our Predictions for 2021. This series will be presented online through January 22, culminating in a webinar on January 27. 

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Jeff Mike

Jeff Mike

Vice President and HR Research Leader

Jeff leads human resources (HR) research for Deloitte. An expert in building the capabilities of corporate HR teams, Jeff transforms HR professionals from process-oriented practitioners into strategic partners who are able to compete in complex global talent markets. His ability to combine research with innovative development activities was honed through experience as a faculty member in human resources development at Al Akhawayn University in Morocco. Also former head of human capital at IMPAQ International, Jeff has a Bachelor of Arts in English literature from the University of Washington, a Master of Science in organizational development and strategic human resources from Johns Hopkins University, and a doctorate in human and organizational learning from The George Washington University.

David Mallon

David Mallon

Vice President and Chief Analyst

David Mallon, a vice president with Deloitte Consulting LLP, is Chief Analyst for Bersin, Deloitte’s human capital research and sensing team. He is the team’s lead researcher, bringing data-driven insights to life for members, clients, and the HR vendor market. Part of Bersin since 2008 and Deloitte since 2013, Mallon is a sought-after thought leader and speaker on organization design, organizational culture, HR, talent, learning, and performance.