Navigating the Emergent Process

The emergent process is often described as the way to deal with the ambiguity and uncertainty of complex problems. It is the opportunity to navigating the messy parts of usually social and systemic issues that are most commonly known in the design thinking world as “wicked problems” Wicked problems are problems that don’t stop moving and changing to be solved for. They are rapidly changing problems and therefore the solution must be adaptive and iterative to respond and react appropriately.The key is to work on pinning down the problem for long enough to propose a solution and recognizing that the solution is a piece of a much bigger puzzle.

It all starts with a single question. What if? How might we? I wonder? This curiosity can lead to many places.

The best example we have heard lately is that putting a man on the moon is not a complex or wicked problem. It is a technical problem. It requires specific expertise and planning. The details may change, but the outcome is the pre-determined.

However, something like education or healthcare is a complex or wicked problem. You cannot stop these systems from operating, there are many ways to decipher the future state of these systems and therefore many ways to interact and understand the problem.

We have learned a few lessons and wanted to share them as part of our ongoing learning:

1. Understanding Stakeholders

We strive to work in collaborations where the stakeholders are at the table, part of the decision-making process and can see themselves as part of the design and implementation. Our goal is to create engagement and ownership. Within in this principle we have to recognize how we are understanding stakeholders, who we see as having power, the relationships between stakeholders and the expectations that come along with that. We struggle to adhere to the status quo and often find ourselves challenging power dynamics. Ultimately, trust is the largest asset to be gained and lost by understanding stakeholders.


2. Balancing Decision-Making

While working in collaborations with stakeholders the negotiation of decision-making is inherently at the forefront of each conversation as it can make or break the ownership we have worked to achieve. When we engage in a co-design relationship with our collaborators we have to be clear what that means and how decisions will impact our collaborators and the stakeholders. What does it really mean to be co-designing? Who is really making the call? If a decision is made that is in tension with what stakeholders have said, how will that be communicated and evaluated later on? We recognize that time, pressure and expectations can counter intentions for co-design and so we are working to document when and where that is happening.


3. Embracing Messiness

Messiness, discomfort, awkwardness, uncertainty, unfamiliarity…whatever you want to call it, it is where the magic happens. We know it best as the ambiguity that we have to work to push towards and through to get to a solution that makes sense for this set of stakeholders, this moment in time and these circumstances. Our challenge is being able to walk people into the fog and convince them that there is certainty in the uncertainty. We battle with our collaborators desire to let their inner control freak come out when it starts to get messy. We are working on creating the safe space to help ourselves and others work in this awkwardness.


Being able to work this way is sometimes seen as a luxury of time and resources and we have to wonder ask ourselves if we see another way of doing this work and if we can really afford to keep doing things the way always have. It seems fitting to put an Albert Einstein quote here.

Albert Einstein

Question. Provoke. Evolve.