I think I first heard the phrase trust emergence from Joseph Voros when we were working together more than two decades ago to do foresight at Swinburne University of Technology. It's become something of a mantra for me ever since, allowing me to let go of my deeply ingrained need for structure and trust that whatever happens, happens at the right time - not as a result of randomness but more as a result of a convergence of intent and actions, both conscious and unconscious.
Emergence only happens when you are open to the possible, and when you are ready to let go of the past. Letting go of the past usually results in the sensation of your safe world disintegrating around you, although that sensation can range from extreme to more subtle. For me, this past year or so has been a period of subtle unease - of course, I only realised that with hindsight! This post is a bit of an indulgence but I think as I write, and putting where I have reached in my emergence journey is a key step is helping me understand what to do next. And writing it publicly is about being transparent and open with what I do in my work and the thinking that underpins that.
I can now pinpoint some thinking shifts that, taken together, indicate emergence has brought me to a new space in my business life. One was when I realised I didn't want to be called a futurist or a consultant. That's when I started using the term strategic foresight practitioner - what I did was about the practice of strategic foresight in organisations, not telling organisations about their future, and then walking away. I have always believed that people in organisations can craft their own futures if they are given the opportunity and the time, and are trusted to get on with it, because that's the way you get practical outcomes that actually mean something to the people who have to implement actions every day. And the practical outcomes are a key performance indicator for me - if people can't use what they do with me when they go back to work, then I'm not doing something right.
Another was I didn't like doing one day planning workshops or giving keynotes - I can do them pretty well if feedback is anything to go by, but it dawned on me one day, which is how emergence works, that the reason I didn't really like them was because of their 'walk-in, walk-out' nature. That's related to my dislike of perceptions of the traditional consultant role - walk in, often use a pre-determined model, charge money, walk out. Keynotes are the same - walk in, tell people your ideas about the future which often mean little to the audience, take money and walk out. It's like I am pontificating, which is all you can do when you have an hour (sorry all those accountants I upset once too). There was no opportunity to work with people over time to change the way they individually and collectively think about the future in their organisations, no real relationships, no time for the deep conversations that take people to new thinking spaces. I was earning money, but not making a real difference.
Even writing that I want to work with people to change the way they think about the future is not something I would have uttered in public a few years ago - it sounded grandiose and was that what I was doing? Could I really do that? Those thoughts probably had something to do with my newness as a foresight practitioner, struggling with the imposter syndrome. I did utter that phrase in a small workshop event, few people, private slides. I didn't have the courage to put out there in public what I now realise has always been a core driver of why I do this work.
I had put my feelings about planning workshops on the backburner - I needed money - and I accepted being called a futurist and a consultant, and continued on doing what I was doing, although I was finally consciously looking at what I did and why I did it - I stopped doing my email newsletter, took some of the words about planning off my website, but I didn't get around to deleting my speaker profile. It all felt very messy. Then I had a eureka moment, a bit more of the story emerged when I realised that the work I was doing was designed to create strategic foresight environments in organisations - spaces where the deep conversations and thinking about possible futures could occur on a continuing basis. I was so excited I tweeted that this was why I created Thinking Futures - it was, but it was not quite all there was to it.
Just this week, while doing some thinking and writing about what I do and what I contribute to the newly established Centre for Australian Foresight (CFAF), of which I was a founding partner, that emergence worked its magic. A little more of that magic happened while writing this post too. To use phrasing that Marcus Barber and I use in workshops sometimes, here's where I'm at.
What do I do? I help people change the way they think about their futures.
How do I do that? I help people use their foresight to design approaches and tools and to build environments where they can find and nurture their futures today.
And at the core of all that is that I want to spread the word about the value of foresight today - how to find it, and how to use it in organisations to enable people to think in different ways about the future.
That feels good, it feels right. My grammar pedant brain tells me it needs more finessing, but it seems like the pieces fit - the internal and external me now seem like they are starting to move in synchronicity, ideas and actions beginning to converge. And one of the best things about reaching this point in my emergence story is that I can now say no to one day planning workshops and keynotes without feeling guilty. In fact, the day after I said out loud that I no longer wanted to do planning workshops as stand alone events was the day I got an enquiry about a potential longer term project. Trust emergence.
I look back to 2007 when I set up Thinking Futures and recognise that while my intent was correct and remains strong, I was working with an outside-in framework. And while that's essential in foresight work, what it meant was that I set up Thinking Futures using external benchmarks about running consulting businesses, marketing, websites, social media etc etc, rather than working to understand what it was that I have to offer, where I add value, and to work out from that point. It's the interior/individual aligning with the exterior/individual in an integral framework. Perhaps it is also akin to reaching the bottom of the U - presencing - in Theory U: "The capacity to connect to the deepest source of self and will allows the future to emerge from the whole rather than from a smaller part or special interest group"? I am not sure I'm quite there yet, but I feel confident I'm getting closer.
Trusting emergence works - it's a jerky process, never smooth or linear, challenging and scary at times. It's the space that is often described as disruptive change - a game changer, where you are ultimately faced with two choices, and just trust emergence. That doesn't mean you don't do anything and see what happens, rather it means you will have more clarity about where you are going, your strategic end point and that allows you to make wiser decisions today. I still have structure, but it's a new structure that is taking me to new places in my work and my personal development. Disruptive change signals that it's time to recognise your disintegrating past, and that is ultimately positive, because without that, nothing new will ever emerge.
Is this what you see that do? Have I got to the nub of it yet? Am I still deluding myself? Leave a comment or reply on twitter @mareeconway. And thanks for reading.
First published in 2013.