Guest: Peggy Holman Date: December 21, 2011
Just short of a year ago I interviewed Peggy Holman about her book, Engaging Emergence. I'd been looking forward to the conversation because the ideas in her book are very exciting.
Rob: Welcome to the Rob Kall Bottom Up Radio Show, WNJC 1360 AM out of Washington Township, reaching metro Philly and south Jersey. It's sponsored by OpEdnews.com and you can get podcast recordings of the radio show at iTunes, looking for Rob Kall, K-a-l-l or go to OpEdnews.com/podcasts.
My guest tonight is Peggy Holman. She's the author of Engaging Emergence, Turning Upheaval into Opportunity. She's the founder of Open Circle Company, and co-founder of Journalism That Matters, and she's the co-author of The Change Handbook. Wow. Welcome to the show, Peggy.
Peggy: Thank you Rob. It's great to be here.
Rob: I got to say when I first saw this book, I really got excited. It takes an approach to a phenomenon that I think a lot of people don't ever think of, and you've given so much really cool, smart thoughts to this. How did you ever get here? How did you get to this book?
Peggy: Well, it was a bit of a journey. I actually used to work in Information Technologies, and the company I was working for started a total quality effort, and we had this project on the rocks, and the company had, in this total quality movement, we had the expert who had been hired in, organize this meeting that brought together, at that time, a new term for me: "all of the stake holders." And in the process of doing that, over the course of two hours, about thirty  people came to a collective decision about where to go with this project. And, I'd never seen a professionally facilitated meeting before, and I didn't know that something like that was possible, and I got hooked. And in the process of learning about ways of bringing large groups of people together and have useful results come out, I ran into these group practices that let you bring not tens or dozens, but hundreds [100s] or even thousands [1000s] of people together around complex, important issues; and indeed where there's conflict or people with very different, diverse prospective perspective, that actually becomes the source of creativity and generativity in meetings. And early on, as I started exploring these different practices (and this is back in the mid 90s) I saw something in a meeting using a process called "Open Space Technology" that I'd never seen before, which was, that the needs of individuals and the needs of the whole, could both be served. And I always thought that one or the other had to sacrifice. And what I now know is, I would call that one of the signs that emergence order arising out of chaos has taken place--and that led me--that hooked me, because I figured if it's possible for both individual needs and collective needs to get met, I wanted to know more about that. And it really sent me on a journey, both to learn about practices and processes that enable that to happen, and what engaging emergence is about, which is, "What are the fundamental dynamics that enable that to happen?" and "How do we work with them consciously so that we can do more of it, and more of us can do it?"
Rob: Why don't you just give us a definition of emergence, engaging emergence. What's that mean?
Peggy: Sure. It's a funny word, because I think it has both a very precise scientific meaning, and its part of our everyday language. I mean, we talk about things emerging all the time. And a simple definition of it is: the notion of order arising out of chaos. And as you talk about the notion of "bottom up," that's really fairly fundamental to the way emergence happens.
It tends to be about the interaction of people or things coming together in a novel (and in a sense a more complex), yet more simply elegant, way. And probably the best example of it that most of us can relate to is a word that shares the same root, "emergency." So, we often see this happen. If there's some kind of emergency--think about some of the horrific storms we've been dealing with lately. And when that happen,s some people start organizing getting food, some tend to the injured, some put up a website so you can find your loved one. People, in a sense, self-organize to get stuff done, and out of the disorder of an emergency, a new order--a comprehensive order, arises. And of course I think we're seeing that going on with the Occupy Movement in a big way as well.
Rob: Say some more about that.
Peggy: So, one of the patterns that you can rely on when emergence (which is natural phenomenon) takes place, is that in a sense it's how change takes place, and all change begins with some kind of disruption. And if you stop and think about it, it makes sense, because if there were no disruption, there'd be no need for change. And what does that disruption do? It means that the assumptions about business as usual, how things work--our assumptions about how things work, no longer serve. And so things break apart and we move into this experimental stage, and ultimately, for something to emerge, something new rises arises, comes back together in a comprehensible form.
And so if you look at what Occupy has done, it was clearly a major disruption to ways we think about protest, and in bringing visibility to the issues of economic justice, in a sense, that have been growing not just in this country, but around the world. And as I've been watching (frankly mostly from the sidelines, I've just put a bit of a toe in the water around the Occupy Movement), as we see the movement itself being pushed out of being on the streets, in a sense the disruption itself is being disrupted, and in the process it's letting a thousand blossoms bloom as people are saying, "What's next? What does Occupy 2.0 looks like?" And it doesn't necessarily book like people on the streets, although that maybe part of it.
I think we're beginning to see a number of different experiments, whether it's people occupying ports, or houses, or some of the online kinds of gatherings like Occupy Cafe', where people are beginning to think about "where from here?" So, we're in that stage of lots of experimentation, and I think as people start listening for, "What are the differences that make a difference?"-- we'll begin to see some kind of coherent forms arise--none of which are predictable ahead of time.