I had a to and fro on Twitter once, about whether in the context of emergence, evidence has any use. The argument was that evidence is always about the past – what has been, rather than what could be – and that for a future to emerge you needed to be open to possibility, but not shackled by evidence. Now, I see evidence both as context and as a signpost: it is part of the data that helps us determine ‘what now?’ or ‘what next?’. It’s not the only source, but it’s an essential part of the journey.

Systems are perfectly formed to do what they are doing, and even if a system’s not working in some people’s view, it is actually doing what it’s supposed to do (or else it wouldn’t keep going). What changes any system is perturbance (a bit like being repeatedly prodded), that comes from information, relationships and identity (neatly described here: Wheatley and Rogers 1996).

The self-organising power of a system is in:

  • Identity – sense-making, the lens through which the system views the context, its impact, its relationships, its challenges
  • Information – how it uses that lens to understand data
  • Relationships – the connections that allow possibilities to emerge from information

To change any system you have to provide more or different data (or sometimes just any data at all!), create the space for sense-making to be expansive, and diversify relationships.  Doing this repeatedly (that’s what makes it perturbance) will lead to change.

Emergence of new possibilities and futures comes from inquiry about what now and next. Evidence provides context for that inquiry, giving data about what has worked where and how. But, to be clear, the evidence is not there for you to replicate what happened or worked somewhere else, but for you to translate that intelligence into your context. It provides data that helps you as a system make sense of your own work and relationships.

Evidence is a guidebook. It provides ideas and experiences, and intelligence about what worked in a particular set of circumstances, and guides you to think about your own systemic choices. But it’s not the answer.

The ‘Best Practice’ narrative is the kiss of death to innovation. What works there won’t necessarily work here in total, but some of it might. So, for instance, evidence from high performing health systems tells us that you need to promote professional cultures that support teamwork, continuous improvement and patient engagement; leadership activities that embrace common goals across the system; information as a platform to guide improvement (to name just some from Baker and Denis 2011). You wouldn’t ignore that in designing a whole system collaboration, but you would look at what those factors mean here, and in what context. You would unpick those features and think about how that might guide the shape of your endeavour. It would be part of your work on an emerging future. Innovation isn’t brand new (that’s invention) – its ‘new to here’.

I’m pretty immersed in the ideas about emerging futures, and working through a learning journey with a team who are committed to discovering a new future for the system.

This includes discovering and learning by ‘go seeing’ (deep dive journeys); suspending your voices of fear, judgement and cynicism; letting go of your attachment to ‘what was’ or your own prejudices and assumptions; listening for and finding what you can commit to; being clear what it is you can and want to commit to together; and then prototyping and iterating the new until you find a form that works. That final phase of testing is seeking what feels right and what shows up as right – so getting data to help you iterate is critical.

I remain committed to inquiry and evidence, but I’m finding that emergence needs a new space. Not a hectic scrabbling and arguing, but a discovery and patience, and a commitment to listening. We have to be fundamentally curious.