Emergence, Chocolate Chip Cookies & Real Systems Change

by | Jul 31, 2020 | Uncategorized

Lately, I’ve been inspired by the work and thoughts of author Margaret Wheatley, who founded the Berkana Institute.

Her books tackle big questions that are relevant for the many issues the world is facing right now. How do we truly end systemic racism, stop climate change, heal our school systems, upend global poverty, or alleviate the unnecessary suffering of non-human animals?

For Wheatley, the answer is emergence, which she beautifully illustrates through the example of the chocolate chip cookie.

“Nothing in the ingredients of a chocolate chip cookie predicts its taste. No matter how much you analyze the ingredients, you can never predict the cookie. Chocolate chip cookies are an emergent phenomenon. The taste appears when the ingredients mix together. That taste is different and new—not in the parts that created it. If you got any ingredient wrong and don’t like the taste, you can’t un-bake the cookie.

Reductionism doesn’t work with cookies or with life. Life changes through emergence. It’s never the sum of the parts, it’s how the parts interact to create something new. Once a system has emerged, you can’t work backwards to fix it. You have to start over. Most change efforts work backwards, changing leaders, policies, systems. This never works. You have to start again, embedding desired values and principles, then paying attention to what’s emerging from all the interactions. Once there’s a system, a culture, patterns of behavior, the only way to create change is to start over.”

Broad systemic change doesn’t come from single institutional actors, strategic plans, or top-down directives. It doesn’t come from compartmentalizing or reverse engineering within an established system. True change is a product of emergence, which happens when novel ideas, patterns, or structures arise and self-organize in ways that are greater than the sum of their individual parts.

I think of what this means for us at The Pollination Project, and a few things come to mind.

First, in order to truly see a holistic view of emerging systems, we have to remain committed to not centering ourselves in that system. If we are our own “center,” we are operating from a fixed point that shrouds the complete, interconnected picture. If we are willing to stand back and rather see our role as one of creating the causes and conditions for emergence, we can be dynamic in our approach, move beyond a fixed point of reference, and offer service rather than saviorism.

Second, that our theory of change, which begins with uplifting individual action and providing opportunities for individuals to grow in connectivity & capacity, offers a meaningful precursor to emergent change. If you are one of our 4,000 global changemakers and you have suggestions for ways in which The Pollination Project could better serve you in building this connectivity & capacity, please reach out to me.

I know all of these thoughts are highly esoteric, so I want to leave you with the Berkana Institute’s core organizing principles. I’ve found inspiration and food for thought within them, and I hope you do:

  •         Whatever the problem, community is the answer.
  •         Diversity is a blessing, not a problem.
  •         The leaders we need are already here.
  •         A leader is anyone willing to get engaged.
  •         All people are creative and will work tirelessly for what they care about.
  •         People support what they create.
  •         To heal a living system, connect it to more of itself.
  •         Change happens through emergence, not by any other process.
  •         Self-awareness is the foundation for good leadership.
  •         A living system is a learning system or else it dies.
  •         A good sense of humor is an absolute necessity.
  •         Grace and joy are present even amidst the sorrows.

Learn more about Margaret Wheatley’s theory of emergence here, and more about the Berkana Institute here

Written by AJ Dahiya