Notes on Brown’s Emergent Strategy

During the last three months (June, July, August) I participated in Mid-Year Festival 2022, organized by Equity Unbound. This was a wonderful space of learning and conversations, in which I got to know new people and new authors/resources/ideas.

One of those is adrienne maree brown and her works on emergent strategy. I recently finished reading her book Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (AK Press, 2017), and I found so many important and helpful ideas in that book I wanted to write a few down here to be able to refer back to them later.

I was particularly interested in learning more about emergent strategy because I thought it might address some questions I have about being an educational leader during a time of significant change and transition–what are some helpful leadership practices for times when things are quickly changing and we are facing situations and conditions that are new to us, when the future feels more unknown than it might have earlier? How to support myself and others to act with intention in such a situation, rather than mainly being reactive? How to support myself and others to appreciate the opportunities this kind of situation opens up, in addition to feeling apprehensive? How to do all this without the common refrain I felt myself saying to myself and others over the past couple of years (something along the lines of: “thinking about how to do this is making my head feel like it’s going to explode and I’m trying but I’m not sure exactly what to do”).

The blurb on the back of the book grabbed me:

… The world is in a continual state of flux. … Rather than steel ourselves against such change, this book invites us to feel, map, assess, and learn from the swirling patterns around us in order to better understand and influence them as they happen. … [This is] a visionary incantation to transform that which ultimately transforms us.

Sounded like the sort of thing I was looking for, and I have indeed found it very interesting, thought-provoking, and useful.

Emergent strategy in a nutshell

Brown quotes Nick Obolensky: “Emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions” (brown 2017, p. 13). Emergent strategy focuses in part on making larger changes through smaller activities. For brown, “Emergent strategies are ways for humans to practice complexity and grow the future through relatively simple interactions” (p. 20).

Brown also frequently quotes Octavia Butler, whose work (among others) is an inspiration for a good deal of brown’s ideas on emergent strategy, she notes. “All that you touch, you change. All that you change, changes you” (Butler, Parable of the Sower; brown 2017, p. 14). While the world continues to change, we can work to create the next world, envision what we want it to be, and work towards that–keeping in mind that our work will need to continually change along with the conditions.

Elements & principles of emergent strategy

Brown organizes emergent strategy into a set of elements and principles that work together. You can review these on the Emergent Strategy Ideation Institute’s “About” page. I’m just going to talk about a few here that are really standing out to me right now. I recommend getting a copy of Emergent Strategy if you’re interested in learning more; the ebook is particularly low cost.

Note: it is in brown’s later book Holding Change: The Way of Emergent Strategy that the linkages of the elements and principles is made most clearly, in the “Opening” chapter.


“How we are at the small scale is how we are at the large scale. … [W]hat we practice at a small scale can reverberate to the largest scale” (52).

Principle: “Small is good, small is all. (The large is the reflection of the small)” (p. 41).

These ideas are incredibly helpful for me right now. I tend to think about movements and change and goals on a larger scale, and when things haven’t moved radically I may think–well, not much has been achieved. Of course, some changes over the past couple of years have been pretty significant, such as the modality of work with many more options to work remotely.

But for some other things I’d like to see change the pace is really gradual and there have been small increments. And as much as I know in my head that that is important work, it hasn’t really sunk into my heart yet. In one section of the book brown provides a set of self- and group-assessments to gauge where one might want learn and grow in emergent strategy. One question is: “Do you value small scale growth and change?” And my answer is, “I don’t know.” Maybe sometimes?

Another aspect of this element is that it’s important to act in ways that mirror the change one is aiming for: “what we practice at the small scale sets the patterns for the whole system” (p. 53). It is helpful for organizations to model internally the vision they are working towards in creating new futures together.

Intentional adaptation

“How we live and grow and stay purposeful in the face of constant change …” (p. 69).

Principle: “Change is constant. (Be like water)” (p. 41).

This goes deeply towards what I picked up the book to learn about; as brown notes, “many of us respond to change with fear, or see it as a crisis” (p. 69). That resonates with me and my reactions, at least sometimes.

According to brown, “often this is because we aren’t clear or committed about our dream destination, so instead of moving towards anything in particular, we are in nonstop reaction” (69). Ummm… yes? I think so? Honestly, I am not sure where things are going in post-secondary in Canada at the moment. There has been a lot of appetite for change over the past couple of years, as many people noticed how quickly things could and did change when commitments were made to ensure it happened. What else could we and should we change? It felt at times fairly exciting to me, like opportunities opening up.

But at the moment, it feels a bit like people are pulling back towards what used to be–let’s get back to what we did before, the whole system is interdependent on that way of operating and we can neither afford nor do many people want to move towards something else. Nor are there a set of different models that have been envisioned and sketched for us to discuss as possibilities–mainly iterations on the previous. Which is not necessarily bad! Sometimes those iterations are really helpful and make significant improvements for many.

I don’t feel I have for myself vision of a future for post-secondary education; indeed, when invited to create such a future during MYFest 2022, I ended up writing about how difficult change sometimes feels in such an intertwined system.

Nonlinear and iterative

“Transformation doesn’t happen in a linear way …. It happens in cycles, convergences, explosions. If we release the framework of failure, we can realize that we are in iterative cycles ….” (p. 105).

Principles: (pp. 41-42)

  • “Never a failure, always a lesson.”
  • Move at the speed of trust. Focus on critical connections more than critical mass–build the resilience by building relationships.”
  • What you pay attention to grows.”

This is one I think I needed to hear as well. It’s not going to be the case that transformative change happens along a clear timeline with steps along the way that one can map out and go from one to the other linearly and smoothly. There are steps and missteps, movement forward and backward and sideways, successes and failures lessons. “Everything we attempt, everything we do, is either growing up as its roots go deeper, or it’s decomposing, leaving its lessons in the soil for the next attempt” (p. 116).

This is again something I know in my head, but how do we get it embedded further into our emotions and our organizational practices? How can we work towards making our work and our spaces iterative places where what doesn’t work isn’t regarded as a deep problem but mainly as fertile ground for a lesson for the future? In teaching, we can design courses so that students have opportunities for practice, for doing things that may fail but they won’t have lasting effects on their marks for the course. Or opportunities to re-do things that didn’t work well the first time.

How can we do that in our organizations more broadly, particularly in a context that rewards success, rewards individual accomplishments, standing out above others, becoming known for one’s own contributions, expertise and work? Could part of our reviews for “excellence” include risk-taking and having things not work and learning from those? Could we focus more on feedback loops in which we “experiment, gather feedback, experiment again,” and “everything is part of the learning?” (p. 106). This is an area for future thinking ….

Creating more possibilities

“[I]n order to create a world that works for more people, for more life, we have to collaborate on the process of dreaming and visioning and implementing that world” (p. 158)

Principles: (p. 42)

  • “Less prep, more presence”
  • “What you pay attention to grows”

In this section brown talks about her work with Walidah Imarisha on Octavia’s Brood, an anthology that connects social justice movements and science fiction. Brown states,

In our work for Octavia’s Brood, Walidah and I articulated that “all organizing is science fiction,” by which we mean that social justice work is about creating systems of justice and equity in the future, creating conditions that we have never experienced. That is a futurist focus, and the practices of collaboration and adaptation and transformative justice, are science fictional. (p. 160)

This is really thought-provoking to me, that the work to envision a better future is like creating a fictional story of the future, one that doesn’t exist yet. Brown focuses on fiction that centers marginalized communities, that perpetuates change from the ground up, including Afrofuturism (pp. 161-164). She also emphasizes the critical importance of “Collaborative Ideation”: co-creating ideas for the future with others. “The more people who cocreate the future, the more people whose concerns will be addressed from the foundational level in this world” (p. 158).

This section connects, in my mind, to a later part in the book where brown talks about the importance of having strategic intentions based on a shared vision and mission: “what are our intentions, informed by our vision? What do we need to be and do to bring our vision to pass?” (p. 70). She has a whole section towards the end of the book on facilitation for groups looking to develop or revise their vision, mission, and strategic intentions. Brown focuses on strategic intentions rather than plans, since plans can be out of date quickly as things change, while intentions can be more like steadier directional guides (she compares them to stars) (pp. 236-237).

I like this idea a lot, having tried really hard over the last few years to generate with others a set of goals for our teaching and learning centre and work towards them, only to have the pandemic upend things fairly radically. Perhaps focusing on broader intentions would be more meaningful and longer-lasting? Then more specific work plans can be based on those.

Throughout Emergent Strategy brown provides quotes from others connecting the elements of emergent strategy to the natural world. Here is one about vision and values that really struck me:

From Starfish I have learned that if we keep our core intact, we can regenerate. We can fall apart, lose limbs, and re-grow them as long as we don’t let anyone threaten that central disc’s integrity. (p. 124, in the section on Resilience)

This isn’t directly connected to having a core sense of one’s vision and values, but it could be–so long as one’s core, the essential beliefs, values, goals, are intact one can re-grow arms. If one’s organization has a set of strategic intentions, if there are significant crises or problems, these could perhaps be the kind of “north star” that the organization could use in framing their response and moving forward.

Concluding thoughts

There is a lot in this book–a lot more than discussed here–and I have a feeling I’ll be returning to it several times. I’m also looking forward to reading Holding Change: The Way of Emergent Strategy Facilitation and Mediation, which (among other things) gets into more details about facilitation and mediation strategies that support emergent strategy.

And brown’s inspiration by and discussions of Octavia Butler is inspiring me to read more of her works. I’ve read Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, and there are many more. I’m also interested in Octavia’s Brood, a set of short, speculative fiction stories written by people involved in social justice movements. As I realize I sometimes struggle with coming up with visions of the future, I wonder if some of that is that I get caught up by the challenges and complexities of the systems we’re in. And maybe focusing on a more radical science fiction or speculative fiction future might help?

More reading to do!


One comment

  1. This sounds like you are a very reflective person. Regarding the smallness of change, I once heard that we should not set goals, but rather set systems. Because when we set goals, we are in a constant state of failure until we achieve the goal. E.g. “I will write a book” can be a goal. But if we set systems, such as “for 30 minutes every day I will write.” Then eventually we will make small bits of progress until our book is finished.

Comments are closed.