Journeys into the Art of Facilitating Emergence

Desire Path

by | Feb 22, 2022 | Development

The Role of User Patterns in Organisation Design

Cities and Organizations

In one of my next lives I would like to be an Urban Planner. There is something fascinating about the development of neighborhoods – something exciting about the interplay of design and emergence in an evolving city. In this respect cities have a lot in common with organizations. They are structured systems of rules and configurations and at the same time they are organisms that develop in their own dynamic right. You can design a zoning map and road infrastructure but it is much harder to manage traffic volume, control the actual use of buildings, get people to accept a public space or stay off the lawn. It is also quite hard to control which kind of people and businesses are moving in and out of the city, effecting growth, gentrification or decay of individual districts. The same is true for organizations: You can make someone the boss but how do you make sure they are actually accepted as a leader? You can build a knowledge management database but how do you make people input their learnings? You can craft job descriptions but how do you ensure people will be motivated to perform their jobs? 

Regulation is the cumbersome design part of this challenge: You create an urban masterplan and hand out investment subsidies and parking tickets to make it work. In organizations we find regulation in the form of incentives and sanctions as instruments of HR professionals and management. But regulation has a relatively low degree of efficiency when it comes to harnessing intrinsic motivation and creative dynamics in social systems. It makes me think of Fritz Glasl’s contrasting comparison of a ship’s propeller – actually a “water chopping device” – to a fish’s ability to use the currents and swirls in the water for its forward movement – even if swimming upstream like the salmon. 

So if regulation is like chopping water – what does the elegant salmon’s development model look like? Let’s explore Facilitating Emergence: You sense a current, a swirl of new development (fish have a large sensory organ called the “lateral line” for this purpose) and you respond to that impulse by working with it, embracing it, surfing it, also gently guiding it to move forward. It requires what Laloux has coined the “Sense and Respond” mode of development. 

Sounds nice, maybe even a little bit too nice. But how do you know the impulse is a healthy one? And how do you prevent this approach from effecting an erratic zig zag course that is so characteristic of the movement of fish?

At this point another analogy of cities and organizations becomes apparent: Both have to balance a general direction of development (e.g. to strategically respond to an evolving social and economic context) with diverging internal agendas (e.g. renters vs. owners, residents vs. developers – employees vs. shareholders, volunteers vs. staff etc). In effect, not every option is equally beneficial for every member and not every impulse is compatible with the bigger picture. In effect, emergence alone is not the answer, we have to take the point of “facilitating” quite serious. It can mean creating frameworks in which the various impulses can come together to form a healthy and sustainable whole. It can also mean finding reasonable and transparent ways of screening options. Not every current must be ridden. Not every opportunity must be taken. This is where a little step towards the control side is needed and a little critical distance from the Laissez-Faire style comes to play. And yet this is different from merely letting some participatory air into the management control and strategic design architecture. Facilitating Emergence is still mainly about emergence.

Which is to say, in one of my next lives I like to be an Urban Facilitator in support of healthy emergence. For now, I try to learn what I can from the discipline of Urban Development. One such learning hit me in the concept of Desire Paths.

The Duality of Structure

Imagine yourself walking through the park. It is a sunny day and you have nothing to do but get some fresh air. The paved walkway you are strolling along heads into an intersection with another path you like to take. Chances are, you’ll walk to the crossing, turn and keep on walking along the new path. Now imagine the same scene with you being on your way to work on a cold Monday morning. Most probably you will take a shortcut at the earliest possible point from the walkway onto the intersecting path – it’s economic (which is fortunately not the same as to say “it’s human”). If you are the first and only one to choose this shortcut, the grass will fold under your footsteps and after a few moments spring back up. If ten other people chose this way on the same day, a little line of dirt will be visible in the grass. This line acts like an attractor, an invitation for others who are passing this way, and very soon a new path will come about.

The mechanics of this interplay are described by Anthony Giddens’ in his “Theory of Structuration”. According to Giddens, social practices take place at the „inseparable intersection of structures and agents“. According to the recursive nature of social life, structures are both, medium and outcome of the reproduction of social practices: The path shapes as actors walk it. They walk it because its shape offers itself as a trajectory. Giddens call this the “duality of structure”.

The concept explains how social practices are reinforced to build structures (eventually sedimenting to become formalized institutions) and on the other hand how those structures are undermined as actors chose to ignore, replace or reproduce them differently. Both of these movements work gradually – the model does not foresee a discrete step or procedure to formalize (or abandon) a rule or practice. Nonetheless, much of organization development is about precisely this act of designing and agreeing on formal arrangements. How does this fit with Giddens’ model? Well, let us assume for a moment, that most of organization development’s fascination with formal structuring is a waste of time. A structure is not there just because we put it down in an organizational chart. A structure is there if there is a practice reinforcing it. In my experience, most organizations seeking Organisation Development support are ready to invest in the development of new structures but assume the implementation process will just work by itself. The idea behind this: If people are truly involved in the design process they will pull along whole-heartedly in the roll out. While I certainly agree that failing to involve those affected by a development is a costly mistake, involvement during design certainly does not guarantee smoothness of implementation. [i] The lesson here is: we must be maximally interested in agent behavior rather than merely obsessed with formal structures. 

An interesting notion of path development is the interplay of individual and collective choice. In a Tabula Raza situation when a system has no meaningful sub-structuring, no relevant attractors and no established interaction patterns between its members, every individual agent will act by their own agenda – which in becoming aware of the group formation process may include an observant orientation mode. In Jazz this is either the moment of cacophonic chaos or the time when everyone waits, to see what the others will come up with. In group dynamics this is the forming phase, where insecurity and lack of common focus need to be countered by clear external frames. Then, over time the actors develop patterns of interaction – in the best case they “find” a dynamic groove – while at the same time the system begins to espouse sub structuring (following Giddens, these are two sides of the same coin). Some of these emerging patterns become reinforced, some quickly wane or get drowned out. In this phase behavior is both, individually and systemically determined – actors keep moving with their individual agendas, but also get pulled in by the attraction of reinforced patterns. It is this moment of co-determination that is most interesting and decisive in a system’s evolution. Facilitating Emergence is about bringing groups back to this point of dynamic flow.

Excurse: Collective intelligence (or macro-intelligence derived from local knowledge) hinges on the coincidence of individually motivated behavior and social feedback. A simulation sequence illustrates the mechanics of this process: picture 1 shows a park layout with circular and crossing walkways. Computer generated pedestrians moving within the virtual park space are programmed to follow random individual motives (e.g. get from corner A to C; stroll towards the middle, then move to corner B etc.) and espouse a degree of attraction towards existing paths. A route taken leads to a deepening of the respective path, a path unused will wane over time. The effect of this dual motive simulation can be seen in pictures 2-4. The emerging system morphs over time to comprise the smallest suitable total path length. For individual actors the layout in figure 4 effects minimal detours. For the system as a whole it presents an optimized version in terms of resource efficiency. 

The simulation poses many questions and usually leaves people with wrinkled foreheads, which I am afraid I cannot straighten out here[1] . The assumption of systemically intelligent Desire Path paterns suggest the functioninig of the „Invisible Hand“. But markets without regulation have a tendency to underperform as fair and just social systems. Dominance and exclusion are a reality. Still, the hope the model relays is that individual actions that are linked by direct or indirect feedback can produce a collectively intelligent system. Many more insights about this can be found in Steven Johnsons “Emergence – The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software“.

The moment of pattern initiation is so precious because it doesn’t last forever. The regular course of development is marked by eventual path dependence, the lock-in on specific trajectories. Structures and mindsets that a minute ago still were forming a dynamic groove become dominant, development takes on a main direction, the system finds its homeostasis and then becomes frozen. If you ever experienced a Jam Session, the lock in on one mode and harmony sequence can become a spell and a true drag for players and audience, sometimes only to be disturbed by an almost violent modal break up if one player can’t take it any more. If we want to work with emergence in such a frozen system, in the words of Kurt Lewin – we first need to “unfreeze” it. 

Desire Path

In German the word for an informal footpath is “Trampelpfad”, a somewhat ugly word translating into trodden or stomped path. I like the English term “Desire Path” a lot better. It is lighter and more appreciative, cherishing the notion that every subversion marks a motive the formal system has not catered for yet. A desire line does not indicate resistance to the formal system per se, it points to a specific motivation for something yet undiscovered. As such it should not be an annoyance but a valuable and welcome source of information for the system designer and organisation developer.

The urban development discourse has embraced the Desire Path idea as it offers a vivid example of what user centered design can look like. Let us say, we don’t want our park audience taking a specific shortcut across the grass, so we put up a sign or build a fence. This may keep people off the lawn, but signs and fences don’t really work, if a shortcut is short or an attraction is strong enough. So we go the next step and spike our fences, hire security or install watchdogs. These are the regulatory measures we already explored above: incentives and sanctions to make the masterplan work out. They are costly and they make the user experience a bit unpleasant, in extreme cases giving people the idea that this is not really their park, so why should they care for it and pick up their trash?

image: Design applause, Rienk Mebius

Alternatively, we could change the order of things. In an approach of “Structural Bionics” the developers could learn from the Desire Lines. If there is a dirt shortcut leading up to a building entrance, rather than trying to make people use the main access road, pave the dirt shortcut to make it functional. Or on a larger scale: If you want to design a system of walkways, wait some time to find out where people are actually walking and then formalize the paths their movements leave. Large campuses like Ohio State University or the University of Toledo, parts of Central Park New York, as well as the lots of large settlements in Moscow have been designed this way (the latter by waiting for the first snow to trace where inhabitants actually walk between buildings and access points). It simply makes sense.

So, how can we bring the concept of Desire Paths to the field of organization development? Firstly, we need to frame the design challenge: what is it we are setting out to create? While for the campus planner the task of developing a system of walkways is quite straight-forward, organizational structures are complex and multi-dimensional. The narrower we frame the focus of development, the more clearly we will be able to distinguish the formal from the informal and the functional from the dysfunctional. On the other hand: the more we focus, the less we are able to see the bigger picture and become aware of potentials and solutions outside our field of focus. The scoping thus must incorporate movements of zooming In and zooming out. In the simplest version of a structural development initiative, we are out to redesign a process for a specific function or field of operation. On the grounds of this focus, we may follow five steps:

  1. Formal Mapping: Identify the Standard Operating Procedures in regards to the specific function or field of operation you are focusing on (formally agreed process descriptions, as far as they exist).
  2. Informal Mapping: Engage in ethnographic and participatory observation to map the informal practices associated with this field (daily routines, the way how things are actually done).
  3. Interpretation: Surface assumptions and underlying needs and factors motivating the informal practices and decode deviances and discrepancies of formal and informal procedures
  4. Evaluation: Distinguish functional and dysfunctional informal practices
  5. Integration: Facilitate a new set of formal procedures incorporating the functional informal practices and offering viable alternatives to the dysfunctional ones while taking their underlying motives into account.

Formal Mapping: Formalisations of structures and processes are stored in many places. They are codified in organizational charts, in job and role descriptions, in planning documents and meeting protocols. Sometimes they are condensed in quality handbooks or operations manuals. Usually much of what is written down does not reflect what actually happens on the ground, often people are not even aware the formal codes exist. Nevertheless, usually there is a reason and an intention behind the way something has been codified. Even if a formal procedure is not followed and is working out in practice, its intention may still be valid. A redesign should take such intention histories into account. 

Informal Mapping: A good part of behavior can be observed: how work is performed, who is talking to whom, who gets involved in which decisions – all of this can be captured in one way or another. Furthermore, like footsteps on a lawn, daily organisational practices leave traces: The way things are ordered and left in physical and virtual space can be regarded with a lense of “behavioural archeology”. Design Thinking provides a number of useful tools that support the observation of such user patterns (see IDEO toolkit for reference[2]). While some of them represent an ethnographic perspective (a participant observer experiencing the practices with an outsider’s view), others involve the users themselves (the “inside view”). If it is not possible to directly observe a process, the “Decision Culture Analysis” can generate helpful insights from a post fact perspective. Following this method, a team reviews a critical or typical episode and traces both, the actual events as well as the individual resonances and effects of the process from multiple perspectives. The dense visual representation of these puzzle pieces reveals factor relationships and patterns of typical behavior.

Interpretation: While consumer data analysis has become real good at mapping behavior and – by way of pattern analysis – predicting it, behavior interpretation and sense making seem to play no major role in this. Behavior can be observed more or less easily – its interpretation is a little trickier: Why do people behave the way they do? What motives (or “desires”) and which underlying assumptions are expressed in their practices? If they take a shortcut: Are they finding ways to do their work more efficiently, or to effectively not do it? Desire Paths can represent a form of resistance against formal systems. Whenever this resistance is not rooted in actors’ interest or needs but is affect based (e.g. as a psychological answer to the experienced loss of self efficacy), its concrete content is less instructive.

The answer to these questions rests with the actors themselves and the best way to find out is to ask them, individually or, even better, in focus groups. With some behaviours interpretation is simple: it’s just easier this way (the so called “economic shortcuts”). With other paths, its less obvious – we need to dig deeper. Given the psychological effects at work in organizational behavior (such as the rationalizations and attribution biases associated with social desirability and cognitive dissonance), such a “surfacing conversation” requires skillful facilitation and probing interventions that may feel provocative or confrontational at times. Some helpful questions for these conversations are 

  • Is the practice consistent? Has it always been like this? Are there exceptions? What drives them?
  • What makes the actual informal practice superior or preferable to the formal one?
  • What would be the (positive and negative) consequences of sticking to the formal procedure? What would be the most important preconditions?
  • What would be an advice to a new colleague in regards to performing the process? What basic assumptions are worth relaying?

Evaluation: If we take informal practices as an anchor for structural design, we need to distinguish “healthy” practices from those that are harmful to the system. As stated above: Not every current must be ridden. Not every opportunity must be taken. Economic Desire Paths (short cuts) can present system optimizations but just as well may be an effect of actors’ maximizing self-interest effecting the “tragedy of the commons”. Furthermore, in actors individual motives, short term gains are favoured over sustainable practices (possibly an effect of social imprinting).

Desires are neither good nor bad; behavior, however, can be helpful or destructive to a system’s operation. And someone has to make that call. This is where Facilitating Emergence departs from the concept of pure self-organisation. Three questions can help to evaluate an informal practice in this context:

  • Does it produce the desired results? This is the obvious one with the highest relevance of the three questions. If it works, don’t fix it. And inversely: if it feels great but nothing gets accomplished, it’s not good enough. The delicate part here is defining the level of results that matter. As a rule of thumb: look for the higher levels of effects, not merely the output level. If someone finds a way to cook an egg without boiling water first, don’t scold them for missing a vital step but praise them for their ingenuity. As silly as it sounds, unfortunately, this does not seem to be common sense in organisations.
  • Is it the simplest possible way? This process version of Occam’s Razor is all about keeping things light. When searching takes less time than maintaining an orderly system, order is inefficient. If a pretty good overview is good enough, precise monitoring data are over the top. The modern legend of NASA extravagantly developing the Space Pen for extreme temperature and pressure conditions while the Russians simply equipped their Cosmonauts with pencils – though appearently not quite accurate – drives this point home beautifully. One aspect of simplicity is resource efficiency. Another is the lower exposure to errors and again another is the ease of relaying or “teaching” the process.
  • Does it suit the agent? This third question is the least obvious one and yet not the least important. While ergonomics has looked at the task-agent-fit mainly from a physical and a cognitive perspective, we should regard the issue more holistically: a task should suit the person performing it also in regards to meaning, motivation, competences and preferred working styles. Only if all these levels are in tune with the agent, we can assume a healthy and sustainable work process. This implies that there will never be a “one best way” to codify a process. The codification cannot exist outside the task-actor relationship. And yet we need to formalize things in order to reduce complexity and ambiguity in organisations.

Integration: Once all the above mentioned analyses and evaluative steps have been taken, we have a pretty good picture of what our process needs to look like. The basic idea: rather than forcing the formal routines onto the desired practice, we regard and learn from the actual practice in order to create smart new routines. And instead of taking all behaviour for good practice, we embrace the compatible and substitute the incompatible practices. Codifying new routines is a process that requires active involvement of the ones performing them. However, involving people structurally does not grant their buy in and motivation to work with the results of a process. 

An Example: Documentation Practice 

To illustrate this process, let’s look at an example: Assume we are reviewing a process of project documentation. While the quality handbook foresees a continuous data input from inception to termination of the project, certain data are systematically missing. Instead of thinking about ways how we can make the project team conform to the formal documentation practices, we take a closer look at the pattern of missing data. It turns out, the missing data fall into three categories: a) data that would need to be compiled in “hot episodes”, i.e. times of high task loading in the project. b) critical data that can negatively effect internal performance assessments and c) data that do not have evident functionality in terms of their further use. Evidently, the motives for not inputting the data differ: 

  • In cluster a) we are dealing with an economic shortcut – people deprioritize data input in the light of high workloads. Seeing that intense periods tend to coincide with sensitive project phases which in turn contain loads of learning potential, this can be regarded a dysfunctional behavior. Nevertheless, the omission has valid motives that need to be taken into account. An answer in the redesign may be an Intense Period Debrief practice – a tool that captures the learnings from a critical episode in a compact “after action review” format.
  • In cluster b) we are dealing with political tactics – people hide sensitive information from their colleagues and bosses in order to safeguard their positions in the organizational power web. This can also be regarded as dysfunctional behavior, as it stifles the great development potential of learning from mistakes. Taking the valid protection motive into account, the re-design answer may be a remedy to the political risks of failure exposure (e.g. by an anonymous input process) or a reshaping of context (e.g. by positive connotation and explicit invitation to elaborate on failures like in “fuck up nights”).
  • Finally, cluster c) can be regarded as a functional short cut as the de-selection of meaningless data strengthens the capacity to focus on the meaningful. With this motive also being economic in nature, we do not need to substitute the practice of omission but rather to formalize it. The shortcut thus becomes the default.

Another Example: A Decision Routine

Let’s look at another example – the redesign of a decision process. The example is based on a case in which I consulted a membership association engaged in advocacy work on a European level. I usually quite enjoy work with advocacy organisations as their processes tend to be charged with high passionate energy and often catalyzing conflicts that derive straight from the policy fields they are engaged in. For some reason these organisations often also tend to be very professional and concerned with operational efficiency (the concept of “Mimetic Isomorphism” would suggest that this is a kind of non-strategic structural adaptation to the institutional frameworks they are lobbying). In any case, the management of the organization called for help on redefining their decision routines. After an initial scoping of the consultation we walked step by step through the Desire Path process. The process was conducted in a two day workshop with the entire 15 person staff and board of the organization.

1. Formal Mapping

The codified routines in the association were elaborate and down to the detail. The rather classic decision mechanics formalized in the quality handbook looked something like this:

  • The need for an informed decision is identified in the field
  • The issue / need is communicated up the chain of command.
  • The lowest manager with decision competence signals responsibility and starts consultation process (mainly with the field team if needed with the higher up / governance levels)
  • The respective manager takes the decision
  • The decision is communicated up (to governance level) and down (to field level) and is implemented consequently

2. Informal Mapping

Obviously, the reality of actual decision making in the organisation did not match the outlined formal procedures. A sequence of three Decision Culture Analysis reviews exposed the following typical pattern of action in decision situations:

  • The need for an informed decision is identified in the field
  • An informal consultation process among team members is started. Solutions emerge by trial and error response
  • The emergent response is eventually relayed to the next hierarchy level for approval
  • Depending on the micro-political climate and team-manager relationship, the response is either re-dressed as a formal decision by the manager or rejected and buried for years to come.

3. Interpretation: 

In further conversations we were able to surface a number of motives, needs & assumptions behind the informal practice patterns:

  1. Best solutions are found in the field, not from an oversight position.
  2. In the absence of sanctions, a trial and error mode can produce good results.
  3. Up-Down consultation loops take too long.
  4. The managers’ role as decision takers needs to be respected.
  5. Individual and team autonomy needs to be balanced with management control and accountability.

4. Evaluation

After identifying the underlying motives and assumptions, we jointly evaluated which aspects of the informal practices were helpful to the organisation’s work and which ones were harmful. This step started by a small group brainstorming which was subsequently aggregated to form the following assessment. 

  • Functional aspects: Field decision mode, unsanctioned trial and error mode, fast approval process.
  • Dysfunctional aspects: Climate dependence of approval, lack of transparency, lack of strategic oversight, lack of alternative process in case of rejection

5. Integration 

In the final step we crafted a new process that took these motives and the evaluation insights into consideration. The key objective here was to balance the “We in the field know best” with the “Management needs to be responsibly involved” stance. Some of that was more like a negotiation session. The final re-designed process had the following format:

  • The need for an informed decision is identified in the field
  • The issue is communicated upwards and an informal consultation process among team members is started. Solutions emerge by trial and error response
  • The emergent response is relayed to next hierarchy level for approval
  • Depending on a set of transparent strategic criteria the response is either approved or subject to a further consultation process.

Up to this day the model works fine. The changes from the way things actually worked before (early upward information and the Plan B loop) are not as big as the change in relation to the previous formal process. In fact, some people did not even regard the outcome as a great design achievement after our workshop. The ultimate measure of success, though, is that decisions are being taken effectively and in a transparent process, and that there are no more funny feelings about any discrepancy of formal and informal practices.

[1] Note: I found this picture in the net 5 years ago, did not note down the source and am now not able to retrace its origin


[i] While this may sound like old fashioned waterfall terminology with design and implementation as two distinct phases, this is not what I am aiming at. The interesting question, even in agile processes, is about access to arenas: who is involved in which process (not in which phase).