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Embracing the Unexpected: Using Emergent Strategy in Community-Based Work




Greetings, fellow changemakers! Picture this: You're knee-deep in a project, and suddenly, everything changes. Panic sets in, right? Well, not if you're equipped with the magic of emergent strategy. Today, we're diving into this dynamic approach, perfect for those who thrive on flexibility, creativity, and a dash of spontaneity. Let's explore how you can weave emergent strategy into your community-based efforts, making your work effective and whole lot of fun!


What is Emergent Strategy?

Emergent strategy is like jazz for social change – it’s all about improvisation, adaptability, and working with what emerges in the moment. Coined by the brilliant Adrienne Maree Brown, this approach encourages us to embrace change and harness it as a force for good. It's a way of being that values small actions, adaptability, and the interconnectedness of all things. Think of it as dancing with the unexpected, turning surprises into opportunities, and nurturing growth from the ground up.


But there's more to it. Emergent strategy is deeply rooted in Black feminist and liberatory theory, drawing inspiration from the visionary work of science fiction writer Octavia Butler. Butler's writings challenge us to imagine radically different futures and to understand that change starts small and builds through collective action. This strategy invites us to reimagine power, to deconstruct oppressive systems, and to cultivate resilience and creativity in our communities.


An inspiring analogy used in emergent strategy is the murmuration of starlings. Imagine a flock of starlings swooping and swirling in perfect harmony, each bird responding to its neighbors in real-time without a single leader dictating their movements. This beautiful dance is a perfect metaphor for emergent strategy – it’s about responsive and adaptive collective action, where small changes can lead to powerful, coordinated outcomes.


How to Get Started

  1. Start Small and Scale Up Begin with micro-actions. Test out new ideas on a small scale before rolling them out. Host a mini-workshop, start a pilot program, or launch a small community project. These tiny experiments allow you to learn and adapt without the pressure of a massive commitment. Plus, they’re a great way to get your feet wet and build confidence.

  2. Embrace Change and Stay Flexible In the world of emergent strategy, change is not the enemy – it's your best friend. Encourage your team to stay open to new information and be willing to pivot when necessary. This could mean adjusting project goals, shifting timelines, or even rethinking your entire approach. Flexibility is the name of the game, and the more you practice it, the better you'll get at riding the waves of change.

  3. Foster Collaborative Leadership Emergent strategy thrives on collective wisdom. Create spaces where everyone’s voice is heard and valued. Whether it's through regular team check-ins, brainstorming sessions, or community forums, make sure you're tapping into the diverse perspectives around you. Leadership in this context is about facilitating and guiding rather than directing and controlling.

  4. Cultivate a Culture of Experimentation Encourage your team to view every challenge as an opportunity to innovate. When something doesn’t go as planned, instead of seeing it as a failure, treat it as valuable data. What can you learn from it? How can you adapt? By fostering a culture where experimentation is celebrated, you’ll create an environment where creativity and innovation can flourish.

  5. Stay Connected and Reflect Often Regular reflection is key to emergent strategy. Set aside time for your team to reflect on what's working, what's not, and what needs to change. Use these reflections to inform your next steps. Staying connected with your team and your community ensures that you’re always in tune with the needs and desires of those you’re serving.


Resources to Learn More About Emergent Strategy

Ready to dive deeper into the world of emergent strategy? Here are some fantastic resources to get you started:

  1. "Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds" by Adrienne Maree Brown – This book is the go-to guide for understanding and implementing emergent strategy in your work and life.

  2. Emergent Strategy Ideation Institute – Check out their workshops, webinars, and resources to connect with a community of practitioners dedicated to this approach.

  3. "We Will Not Cancel Us: And Other Dreams of Transformative Justice" by Adrienne Maree Brown – Another gem by Brown, focusing on applying emergent strategy principles to social justice and community work.

  4. "Parable of the Sower" and "Parable of the Talents" by Octavia Butler  – These novels by Octavia Butler are essential readings for understanding the speculative and visionary roots of emergent strategy. Butler's work inspires us to think critically about our future and the role of adaptability and resilience in social change.

  5. "Building Powerful Community Organizations: A Personal Guide to Creating Groups that Can Solve Problems and Change the World" by Michael Jacoby Brown  – A practical guide for organizing and sustaining community-based organizations, focusing on collaborative and relational approaches.

  6. "Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice" by Jessica Gordon Nembhard  – This book provides historical examples of African American cooperative economics and emphasizes collective and collaborative efforts.

  7. "Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement" edited by Ejeris Dixon and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha  – A collection of essays and stories that highlight transformative justice practices, focusing on collaborative and community-based approaches.

  8. "Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination" by Robin D.G. Kelley  – While not strictly a project management book, this work explores the visionary ideas and movements led by BIPOC communities, emphasizing the power of collective action and imagination.

  9. "Community: The Structure of Belonging" by Peter Block  – This book offers insights into creating inclusive and collaborative community spaces, focusing on relational approaches to community building.

  10. "The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex" edited by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence - A critical look at the non-profit sector and its impact on social justice movements, advocating for more grassroots, community-based approaches.

  11. "Project Management for Social Change: A Complete Toolkit" by Pirozzi and Spada  – This book provides practical tools and techniques for managing projects with a focus on social change, community engagement, and social justice.

  12. Podcasts and Webinars  Look for interviews and discussions with Adrienne Maree Brown and other thought leaders in the field. Podcasts such as "How to Survive the End of the World" and "Octavia's Parables" are great starting points for exploring emergent strategy concepts through engaging conversations.


So, there you have it – a playful, adaptable approach to making a difference in your community. Embrace the unexpected, dance with change, and let emergent strategy guide you towards transformative impact.


Happy strategizing, everyone!

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