4 Lessons from Emergent Strategy

Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown has already become a book I recommend frequently. brown is a mentee of Grace Lee Boggs and inspired by Octavia Butler’s science fiction. Emergent Strategy builds on years of facilitating social change processes, applying lessons from the natural world, and discussions with Grace Lee Boggs. I recommend this book to many of the leaders and organizations I work with to assess and improve their workplace culture.

What is emergent strategy?

brown builds on the concept of emergence, which Nick Obolensky defines as “the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions.” brown applies this to creating strategy that can effectively bring about social change for social justice.


1. Visioning: What are we for?

brown is observant about the challenges of social change movements and thoughtful about how those movements can be more effective. Emergent strategy is her approach based on her learning, thinking, and practices. She pulls from Octavia Bulter’s science fiction as a key tool in developing the ability to vision what we cannot yet see. A key part of emergent strategy is getting clear about what we are for and not just what we are against. You can find more of my learnings on this here: From Anti-Oppression to Liberation Approaches for Social Justice.

I learned in school to deconstruct – but how do we learn to move beyond our beautiful deconstruction? Who teaches us to reconstruct?

adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy

2. Getting Strategic for Social Change

Emergent strategy is more than visioning, it is also strategy about how we get there. Here she builds on her conversations with Grace Lee Boggs building on a century of Bogg’s movement leadership and Margaret Wheatley’s Leadership and the New Science. brown seems to be answering the call of Larry Roper, who years ago I heard urge for fewer social justice activists and more social justice strategists. This strategy is not about being nice, kind, or gentle, it is about being effective.

And in a beautiful twist, being soft in your rightness, as opposed to smashing people with your brilliance, can open up others to whatever wisdom you have accumulated.

adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy

3. Accountability, Learning, Critique, & “Cancel Culture”

We are currently seeing so many disingenuous critiques of “cancel culture” to avoid accountability. We have also seen cancel culture doing real harm to movements for social change. We must be careful using our commitments to social justice as an outcome to justify dehumanization of others that are out of alignment with social justice as a process.

I also notice in others, and in myself, that these critiques are often a tempting opportunity to use our performative criticality to prove our own commitment, credibility, and worthiness. brown has a nuanced view of critique, accountability, and “cancel culture.” She invites critique that comes with a willingness to listen and openness to possibility. This reminded me of Kris Renn’s call at ASHE 2019 for higher education scholars to move toward generative thinking and that critique and generous thinking are not mutually exclusive. Renn points to Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Generous Thinking which observes, “critique has become less a means of paving the way toward a better alternative than an end in itself” manifested as “a refusal to listen.” brown observes the hierarchical nature of many movement leadership structures and the toxic way we both hold these leaders up and enjoy taking them down. How do we foster more critique in the spirit of collective liberation that fosters growth and learning individually and collectively.

4. Practical Tips for Facilitation

Here are a few take aways from Emergent Strategy that I keep coming back to in my own facilitation for social change and social justice.

  • Love and humility are tools that can help us bring about social change.
  • Healing is about understanding the simultaneous truths that “I am whole and becoming.”
  • “Less preparation, more presence.” This is a lesson I keep learning repeatedly. I often over-prepare out of fear of not being enough (in many varieties) for the group I am so eager to serve. When I over-prepare I am tied to all that preparation and not as present in the moment with the group. brown’s “Less preparation, more presence” has become a mantra for my own self-management.
  • “Never a failure, always a lesson.” This is a great wisdom that resonates with the work I do with both individuals and organizations. So many of us are risk adverse because we are afraid of messing up, making a mistake, getting criticized, or be found out. This perfectionism is an obstacle to our own growth, learning, and greatest contribution. In organizations it can foster cultures of blame, fear, and shame and inhibit cultures of accountability, growth, and innovation.

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