“Something cannot emerge from nothing”

– Frank Herbert, American Science Fiction Author


Emergence is the concept of tapping an organizations’ customers, partners, team members and industry experts for solutions, ideas and options. The modern organization is transforming, where the walls of an organization are disappearing, and the definition of an organization is beginning to include and encompass the cognitive, physical and financial resources of customers, partners, and industry experts. The modern-day role of a strategic leader is a facilitator of solutions, ideas, and options that can emerge from both inside and outside the walls of the organization.

We truly live in a connected world, where the energy of 7 billion humans hurtle us forward to a future of hope and despair. And, strategic leaders are connected more than ever to their team members, customers, partners, and experts through the internet and digital technologies. We live in amazing times, and strategic leaders who enable and encourage the emergence of ideas, feedback, priorities, thoughts, and actions from anyone, anywhere, at any time will create the options that will pave a lucrative road into the future.


What is Emergence?

Emergence is enabling and feeding the energy of the connected organization to improve itself continuously.

At Goal Zero, every day we received dozens of unsolicited emails from around the globe, on new product ideas, market segments we should go after, advertising campaigns concepts, areas we needed to improve in our service, detailed drawings for new designs and features, and potential distribution and channel strategies. And, within the walls of our office, marketing ideas would emerge from finance, sales ideas from the warehouse crew, and product ideas from the marketing team.


emergence crowdsourcing example


Emergence can pertain to an organization’s team members, customers, partners, and industry experts. And, the emergent ideas, solutions, and feedback can pertain to almost every element of a business model including the organization, the customer value proposition & journey, or customer segments & markets. Let’s go over some emergence examples.


Team member emergence

Emergence begins with the team members of an organization. The ability to tap into the cognitive and energy potential of team members often dictates the success or failure of an organization. Successful organizations encourage and support employees to share and act on ideas and solutions. Google allows team members to dedicate 20% of their time to a project of their choice. They are encouraged to self-organize into teams, provided the necessary resources and the runway to commercialize their ideas. Google teams in their own time have developed many innovative products, such as Gmail, Google Glasses, autonomous driving vehicles, and AdSense.

Beyond allowing one day a week for team members’ projects, there are many other ways to encourage and enable team member emergence. The tried and true suggestion box or email box can be effective. A culture that supports cross-department idea sharing and collaboration can help connect ideas to the right people. There are online platforms, such as InnoCentive and Spigit, which allow people to post ideas, and vote on the ones they think will have the biggest impact. A great experiment in team member emergence is to craft a simple survey with open-ended questions, such as “what are the three top issues of the organization, and what should we do about them?” “What are your top three ideas for new products?” Incentivize team members with prizes for the best ideas and responses, and see what happens. I’ve used this exercise many times, and I have always been surprised by the potential and thoughtfulness of the ideas. And, once you start implementing the ideas and attributing the ideas to the actual people who submitted them, you can start to build an incredible culture of emergence.


Customer emergence

Customers are being tapped more and more to provide solutions, ideas, guidance on decision-making, and options for organizations. Turning customers into advocates and influencers is a core goal of any organization.

With the use of online tools and platforms, there are so many ways to tap into customer emergence. Many organizations, such as Starbucks, Dell, and Lego utilize online platforms to seek new ideas. Doritos had over 6,000 entrants in their 2012 “Crash the Super Bowl” competition, where the winning customer-generated ad won $1 million, and the ad aired during the Super Bowl. Also, tap into all the customer ideas buried in your online FAQs, reviews, and message boards. At Goal Zero, customers posted thousands of reviews and customer-answered questions on our website product pages. Read your company’s online reviews, as they are always rich with useful feedback and can often accurately represent the pulse of customers.


Industry expert emergence

Industry expert emergence, otherwise known as crowdsourcing, co-creation, and co-production, has been rapidly evolving as an innovation staple for many organizations such as Unilever, GE, and P&G. These organizations and many more are using prizes and other incentives to tap into the expertise of scientists, engineers, experts, academics and skilled workers for new product ideas or to solve difficult problems. Netflix ran a $1 million prize to improve its movie-matching algorithm by 10%. They published data on over 480,000 customers’ movie ratings, and teams could upload their solutions online and instantly get feedback on how much they improved the algorithm and their improvement ranking. It was so successful that it became the curriculum and assignments for computer science classes at some of the top universities. After almost three years, a team from AT&T Labs won the $1 million Netflix Prize. If you want to learn more about how to tap into crowdsourcing utilizing prizes, you can read a 100+ report on prizes as a source of innovation I co-wrote for a project at McKinsey. Just go to https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/strategy-and-corporate-finance/our-insights/using-prizes-to-spur-innovation to download the report.

Beyond just tapping into experts, many emerging organizations are building their entire business model by tapping into the co-creation potential of experts. John Rogers, a colleague of mine at McKinsey, created Local Motors, which has open design competitions for new vehicle concepts and has a collaboration platform enabling experts to actually design the entire vehicle. Local Motors also has micro-factories, where you can purchase and then go build your actual vehicle. They’ve created some incredible vehicles, their first being the Rally Fighter, a 430 Horsepower, Baja Racing-inspired beast.


innovation truck


And, then there is traditional crowdsourcing to fill talent gaps in or complete special projects for an organization.


Partner emergence

Given the alignment of incentives and collaboration, many of the best ideas, new products, and solutions can emerge from a company’s partners. And, for many companies, especially technology companies, tapping into and creating a network of partners is often the path to wild success and sustainable competitive advantage.

Think about the success of Facebook. Whereas many of the previous social networking platforms, including MySpace, Friendster, and SixDegrees, focused on closed proprietary systems, Facebook opened up its platform, publishing APIs (Application Programming Interface), so that partners could create applications, games, and services on top of Facebook. The success of Farmville and other games created new innovative ways to engage and connect with Facebook users. Salesforce.com, Google, Apple, Amazon, and many other successful technology companies have platform strategies, to encourage, incentivize and engage partners to create ecosystems of solutions and applications, creating a de facto standard and network effect for their solutions.


Why is emergence important?

It is a strategic imperative for organizations to get serious about emergence with team members, customers, partners, and industry experts. If you don’t, your savvy competitors surely are. Emergence is a beautiful concept; in that, an organization, in the middle of thousands of people, orchestrating a worldwide, 24-hour symphony of cognitive power solving problems and innovating to better the organization for the future. In today’s dynamic world, where the only constant is an ever-flowing tsunami of change how can you not enlist the often free and plentiful brainpower and energy of team members, customers, partners, and industry experts?


How do you tap into the power of emergence?

There are so many different ways to tap into emergence, and here are some of the best practices:


Focus on the problem

What exactly are some of the most pressing issues of your organization? Use those issues as fodder for emergence, whether it is soliciting ideas and solutions from team members, customers, partners, or industry experts.


Cast a broad net

There is a bit of marketing that you need to do with emergence. While some people will trickle in their ideas, you want to activate people, and get them energized about participating. Contests, prizes, recognition, and incentives are great tools to energize participants. Furthermore, actively seeking out the right participants, and generating PR around the contest or challenge helps attract participants.


Collect and prioritize ideas

This is the emergence capability where most organizations fail. Collecting and prioritizing ideas and solutions should be a core accountability for someone or some team within an organization, otherwise, all of this great energy and ideas simply slip through the cracks of the organization.


Act on the ideas

If you want the ideas and solutions to keep coming you have to act on some of them. People who participant in emergence need feedback that their energy and ideas are being put to good use.


Nurture the community

Emergent communities like to be thought of and treated like a community. You’ll have a pecking order naturally emerge within the community. And, creating the proper guidelines, resources, incentives, and recognition will nurture the community.




 Learn more about Joe Newsum, the author of all this free content and a McKinsey Alum. I provide a suite of coaching and training services to realize the potential in you, your team, and your business. Learn more about me and my coaching philosophy.
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