Emergence as The Turing Way’s Strategy#


This chapter is under review.

In this document, Dr Kirstie Whitaker, founder of The Turing Way talks us through the principles of Emergent Strategy and how they have directed and informed her leadership of the project and of the Tools, Practices and Systems (TPS) Programme at The Alan Turing Institute more broadly.

Leadership is illustrated as a fractal where different people are watering and growing flowers in different places - that is leading to new fractals with more people. There are a few quotes written on the image - Transform yourself to transform the world, the large is a reflection of the small, and strong values can spread to other organisations.

Fig. 5 Illustration of Healthy Leadership by Scriberia. Zenodo. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.4323154. We highlight the quotes from Adrienne Maree Brown, author of the Book Emergent Strategy.#

The Turing Way is a living book. It is written by a community, who are themselves human, ever-changing, beautiful and creative. What they can do together - will - create what is better than anything any one person could imagine.

In this document, I dig into each principle of Emergent Strategy, as described by Adrienne Maree brown. She builds on Obolensky’s definition of emergence as “the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions”.

She says in the introduction to her book:

You can read the book with others, assess each other and assess the groups and circles you move in. Come up with new words and new observations for all of this, and notice how it connects and echoes other theoretical frameworks. Underline everything that moves you and then give it to someone younger than you. Come up with workshops and retreats around this work.

Take it, run, go, grow, innovate, emerge.

That’s what I bring into The Turing Way. Remember that you can make adjustments to this text yourself as your understanding evolves.

In fact, I - we - hope that you already do it.

Thank you for being here.

This blog post by Forte Labs gives a great overview of the principles. They aren’t really separable and are lenses on the whole philosophy that Brown espouses.

1. Small is good, small is all (The large is a reflection of the small)#

Most people I have worked with have a grand vision for the change they want to see in the world.

Maybe it’s making all research reproducible at the time of publication. Maybe it’s ensuring that every data set comes with documented metadata and provenance (a data paper, for example). Maybe it’s investing in community-created open-source software to improve research efficiency.

I deeply support and encourage those big dreams. They can seem intimidating, impossible, or too much for one person, project, or community. Sometimes it can be tempting to lie down on the floor and give up when you realise just how stacked against those collaborative practices our current incentive structures can be.

What I love about this first principle of emergent strategy is that it gives us a pathway to making that change.

  • Want to see a kinder world? Be kind to the next person you interact with.

  • Want to see a more reproducible publishing ecosystem? Help the next person you collaborate with to re-run their analyses to confirm the same answer.

  • Want data scientists to be more representative of our global community in terms of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, disability and so many more dimensions and their intersections? Encourage the next person you mentor to share their perspective. Especially if that person is yourself.

The Turing Way is a space where I hope you can start taking steps towards that change.

2. Change is constant (Be like water)#

It’s exciting to work in a field like data science where the boundaries of what is known and what can be known are changing every day.

It can also make finishing a task incredibly difficult!

The goalposts move on a weekly or monthly basis. Every new research paper that you read can change your perspective and potentially adjust the trajectory of your work.

The Turing Way is designed to be ever-evolving. We embrace a version-controlled workflow, so you can’t really break anything too badly, and we keep a history of where we have been.

A contribution - any contribution - is a step in the right direction. Try not to overthink the completeness of your work. As with a stream, a river, or the ocean, there will be more contributors to take the project forward. Whatever you can do right now, in this moment, is what we need and what we appreciate.

3. There is always enough time for the right work. There is a conversation in the room that only these people at this moment can have. Find it.#

One of the things that I’ve heard clearly in the first few years of creating The Turing Way is how uncomfortable people feel in agenda-less spaces.

I ran open coffee chats every workday morning from the first UK COVID lockdown in March 2020 to Easter 2022 (when I started my maternity leave).

I LOVE the creativity and inspiration that comes from completely open-ended conversations. I had to listen, get to know some of the regulars, sense what they were interested in talking about that particular day, and then ask the right questions to allow the conversation to evolve.

There’s always a bit of trial and error involved, and so part of finding the conversation for these people in this room is balancing listening and experimenting. For me, this is core to the concept of emergence and community-led creation. If someone else is making the agenda and dictating the direction, we miss so much of the creativity that could come from these particular people and their lived experiences.

Beyond the literal example of finding a conversation for this group of people, lies the broader principle: there is always enough time for the right work.

  • Sometimes that means being careful and thoughtful about creating agendas for meetings.

  • Sometimes it means saying no to urgent work to prioritise the important tasks. Infrastructure work, and open, collaborative effort, have always tended to fall down an individual’s or an organisation’s priority list. But if we don’t start doing that work today, it will never be started, and then we’ll never achieve transformational change.

  • Sometimes it means channelling the fact that the large is a reflection of the small. Does that person need a little extra time to be heard and understood today? Maybe that is the work that you’re supposed to be undertaking today. Deadlines be damned.

4. Never a failure, always a lesson#

Bugs are features. The typos - or broken links - in The Turing Way are invitations for new contributors to get involved.

Together, we are trying to change the world. Change research culture, make data more accessible, democratise access to knowledge, and ensure that artificial intelligence is harnessed for a public, global good. We need to dismantle our own biases - sexism, racism, ableism, colonialism, capitalism - in order to reach this potential.

We will all fail in this endeavour, every day.

The goal is to get up and try to improve - incrementally - every step we take.

Be vulnerable, be brave, and be gracious in recognising the learnings of others as they stretch beyond their comfort zone.

(If you’d like to read more about courage and vulnerability in leadership, I recommend Brene Brown’s book Dare To Lead. In particular, her exercise on operationalising values is really fascinating. It’s so easy to say the right thing. What takes conviction and resilience is making the changes to identify and then actually do the right thing.)

5. Trust the People (If you trust the people, they become trustworthy)#

This principle is inspired by the writings of Lao Tzu, an ancient Chinese scholar who is reputed to have written the Tao Te Ching.

“When the Master governs, the people are hardly aware that (s)he exists. The next best is a leader who is loved. Next, one who is feared. The worst is one who is despised.

If you don’t trust people, you make them untrustworthy.

The Master doesn’t talk, (s)he acts. When work is done, the people say, ‘Amazing: we did it, all by ourselves!’”

It can be tempting to control a situation (or at least try to feel a sense of control). And - as a corollary - it can be tempting to try to control the people you’re working with.

I certainly can fall prey to advocating so strongly for a direction that I believe in that I come across as directing - telling - team members what to do.

But, as Lao Tzu knew 2500 years ago, the very best work comes from the people who are trusted and who have the safety and the space to find their motivation and alignment with the project goals.

6. Move at the speed of trust#

No one ever felt an increase in trust when given a deadline or time constraint to get there.

Building and nurturing trust requires time, patience, and a little deftness to take advantage of opportunities when they arise.

We have project goals for The Turing Way and we have to report on the effort we have made to our funders. It can be hard not to be driven by deadlines. But it is imperative that we build as much space as we possibly can to move at the speed of trust.

The journey is so much more important than the destination. Especially if that destination can’t be reached by this particular team at this particular time. Change is constant. Be like water.

7. Focus on critical connections more than critical mass — build the resilience by building the relationships#

One of the other temptations that we are incentivised towards is to count things. Number of chapters, number of contributors, number of workshops, amounts of funding, how many projects we have inspired.

We have to report these to our funders in order to keep the lights on, but I encourage you to focus more on the critical connections - those interpersonal dynamics that allow you to build trust, and manifest the change that you want to see in the world on an individual level before you try to scale it.

We can do both. We can increase our impact, include more people, welcome their contributions and support the pathways along which their careers develop… but not if we are too narrow in our definitions of success.

We will make a deeper and more profound change in the world by telling the stories of the individuals who make up our community in their own words and in ways that allow others to build their own confidence and trust.

8. Less prep, more presence#

For me, this principle is very similar to there is always time for the right work.

Finding the emergent discussion. Identifying the gaps, and individual contributor’s strengths and motivations. Building a deep trust and alignment in the purpose and cultural changes that The Turing Way can manifest.

We can think carefully about how to build spaces to develop those conversations, but we can’t control the direction of the discussion, and we can’t force creativity or collaboration.

  • We can control our own behaviour.

  • We can be present.

  • We can reflect.

  • We can respond - ideally with kindness and compassion.

  • We can be ready to act when the opportunities emerge.

9. What you pay attention to grows#

Everything and everyone requires time and attention.

We have illustrations capturing garden analogies throughout The Turing Way. That’s because we care deeply about nurturing and sustaining our community. We want our members - and our project - to thrive.

Where we place our focus, our energy, our kindness, and our trust, will grow.