The Institute for Humane Studies hosted a Research Workshop for the manuscript of Neil Chilson’s new book, “Getting Out of Control: Emergent Leadership in a Complex World,” and spoke with him about the final product and some of the steps leading up to its publication. Neil Chilson is a computer scientist and attorney, as well as a senior research fellow at the Charles Koch Institute and Stand Together, where he works on issues of technology, innovation, and emergent order.
Regarding his new book, Neil Chilson shares: “The goal here is to give people a gut-level understanding of emergent order, and how it might apply both in public policy but also in your personal life as a leader in your community and even your family.” The book is available for purchase online, and Neil Chilson has a Substack newsletter where he invites his audience to continue the conversation.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity:
“What do you do and what led you to write this book on technology policy leadership?”
“If I had to summarize what I do at Stand Together: I evangelize emergent order and try to apply an innovation lens to our work across economic progress. I wrote this book which in some ways is a tech policy book, but in other ways is much more of just a leadership book, and a lot of that came out actually through the IHS Manuscript Workshop.
Over and over and over, I’d see that there’s a complex problem out there in the world, and people… they’d see a complex problem and their idea was to have somebody in control and taking charge of it. And what I had learned throughout my time at the FTC, and in other places as well, was that there are real limits to how much control regulators or legislators have over these complex problems. And those limits to control are fundamental to human complex systems, and that ignoring that fact just leads to worse outcomes.
So, I wrote the book to help people realize that it’s okay not to have control, actually often, and that understanding that there is something called emergent order where nobody is in control, but things are still orderly, is actually often the better approach to solving these complex problems that often need many solutions instead of just one legislated solution.”
“First let’s talk about emergent order: what is the best way to understand it?”
“Emergent order is a characteristic of complex systems, which means that you can have individual units, whether it be humans in society or ants in an anthill — it could be something that’s not even conscious, like water molecules in a whirlpool — that are actually acting under a relatively simple set of rules, but the result is very complex.
One of the examples I use in the book is ‘the wave’ at sporting events. There are people who start the wave, but nobody really controls it. Once it gets going it’s kind of an expression — like a group expression — of the enthusiasm that people have for what’s going on… And that’s a great example of emergent order because there actually is a pattern; You can see the pattern of the wave going around the arena, but nobody’s in control of it.”
“Can you summarize the six main principles of the emergent order mindset for us?”
“The first one is to expect complicated results, even from simple actions. Don’t try to control what you cannot: that’s the second one. Be humble. Push decisions down close to important information: that’s a sort of bias towards decentralization.
I’m going to add a little caveat for the last two. It can be easy in emergent order, if you’re sort of a deep believer in it, to become sort of nihilistic. You could just be like ‘ah well it’s emergent, so I can’t control it, so I might as well just sit back and see how things go’: the sort of ‘dude abides’ approach to life. So, for my last two, these principles I think push back against that and they say ‘no, actually, you can make the world a better place, even though you don’t have control.’ And the first way is you can do that by making yourself better — that’s the most concrete way — and that has a direct effect on you, obviously, but it also has an influence on the people around you.
The last principle is to learn from constraints and choose them well. And what I mean by that [is] constraints are the habits that we have but they’re also the institutions that we operate within. We are not purely atomic entities — we cannot do whatever our hearts desire — and that’s not just because of physical constraints, but also because of social constraints. And those are actually pretty important, and those institutions are as well. And so, we need to learn from them, not just reject them as limits on our autonomy. And we should also be careful that choose the constraints that we associate ourselves with, whether that be the institutions that were involved with or the habits that we build.
So those are the six principles, and you could probably draw tons more principles, but those are the six big ones that my book explores.”
“What would be your main takeaway from your book that you would want to convey to those who are interested in applying emergent order to their leadership style?”
“I think part of it is that we should aim for — as leaders within any organization — we should aim to maximize our influence, but also be very realistic about what we can control… So, once we have that sort of realistic view of what we can control, I think we should think about, as leaders, how we can maximize our influence… There’s two sort of concrete ways to do that. One of them is we influence others through our example as leaders, and so we should focus on being the best examples that we can of the behaviors that we want in others.
But we also influence others by contributing to the ‘habits’ of the organizations that we’re part of, and I put ‘habits’ in quotes: that’s the institutional structures. And so, we should really seek to improve the ‘habits’ of our institutions — improve the feedback loops that are
within our institutions. Because institutions are the ways that we do big things in human endeavor, it’s very hard to get anything big done without anybody else’s help. And so, making sure our institutions — whether it’s our families or our schools or our churches or our governments, making sure our institutions — are serving the purpose for which they exist is a key part of having influence, as a leader, on others.”
“How would you go about persuading somebody or helping somebody buy into that idea, who might be a little bit resistant to emergent order as a style for an organization? How do you sway them?”
“I talk about the two historic fields in which it evolved out of. One of them was biology and evolution; That’s a key sort of concept of emergent order. And the other one is in economics, and that’s the spontaneous order that you referred to. Spontaneous order is essentially the economist’s word for — its Hayek’s word for — emergent order, the more general emergent order concept.
If I’m talking to somebody who’s right-of-center? I would say they kind of grok the free market idea often that you can have great outcomes, even when you don’t have somebody in control, and that command and control doesn’t work very well.
If I’m talking to somebody left-of-center? They very often grok the sort of environmental idea that there’s these complex systems that nobody designed and that if we just you know blunder into them and try to control them, things might go awry.
So, I would start with those two metaphors and then say, just like the economy and or just like the environment, these complex systems are all around us — society is very much, and human institutions are very much, complex systems — and that you should think of them under some of those same principles that you might apply to the environment or to the economy.”
“The leader is often understood as someone who sets structure and context for the employees. That’s not exactly control, but it does see the leader as kind of an order imposer. How much, do you think, is that in tension with the message of ‘Out of Control,’ or is there a way in which that’s actually understood rightly with ‘Out of Control’?”
“I think that’s quite consistent with the idea of being ‘Out of Control.’ A great example would be our group meetings that we have across our organization. You can set the time as a leader; You can be like ‘here’s the time that we’re going to meet.’ If it’s not a mandatory meeting, people might show up — they might not — and good leaders will take feedback from that. ‘Is this useful to people? Is it not useful to people?’ If you make it mandatory, there’s still limits to how much you can make people pay attention or contribute.
I would like to actually expand my work towards… pushing back against this idea, I think that often comes from some people on the right, that ‘classical liberals or libertarians see no value in institutions’ or ‘that they’re just trying to maximize individual freedom.’ And I think a complexity theory or an emergent order recognition of society would say there’s many ways in which we maximize our potential as individuals, by being parts of emergent systems that are institutions that have structures, and that constrain us.
You can’t show cleverness unless you have constraints, right? You can’t show meaning unless you have constraints. And so, constraints are important, and I think that’s consistent with being ‘Out of Control.’”
How did your experience with our Manuscript Workshop assist you in the creation of this book?
“It transformed my manuscript. I had been struggling… trying to do something that talks about public policy but also about communities and personal life, and it felt very awkward to me to push those two together… But talking about leadership as a theme across it was actually very helpful and, you know, I didn’t have that framing before I went into the workshop, at all.
And it’s not like that came in the first ten minutes; I think it came as I was grappling with this problem, and having a lot of insights from people with really different backgrounds really helped that… I wouldn’t have even encountered that sort of set of ideas around leadership, but once I had that lens it actually made some other things easier.
So, it really did help me clarify that key concept, through my book — the theme that’s there — I mean, it ended up in the title. My book would not look anything like this if I hadn’t had the IHS workshop, and I probably would have gotten more stressed out about why there was no unifying theme across it.”
“What moments stuck out to you or maybe left an impression on you about the writing and editing process going through the workshop, especially when working with different scholars and academics from different backgrounds?”
“I think, when talking about the writing process and editing process, it made me wish I had finished the first draft of those chapters. But also, honestly, it made me wish I had engaged with a bunch of these people earlier in writing the book. And so, I don’t know how to balance those two. I would have loved to get more fleshed-out feedback on the chapters, but, honestly, the most valuable stuff that I got out of the workshop was some of the key resources, but also the framing of the challenge of the themes that I was trying to cover in the book. And some of that would have been awesome to have heard earlier.
Now, having said that, I realize that’s such a ‘control’ mentality. I would not have been ready to grapple with what people were telling me if I had not already been struggling with it for months and months probably, or if I had had the IHS workshop, you know, three months earlier when I was still drafting most of the chapters. It would have been probably less productive in many ways, just because I wouldn’t have had stuff down on paper, and it would have been very vague. So, what I realized about writing the book is, by the time you get to the end of it you’re like ‘I would have done things very differently if I had to do it again.’ But that’s a sign that you learned something through the process, and I certainly learned a ton from the IHS workshop.”
“Would you recommend IHS programs similar to the Manuscript Workshop to any of your colleagues or peers?”
“I would absolutely recommend it; Like I said, it transformed my book. For a person who had never written a book before and who is not, you know, an academic, it was daunting. I was pretty nervous about putting those ideas in front of a bunch of people who spend their days thinking… and writing, but it was extremely valuable the feedback.
It certainly was a huge benefit to me to grapple with people who were so smart and brought a lot of different perspectives to the work, and who took this pretty seriously… I got a ton of feedback from that workshop in a way that I just wouldn’t have had as much feedback on my documents without them. I would have fifty or maybe seventy-five percent less actual feedback on my manuscript had I not done that workshop, and the book is incredibly better because of having done it. So, I would recommend it; Yes, two thumbs up.”