Coherence and Incident Management Part 2: Self-Organized Ops and Coherence

In my last post, I discussed the appearance of coherence in Humberto Maturana's work and offered a definition for the term. The following post pulls from Part 1's discussion of coherence and applies it to the design of strategies for self-organized incident operations.

Coherence and Incident Management Part 2: Self-Organized Ops and Coherence


In my last post, I discussed the appearance of coherence in Humberto Maturana's work and offered a definition for the term. The following post pulls from Part 1's discussion of coherence and applies it to the design of strategies for self-organized incident operations. In self-organized operations, goals are set and resources are left to organize toward those goals without having pathways imposed on them. If such a strategy can be designed and deployed correctly, self-organization is a powerful method for getting work done that taps into the collective knowledge of the resources involved, enables adaptation, and allows for innovation.

Self-organization offers hope for simpler and more effective ways to accomplish work. It challenges the most fundamental assumptions about how organization happens and the role of leaders. But it is not a new phenomenon. We have lived our entire lives in a self-organizing world (Wheatley & Kellner-Rogers, 1996, p.19).

In the last post, coherence

appeared as the meaning surrounding an object, event, phrase, action, or belief, that takes place in a system the phenomenon forms around itself. Coherence is attached to the event or other phenomena and specifies how it hangs in the world consistently and logically. It attaches to elements such as emotions, meanings, time, people, events, tasks, and so on, and makes the system coherent.

Self-organization is already taking place in incident operations every day. In my own experience, I have seen self-organized work emerge, usually in the cracks and crevices between established order. If self-organization can work, it is worthwhile to ask, "How might one set out to enable self-organized work as part of an overall strategy?" This broad question is guiding my current project and I will only scratch the surface here. I have a stack of books next to me on the topic, but I thought it would be a useful exercise to write down my initial thoughts sourced from what I have already read and time spent thinking about the topic.


All living systems have the capacity to self-organize, to sustain themselves and move toward greater complexity and order as needed. They can respond intelligently to the need for change. They organize (and then reorganize) themselves into adaptive patterns and structures without any externally imposed plan or direction (Wheatley & Kellner-Rogers, 1996, pp.18-19).
"Self-organization...involves a morphogenetic aptitude, that is an aptitude for creating new forms and structures, which themselves, when they lead to an increase in complexity, constitute developments of self-organization" (Morin, 2023, p.94).

The operational component of incident response (e.g., single resources, responders, operators, individuals on the front lines, boots on the ground, etc.) forms a system with a definable boundary encompassing all individuals tangibly responding to the incident that can be called coherent or incoherent. In emergency management, the operational component is a subsystem of the greater Incident Command System (ICS). In the instance of the ICS, the operational component is nested with its own boundary within the encompassing ICS system. Here, the focus is the coherence of the self-organizing operational response component.

Self-Organized Strategy Design

Self-organization does not necessarily need to be taught throughout an organization, it just needs to be deployed. Operators do not need to know about self-organization to execute it. It becomes a matter of design, and the delegation of knowledge to strategies. Of course, the designer of the strategy will have to know about self-organization to create and manage its deployment. The knowledge then becomes delegated to the strategy operators’ use. In this way, the strategy knows about self-organization and it tacitly passes that knowledge on to those who interact with it (Latour, 1992).

Goals, Patterns, and Coherence

A self-organization strategy for incident operations may first entail growing comfortable with the concept of equiprobability (Morin, 2023). The notion of equiprobability is the existence of many often unforeseen pathways that arrive at the same outcome. Embracing equiprobability is an important first step in enabling operators to self-organize toward a specified end.

"Self-organization represents a fundamental reallocation of energy and action in a system in order to achieve a larger goal" (Comfort, 1994, p.394).

Goal-seeking is an important component of self-organization, as noted by Comfort (1994). Operational resources self-organize for the purpose of achieving a larger goal that either emerges from within the system or is assigned to it. Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers (1996) write that in self-organization goals are not externally imposed. In recent experience, the setting of goals from outside a system does not dilute self-organization. Embracing equiprobability, operational resources responding to the incident are then free to self-organize towards the established goal. This does not entirely dismiss the idea of goals emerging from within systems, but rather asserting they can originate from either location and still entail self-organization.

Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers (1996) mention patterns, recurring features in systems such as boundaries, networks, activity, and cycles (Capra & Luisi, 2015). This is similar to Morin's (2023) mention of the development of new forms and structures that constitute developments of self-organization. Patterns appear in self-organizing systems and are a key component. Without pattern there is no organization-- nothing recurring, nothing stable, nothing that can hold form and information (Comfort, 1994). Without the presence of pattern, the system has devolved into chaos (Waldrop, 1992). On the other end of the spectrum from chaos are ordered systems (Comfort, 1994). I am of the opinion that ordered systems form patterns, though they are routinized, unchanging, and predictable, like the behavior of command and control organizations. Conversely, complex self-organizing systems that exist between order and chaos exhibit lively and changing patterns that fluctuate in shape and the routes they take within the system's boundary.

Whether it be light bulbs, birds, termites, or humans, the conditions that create organization are the same. Individuals are similarly focused. Members develop connections with one another. Each determines its behavior based on information about what its neighbors are doing and what the collective purpose is. From such simple conditions, working communities emerge, self-organizing from local connections into global patterns and processes. Nothing is preplanned: patterns of behavior emerge that could not be predicted from observing individuals (Wheatley & Kellner-Rogers, 1996, p.20).

The existence of patterns does not necessarily indicate coherence. It is possible the patterns are incoherent. They may be illogical, inconsistent, difficult to make sense of, or lacking meaning. The system might be gravitating toward chaos and its patterns becoming random, non-repeating, and unpredictable --they may be barely recognizable as patterns. The prior are not sought after by strategy designers intending to enable self-organized operations, as it is too difficult to discern what is happening and there is an absence of coherence over practical timeframes. It could be argued that coherent patterns will emerge in time, though time is at a premium during emergency operations and it may not always be possible to step back and wait for coherence to appear (Wheatley, 2006). This strategy may be appropriate in certain contexts, but not others.

Incoherence is a product of something observed not hanging in the world in a logical and consistent way in the system it exists within. The emotions of the students waiting to get their graded papers back would not be coherent in the education system Mingers (1995) shared with his associate, for example, as they belong to a different system (Incoherence as discussed in Part 1).

If patterns are found to be incoherent, it is unlikely any self-organized work toward a larger goal is occurring. It could be possible that self-organization is taking place, but the patterns are too chaotic and incoherent to achieve a common goal.

From the perspective of the definition of coherence derived from Mingers (1995) and Maturana and Poerkson (2011), patterns in self-organizing systems are coherent when a few conditions are met. These conditions are of particular concern to leadership who assigned the goal or goals and is responsible for deploying the strategy. They are also of concern to operational resources engaged in the response. As the incident and the response to it evolve, patterns will change. Resources must be on the lookout for patterns beginning to become incoherent and threatening to tip the response over into chaos, which from a strategic perspective is likely undesirable

The first condition is that patterns are occurring within a system demarcated from its environment by a boundary. If the boundary between the environment and the system dissolves, there is no difference between the incident and the responders. The second condition is that patterns within the system may not persist for long, but long enough that the system does not appear to contain random noise, meaning there is a degree of consistency. Third, while movement sprawling in all directions may be characteristic of emergency operations, especially in the initial hours, to be coherent there must be a degree of repetition and consistency somewhere in the system for patterns to form. For example, management’s movements around the system following up with resources may form a core pattern that other complex structures stem from. Fourth, patterns should to some degree be distributed around the system and not concentrated in any one area within its boundary. If activity is limited to one location and represents a smudge or a streak, this may be representative of duplication of efforts, setting the wrong goals, or difficulties in self-organizing.

Fifth, at the same time the patterns need to appear logical and fit the context the system is operating within; for example, the patterns of forest firefighters should fit the behavior of the fire they are fighting. Sixth, there must also be some degree of unison among the patterns relative to achieving the common goal(s). It need not be entirely unified, but there must be some detectable motion that signifies goal-oriented action, though not all action may be directed toward that goal. Patterns should be expected to grow in complexity and richness as the number of goals being pursued by the system increases. The resulting patterns may position the system at the edge of chaos, but avoid pushing the system over into it where it will become incoherent. Lastly, drawing from Maturana, the coherence of patterns in a self-organizing system is not unlike Maturana's horse: The patterns are coherent because they have the characteristics of other patterns that were coherent and were called coherent because they had the characteristics of being so. If they do not have the characteristics of being coherent, they would not be called so.

The above seven conditions are similar to Minger's (1995) "raft of connotations" (p.97). In this case, they are the coherences entailed by the patterns of a self-organizing system of responding resources and not from a phrase spoken to a coworker. For the system to be coherent, the patterns it contains must evince several of the above conditions. The conditions describe how the patterns within the system -- and the system as a whole-- exist in the world. The primary distinction drawn regarding the pattern's existence is whether they are coherent or not. Each of the conditions can be observed but also felt. For example, a feeling of loss of control may accompany a system pursuing too many goals and headed for chaos, represented by a swirling pattern like hastily drawn overlapping circles on a chalkboard.

BY Nika Akin. This image well illustrates the patterns of self-organizing response systems. Blue in particular stands out as the color is distributed throughout the system. Could it represent the movements of similar resource types? Or resources working toward the same goal? The red and pink evoke similar questions while the upper right of the picture shows a mass of red, orange, and pink, possibly indicating collaboration. The thin tracings of yellow scattered throughout the painting might resemble resources triaging needs, while the concentrations of the color indicate spots where more help was needed. As a prompt, this painting holds significant potential for thinking about the patterns of operational resources. The painting provides an opportunity to think about what the patterns should like look, what they should not, and what they look like now.


Using the first post as a foundation, this post explored how coherence can be used to understand self-organizing systems. Of particular concern were emergency operations. Pattern was elevated as a core dynamic of self-organizing systems and a way for leadership and resources to determine if the response system's behavior is coherent or not. At the core of this post were a number of conditions that a coherent self-organizing response system would meet. These conditions referred to dynamics such as the forming of patterns, pattern duration, the directedness of patterns, and their logic and consistency. A key condition was if the patterns were largely converging towards the overarching goal. Equiprobability is the strategic approach taken here, where it is understood there are multiple paths to the same goal. Resources are then permitted to self-organize towards that goal.

What does this all mean? Strategies designed to enable self-organization during incidents should be crafted with coherence in mind and with coherence being at least partially a matter of pattern. Strategy designers should specify the patterns they are hoping to achieve (and those they are hoping to avoid) during the creation of the strategy. Strategists can then distill the desirable patterns into actions. In doing so, they delegate the knowledge of the patterns to the strategy where they appear as objectives or heuristics operational resources then follow (Morin, 2023). Goals, objectives, or heuristics provide the constraints self-organization takes place within.

Strategy implementers can view the failure of desirable patterns to materialize or a lack of coherence as a trigger point for reevaluating the response system. While the immediate reaction may be to revisit goals and resource selection, it may also be prudent to wait and see what emerges as self-organization takes place within a timeframe that balances the needs of the incident as well as self-organization. Both senior leadership and resources should remain constantly vigilant of the patterns taking place around them. Probing questions such as: “Have we already done this?” “Are we devolving?” “Why is there a pattern forming over there?” “Am I connected to anything?” “Who should I be connected to?” may offer insight into the patterns of the system.    


Capra, Fritjof, and Pier Luigi Luisi. 2015. The systems view of life: A unifying vision. Dehli, India: Cambridge University Press.

Comfort, L. K. (1994). Self-organization in complex systems. Journal of Public Administration, 4(3), 393-410. Retrieved from

Latour, B. (1992) 'Where are the missing masses? The sociology of a few mundane artifacts', in Bijker, W. E. and Law, J. (eds) Shaping Technology/Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, pp. 225-58.

Maturana, H. R., & Poerksen, B. (2011). From being to doing: The origins of the biology of cognition (2nd ed.). (W. K. Koeck, & A. R. Koeck, Trans.) Kaunas, Lithuania: Carl-Auer.

Mingers, J. (1995). Self-producing systems: Implications and applications of autopoiesis. New York, NY: Plenum Publishing.

Morin, E. (2023). Epistemology-complexity. In E. Morin, & A. Heath-Carpentier (Ed.), The challenge of complexity: Essays by Edgar Morin (pp. 86-108). Chicago, Illinois: Sussex Academic Press.

Waldrop, M. M. (1992). The emerging science at the edge of order and chaos. New York, NY: Touchstone.

Wheatley, M. J. (2006). Leadership and the new science: Discovering order in a chaotic world. San Francisco, California: Berrett-Koehler.

Wheatley, M. J., & Kellner-Rogers, M. (1996). Self-organization: The irresistible future of organizing. Strategy & Leadership, 24(4), 18-24.