When studying complex systems, emergence arises when the system exhibits properties (emergent properties) that are not found in its component parts--oftentimes more sophisticated properties. This is an overlooked phenomenon, but it is rather special. Some examples:

  • Water - combine hydrogen and oxygen and the resulting water can do things that neither element can, like expanding when frozen.
  • Chess - a simple set of rules for each piece gives rise to a complex game.
  • Consciousness - this one cuts deep, but combine enough basic elements and you get "thinking" beings.

The phrase "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts," is often misused to define the concept of emergence. Emergence goes beyond this definition. Here's an example of me getting the concept of emergence wrong. A couple of years ago, I had the privilege of being a groomsman in a friend's wedding. An email thread among the group resulted in a lengthy debate over the best fast-food burger.

Here's my argument in favor of In-N-Out.


I don't intend to offend anyone with this statement, but In-N-Out is a better burger than Five Guys. Now I've only had Shake Shack once and I may not have ordered correctly, but from my experience, Shake Shack is a minor league team compared to the pros.

Don't get me wrong, Five Guys is a world-class burger. At $7.69 for their standard cheeseburger, it better be. Throw down another $2.50 for their far superior fries, you have a meal. And yes, as a meal, Five Guys wins. But as a Burger, no.

From the bun. to the toppings, to the patties, the individual components of a Five Guys burger are much better. But when assembled, it's only equal to the sum of all its individual components.

The Double Double, at only $3.45, is able to deliver a burger that is more than the sum of its parts.


What I got wrong in my above argument, is that an In-N-Out Burger has emergent properties, while a Five Guys burger does not. The Five Guys burger is greater than the sum of its parts. Eating every ingredient sure wouldn't be the same as taking a single bite. But with the In-N-Out burger, "the whole becomes not more, but very different from the sum of its parts" (Theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate, PW Anderson).

The English philosopher G.H. Lewes, who is attributed with first using the term "emergent," can explain it better.

Every resultant is either a sum or a difference of the co-operant forces; their sum, when their directions are the same – their difference, when their directions are contrary. Further, every resultant is clearly traceable in its components, because these are homogeneous and commensurable. It is otherwise with emergents, when, instead of adding measurable motion to measurable motion, or things of one kind to other individuals of their kind, there is a co-operation of things of unlike kinds. The emergent is unlike its components insofar as these are incommensurable, and it cannot be reduced to their sum or their difference.

Problems of Life and Mind, 1875

The idea that something is "greater than the sum of its parts" is often misattributed to Aristotle.

In the case of all things which have several parts and in which the totality is not, as it were, a mere heap, but the whole is something besides the parts, there is a cause; for even in bodies contact is the cause of unity in some cases, and in others viscosity or some other such quality.

Aristotle’s Metaphysics translated W. D. Ross

Aristotle is conveying the idea of emergence here. He is saying that when two or more things combine, they become something "besides" the parts. Taking Aristotle's intended meaning into consideration, I should have written "In-N-Out delivers a burger that is something besides its parts."

Emergent properties are special and should be more closely observed. When they are positive, they should be encouraged. Emergence is at the heart of value creation. Value is derived from combining two or more things, that when together are unique. When you create something that gives rise to positive emergent properties, you know you have stumbled upon something special.

Be it a company, a team, food, technology, these are all systems that can exhibit emergent properties. Look for positive emergent properties everywhere and amplify them.