One strategy to address threats to biodiversity in the face of ongoing budget constraints is to create an enabling environment that facilitates individuals, communities and other groups to self-organise to achieve conservation outcomes. Emergence (new activities and initiatives), and robustness (durability of these activities and initiatives over time), two related concepts from the common pool resources literature, provide guidance on how to support and enable such self-organised action for conservation. To date emergence has received little attention in the literature. Our exploratory synthesis of the conditions for emergence from the literature highlighted four themes: for conservation to emerge, actors need to 1) recognise the need for change, 2) expect positive outcomes, 3) be able to experiment to achieve collective learning, and 4) have legitimate local scale governance authority. Insights from the literature on emergence and robustness suggest that an appropriate balance should be maintained between external guidance of conservation and enabling local actors to find solutions appropriate to their contexts. We illustrate the conditions for emergence, and its interaction with robustness, through discussing the Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources (CAMPFIRE) in Zimbabwe and reflect on efforts at strengthening local autonomy and management around the world. We suggest that the delicate balance between external guidance of actions, and supporting local actors to develop their own solutions, should be managed adaptively over time to support the emergence of robust conservation actions.