Emergent Strategy

September 11, 2012 6 Comments

There is nothing wrong with strategic planning – except when we believe that strategy unfolds as planned.  A good strategic planning process is one that crystalizes our intention.  It is the process through which we articulate a clear vision of where we want to go.  And it is how we come to a clear agreement on which direction we are going to take.  It is not insurance on the future.  The map can never be the territory.

A strategic organization is deliberate in defining its direction.  It develops ways to measure progress; it is sharp when identifying benchmarks.  But that is only one side of the coin – the planning side.  Stowe Boyd just reminded me of Mintzberg’s excellent work defining the other side of the coin, the action side, the adaptability side, the side that grapples with reality – the side of emergence:

 An emergent strategy is a pattern of action that develops over time in an organization in the absence of a specific mission and goals, or despite a mission and goals.

Emergent strategy is sometimes called realized strategy. An emergent strategy or realized strategy differs from an intended strategy.

Mintzberg argues that strategy emerges over time as intentions collide with and accommodate a changing reality.

Emergent strategy is a set of actions, or behavior, consistent over time, “a realized pattern [that] was not expressly intended” in the original planning of strategy. When a deliberate strategy is realized, the result matches the intended course of action. An emergent strategy develops when an organization takes a series of actions that with time turn into a consistent pattern of behavior, regardless of specific intentions. “Deliberate strategies provide the organization with a sense of purposeful direction.” Emergent strategy implies that an organization is learning what works in practice. Mixing the deliberate and the emergent strategies in some way will help the organization to control its course while encouraging the learning process. “Organizations …[may] pursue … umbrella strategies: the broad outlines are deliberate while the details are allowed to emerge within them” (Mintzberg, 1994, p. 23-25; Hax & Majluf, 1996, p. 17).

We know how to plan.  Let’s do it well.  And now let’s focus our energy on working in a context that’s emergent – this is where change happens.



  • Cynthia Silva Parker says:

    Yes. One of the things we’re finding among many of our clients is that folks want help developing agreement on a shared direction, and are clear that they should not invest too heavily in developing detailed long term plans. Rather, set direction, plan for a short window of time (1-2 years) and keep learning, assessing and adjusting as they go.

  • It has taken me a long time (over fifty years!) to recognize and acknowledge that “emergent social change” is actually the prevalent pattern. During my high school years, I came under the influence of a group of rationalist social change advocates, and their contention was that organized social change was the only kind worth supporting. Ever since, I have been looking for a feasible and credible approach to such organized social change. Since turning 70 however, I have begun to entertain doubts – I had read Johnson’s EMERGENCE, and Prigogine’s ORDER OUT OF CHAOS, and finally their message was getting through. What completed my transition was the recent reading of Georgina Levenson Keohane’s SOCIAL ENTREPRENEURSHIP FOR THE 21ST CENTURY. What I am now looking for is a deeper, broader understanding, and a way to involve myself. Who do I turn to, and what do I ask for?

    • William – thank you for your inquiry and thank you for the decades of care that you have put into our much needed social transformation. The thing with “emergence” is that it is so “emergent,” so I get how it’s hard to figure out precisely how to engage it.

      Some thinkers I turn to include Deborah Frieze and her book “Walk Out Walk On,” I’m also influenced by Scharmer and Kaufer’s “Leading from the Emerging Future,” and I’m anxiously tracking the progress of my friend Adrienne Maree Brown who is writing a book on Emergent Strategy.

      William – I am no longer at the Interaction Institute, but you can find me at gibran@gibranrivera.com, let me know what you are learning so that we can keep learning together.

  • Yes! Finally something about Finance.

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