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Deliberate or Emergent strategy: when considering strategy, planning and implementation, one choice is whether to have a strategy and a strategy management process, that is deliberate or emergent.

There are, broadly, two ways to look at your strategy process: deliberate and emergent

Given our uncertain economic and social environment, we find clients are looking at their strategy afresh. Or rather they are looking at their strategy processes afresh.  They are thinking, “Do we develop and learn from our strategy in the best way?”

We find organisations generally look at, develop and execute their strategy in one of two ways, deliberate or emergent strategy. Our view is that organisations need a combination of both. That combination applies to their strategy AND to they system for managing their strategy.

Method 1: Deliberate Strategy.

Typically this has a process of annual strategic thinking, budgeting and planning, with execution over a year or so, and the strategy refined at set (annual) points.

  • A period of strategic analysis, followed by detailed design and planning.
  • This strategy then gets communicated and executed.
  • Execution typically carries on for a year or two (possibly more), until the strategy becomes out of date.
  • At this point you re-analyse and review the strategy and plan again.

This is the classic approach to strategy.  Often refferred to as “The Strategic Planning approach”  (but see why “Strategic planning” is a dangerous phrase). 

Method 2: Emergent strategy

Emergent strategy treats strategy as a continuous process of testing and learning

  • An initial hypothesis about the market is created.
  • It is tried, tested quickly, and the feedback is assessed.
  • From that, changes are made either to the strategy, or to the way it is being executed.
  • As feedback is gathered, plans and budgets are revised, the refinements to the strategy are communicated and its execution monitored.
  • The organisation quickly learns about the strategy and its execution.
  • As lessons are learnt, both the strategy and the organisation evolve.

This is strategic learning.  Learning from your strategy as it is implemented and executed.

Deliberate or Emergent strategy: These look like alternatives. They are not.

In reality, the environment for an emergent strategy always happens. The market and environment changes, competitors evolve, merge and emerge. The things that you do in the market affect the market, and so the market reacts and changes.

“In reality, markets are environments are constantly moving and evolving. Only your organisation is standing still.”

In the deliberate strategy approach, only YOU are standing still. You can choose to ignore these signals and carry on with the strategy, but we all know companies that have done that.

A strategy is only a belief that needs to be tested. Strategy is a hypothesis.  If the feedback tells you that it is wrong, or things have changed, then it needs refining or changing. If you fail to notice that feedback and fail to signal a change is needed (a two part process), you create problems in the organisation. (For more information see: How we help clients, or our case studies). So the choice of deliberate or emergent strategy is really a view of how fixed you see your strategy, or whether you are willing to run a strategy management process that allows for refinement and adaption, as you learn. 

We are not saying that strategic analysis is a waste of time: it is not. We are saying that choosing a strategy, spending ages planning its execution and communicating it, and then not listening or feeling for changes means that you can be a long way off course before you realise it is too late. The art is to be agile, systematic and to evolve continuously.

More reading on deliberate and emergent strategy

Here are some more articles that will help you think about your strategy process, as well as your strategy:

Is your strategy process working for you? Could it be better? Want to improve and be more responsive? …then contact us, and we’ll explain how others have been helped, and explore how we might be able to help you.