Emergent strategy

Mintzberg famously coined an expression ‘emergent strategy’ to make a point that strategy was not all made up of what we deliberately wanted to achieve. Instead, he argued, it was mixed with, and influenced by, things we did not intend. Things that we either did not recognise, did not factor in or could not control. Those things he called emergent. This combination of the intended and the emergent leads to the realised strategy. Whilst many seemed obsessed with the nitty-gritty of making strategy work (and many people still are), Mintzberg’s idea was radical.

Mintzberg’s point makes sense, particularly in its historic context (when he went into battle with Ansoff and that lot) and in relation to a specific view of strategy as an orchestrated plan of action with a defined outcome. But there is also a different sense to emergent strategy: it’s not merely that strategies have an emergent component to them, but that strategies are fully emergent. All strategies emerge continuously. It seems that it’s not just my strategy emerges, but that all strategies emerge because they merge and interact with the strategies of others. My action is not isolated from the actions of others. It merges with others’ actions to trigger reactions and create interactions. 

To say that a strategy is purely deliberate fosters an illusion of control, something we are prone to. This seems especially true in the Western world where the notions of agency are like strong undercurrents that carry us without appearing on the surface. This illusion is fed by our intentions and belief in our wit and will. Intention is what we want to achieve or how we want things to be. Yet my intention was not formed ex nihilo. Indeed, my intentions are often reactions to the intentions of others because it happens in the context of the intentions and actions of others.  Many of these actions we can not even comprehend, not to mention control them. Unless we are deluding ourselves into believing that our will and wit can muster it all. 

To develop a formal strategy in the traditional sense often gives us an appearance of writing a script as if we are the only authors. Yet life rarely, if ever, works based on predefined and tightly controlled scripts. Instead, we co-author our lives with others, and we co-author as we go along, all the time. Similarly, we co-author our strategy with others even if we tend to be aware only of our intentions. As we concentrate our minds on things we are aware of, we bias ourselves into nourishing a sense of control. This makes us place our intentionality front and centre. In that sense, the more we want a strategy to be about what we intend, the more we deceive ourselves. 

Instead, it seems that strategy is more a way of navigating the myriad of events and elements we are thrown into. Strategy is a continuously emerging stream of actions where fundamentally we attempt to place ourselves in a way that aids our survival, and if we are lucky we might flourish and prosper. Viewed this way, perhaps the important thing is not to have a well analysed and articulated plan but to have a sense and sensibility of the interplay of events and elements to navigate actions, reactions and interactions.



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