The Emergent Strategy

Henry Mintzberg’s 1994 book The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning is well worth a read if you have never read it. It is probably the most influential work published by a Canadian academic who has a long history of contributions to organizational theory. One of the reasons it is so good is that it is filled with a wealth of information, and after reading it, everyone seems to come away with different lessons learned. The more times you read it, the more lessons you learn.

The conclusion of the book is that strategy cannot be planned. Planning is about analysis or the separation of an entity into individual elements. Strategy is about synthesis or the combining of elements into a unified entity. That is not to say that you should not do one or the other, each is inherently linked. Planning is thinking, and the plan is tangible evidence of that thinking.

One of the topics Mintzberg touches on is that of the emergent strategy. An emergent strategy is something that was not originally realized or intended, but ultimately recognized and adapted to. According to Mintzberg, a strategy is a plan, but it is also a pattern. When a strategy’s intentions are fully realized it is a deliberate strategy, and when they have not realized it is an unrealized strategy. Entrepreneurs plan for the future with an intended strategy to hopefully become a deliberate strategy.

Recognizing patterns and changes over time and evolving a plan towards something that was not originally intended is called an emergent strategy. It is the emergent strategy that has the most applicability to the world of startups and small businesses. That is because many entrepreneurs don’t have a complete plan, in the beginning, they have a ‘fuzzy plan.’ This fuzzy plan becomes clearer once they interact with customers and co-workers and they begin to see the patterns emerge. These patterns may or may not invalidate assumptions that were made during the planning process.


“Everyone has a plan ’till they get punched in the mouth”


As Mike Tyson once famously said, “Everyone has a plan ’till they get punched in the mouth.” Every business has a plan until they start to execute. You definitely need to have a strategy and a business plan to support that strategy, but you also need to be willing to adapt. If you come out of the planning phase with a 100% planning solution but you don’t prepare for some flexibility during the execution phase, you may miss out on some tremendous opportunities.

Some of the things you can do in order to remain flexible and take advantage of an emergent strategy is:

Constantly evaluate the strategic context. The context and situation we are operating in is constantly changing. A plan may have been valid when it was originally developed, but external circumstances may have changed creating a need to reevaluate that plan.

Develop multiple branch plans. A branch plan is an additional plan that is developed for use when the primary plan requires a change of direction. The branch plan is usually not as developed as your primary plan, but it gives you a running start when you realize it is time to adapt.

Conduct regular assessments. Getting feedback at regular intervals will help determine how the plan is going. Most planning analytics require a good amount of time before you begin to see trends, so one must be careful not to overreact at the first sign of disappointment. As your assessment information continues to come in, it will allow you to begin initial planning once you determine that it’s time for a change.

Mike Nicholson

I've spent my career working in a variety of Strategic Communications, Public Relations, Public Affairs, Information Operations, and Executive Outreach positions. With a history of planning, preparing, executing, and assessing communication strategies in the U.S. and abroad, I use this site to write, think and share lessons learned on organizational communications.

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