How Emergent Strategy Works (And How You Can Apply It to Your Life)

Emergent strategy is the recognition that rigid, top-down planning doesn’t work in a world of increasing uncertainty and unpredictability.

Instead, we must embrace a continual process of learning and revision.

Emergent Strategy

[I]ngenious ideas rarely spring into people’s minds fully formed; they emerge through a rigorous experimental discovery approach.

Peter Sims, Little Bets

In 2001, Katy Hudson, a contemporary Christian musician, released an album of songs based on her faith in God as a constant companion and friend. The strategy was simple: target the burgeoning market of younger Christian listeners who were turned off by hyper-sexualized mainstream music.

Unfortunately the album, also named Katy Hudson, flopped.

It wasn’t clear why the strategy didn’t work. Was her songwriting too “creative” for a Christian audience? Did her pop-tinged and studio-produced sound go beyond the boundaries of Christian music?

The only thing that’s clear is that Katy Hudson ceased to exist in 2003. After being coached to follow her more mainstream pop influences, like Alanis Morisette, Katy’s wholesome Christian look was traded for voluptuous pop diva. Her lyrics changed from Christian themes to mainstream, sexually charged subjects.

By the time Hudson started going by her mother’s maiden name of “Perry,” Katy Perry was born.

With a newfound focus on songwriting for a mainstream audience, Katy Perry finally broke through in 2007 with the bi-curious themed “I Kissed a Girl” (a far cry from her Christian contemporary beginnings). The album was a smash hit, selling more than 5 million copies.

Why am I telling you this story?

Regardless of what you think about Katy Perry’s music or her image, the results are hard to argue with. Upon pivoting from her strategy of targeting Christian pop to more mainstream fare, her audience exploded:

Emergent Strategy: Katy Perry's Pivot

Image credit: Fast Company

Perry is the counter-example to conventional advice about “niching down” to find your audience. She went broad instead of deep and found her calling as a pop diva with a message of empowerment for young girls.

If Perry had been dead-set on her initial strategy, she never would have found her audience. “Katy Hudson” might still be languishing in Christian pop purgatory. Instead, her creative voice emerged from a confluence of events, much of which was outside of her control.

Welcome to the era of emergent strategy.

What is Emergent Strategy?

It’s self-conceit to think you can figure out in advance and tell everyone in your company what to do. Instead, you need to build an environment where your customers, where your users, where your employees are figuring out what the business should be.

– Scott Cook, founder of Intuit


Emergent strategy is a “realized pattern” of behavior and action that “was not expressly intended” and develops over time in spite of the original strategic plan.

Emergent strategy is strategy that is created over time as your plan makes contact with an ever-changing reality.

When a deliberate strategy goes according to plan, it resembles a factory machine. The input goes in and out pops the expected product. Deliberate strategies give you a sense of certainty and predictability.

Emergent strategy doesn’t do that. Emergent strategy is about learning what works in practice and changing to meet those needs.

Emergent strategy is setting out to build a playing card company and getting Nintendo instead.

It’s Katy Hudson pivoting away from a Christian audience to a broader, more mainstream market.

It’s Paypal going from a way to beam money from one Palm Pilot to another to the web’s checkout merchant of choice.

It’s Flickr changing from a multiplayer online game to a $40 million dollar photo-sharing site.

In short, it’s deviating from the plan when the plan no longer makes sense.

The Design School Approach (And Why It Doesn’t Work)

Henry Mintzberg is the foremost academic pioneer in the rejection of what he calls deliberate strategy (top-down planning and implementation) to emergent strategy.

Mintzberg refers to deliberate strategists as “design school” thinkers. They believe in strategy that moves from theory to implementation in two discrete steps, with no grounding in evidence. The design school model relies on complete strategy planning prior to execution:

[B]y distinguishing formulation from implementation, the design school draws itself into two questionable assumptions in particular: first, that the formulator can be fully, or at least sufficiently, informed to formulate viable strategies, and second that the environment is sufficiently stable, or at least predictable, to ensure that the strategies formulated will remain viable after implementation. Under some conditions at least, one or the other of these assumptions proves false.

If it sounds like Waterfall project management (as opposed to the Agile model), it’s because the assumptions of deliberate strategists are very much the same assumptions as the Waterfall planner.

Mintzberg points out that these assumptions about the predictability and stability of business might have held 50 years ago (if they ever did), but today’s world is changing too fast for wannabe C-suite Nostradamuses to keep up.

Megatrends are sweeping entire industries under their wake. The pace of change is accelerating so quickly that some smart thinkers believe we’re on the edge of the technological Singularity.

Volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (or “VUCA”) are no longer bugs in the system, they’re features.

A VUCA world is not particularly amenable to deliberate strategy.

HP’s strategy to shut down remote working, for instance, seems to be coming from a place of exerting top-down control over employees. “All hands on deck” in this view might be a way for HQ to re-assert dominance over its front-line employees and their prerogatives.

Deliberate vs. Emergent Strategy

Fast Company summarized Mintzberg’s distinction between deliberate and emergent strategy this way:

Deliberate strategy relies on senior leaders to set goals and develop plans and strategies to achieve them.

Emergent strategy is a strategy that emerges from all over the company, over time, as the environment changes and the organization shifts and adapts to apply its strengths to a changing reality. Emergent strategy is an organic approach to growth that lets companies learn and continually develop new strategies over time based on an ongoing culture of hypothesis and experimentation.

Strategic Learning & Umbrella Strategies

Mintzberg also says that instead of direction and control, emergent strategy is all about “strategic learning”:

Defining strategy as intended and conceiving it as deliberate, as has traditionally been done, effectively precludes the notion of strategic learning. Once the intentions have been set, attention is riveted on realizing them, not on adapting them. Messages from the environment tend to get blocked out.

Adding the concept of emergent strategy, based on the definition of strategy as realized, opens the process of strategy making up to the notion of learning. Emergent strategy itself implies learning what works: taking one action at a time in search for that viable pattern or consistency. It is important to remember that emergent strategy means, not chaos, but, in essence, unintended order. It is also frequently the means by which deliberate strategies change.

There is a range between deliberate strategy and emergent strategy. One intermediate strategy that Mintzberg defines is the “umbrella strategy”:

Leaders who have only partial control over other actors in an organization may design what can be called umbrella strategies. They set general guidelines for behaviour-define the boundaries-and then let other actors manoeuvre within them. In effect, these leaders establish kinds of umbrellas under which organizational actions are expected to fall-for example that all products should be designed for the high-priced end of the market (no matter what those products might be).

In a VUCA environment, you might be able to set a floor and a ceiling on your results, and let the correct strategy emerge in between. And that might be the best you can do in a highly unpredictable situation.

4 Actionable Tactics to Apply Emergent Strategy to Your Life

1. Take Little Bets

Little bets are concrete actions taken to discover, test, and develop ideas that are achievable and affordable. They begin as creative possibilities that get iterated and refined over time, and they are particularly valuable when trying to navigate amid uncertainty, create something new, or attend to open-ended problems.

Peter Sims, Little Bets

In 2011’s Little Bets, entrepreneur and author Peter Sims encourages us to take “little bets” or low-risk, low-cost actions to develop and test ideas in the real world.

He uses the example of comedian Chris Rock testing jokes on stage at smaller venues before compiling the best bits into hour-long HBO specials. Top-down, linear, analytical pre-planning, Sims argues, gets worse results than an experimental approach grounded in reality.

Taking “little bets” is the logical response to emergent strategy. It forces you to get feedback quicker, from yourself and the environment. That data is the source of pattern emergence.

2. Set the Umbrella

The next time you pursue goal planning, instead of setting a very specific outcome ahead of time, think about establishing guard rails for your strategic goals.

In other words, what is the minimum threshold for completeness? You could set a goal of exercising every day, or you could plan to lose 15 pounds. The latter goal is the “umbrella strategy” because it doesn’t matter necessarily how you get there (exercise, diet change, pooping more, who knows).

Often seeking the umbrella strategy behind our actions gets us to the heart of what we’re actually looking to accomplish. It might be that you really want to publish that book, or maybe you just want to be seen as an expert in your field on a certain topic. Is there a way to get the latter without specifying the exact method of getting there?

3. Embrace Continuous Strategic Learning

Deliberate strategists believe they know more about the world than can possibly be known.

You’re smarter than that. You know the world is inherently ambiguous and unpredictable. It wants to do everything in its power to bust up your model of how the market or the world or the universe works.

That’s why committing to strategic learning is so crucial to navigating a VUCA world. Strategic learning comes from a place of humility. It says “let’s bite off a tiny chunk at a time and learn from the results.” Strategy is a process, not a destination.

4. Don’t Be Afraid to Pivot

Katy Perry wasn’t afraid to pivot from her disappointing Christian music career to a mainstream pop one. And the results was smashing success.

I’m worried that what gets people stuck the most is a fear of change psychology that says a known bad outcome is better than an unknown outcome. The fear of the unknown leads to self-sabotaging behavior that keeps people on a self-destructive “deliberate” path.

Emergent strategy is by no means the easier road. If I had followed the easy path, I would have never quit my job as an attorney and never found my Hedgehog.

But the world we live in today doesn’t have much respect for the illusion of stability and security. You are your own security.

Embrace it.

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