On an abstract level, Strategy is a set of System activities, structured in a process.
On a traditional view of strategy in organisations, there are different degrees of control over this process and the resulting activities:
Strategy can best be conceptualized as a continuum with “pure deliberate” (prescriptive) strategy at one end and “pure emergent” strategy at the other. James (2018), 4
But this takes an “officially” acknowledged, idealised process for what is really happening. When we look at how actors or components within the system (e.g. the organisation) actually behave,
[s]trategy as a population-wide pattern of action cannot be chosen by anyone, but rather emerges in the interplay of individual intentions and choices in local interactions. Here there is no polarisation of deliberate intention and emergence.Stacey and Mowles (2016), 299
From this perspective, strategy is always emergent and only
appears deliberate if the interactions it arises from are
structured by specific
relations, e.g. interaction patterns like chains of command, reporting
lines, or spheres of influence.This is true for systems of all kinds – even personal
strategies pursued by conscious agents emerge, on the level of the
system “agent”, from the interactions of its components: depending on
the level of
Emergence the agent’s goals, capabilities, and context; different
aspects of their phenotype; or their neurons, transmitters, and sensory
These patterns, structured in different ways as they are, stabilise
when they are successful, i.e. help the system fulfil its purpose. Thus
we can understand ”deliberate” and “emergent”I’m using quotation marks to signify the different
types of emergent patterns, as opposed to the dichotomy between emergent
patterns and deliberate design.
strategies as different Attractors of the system that evolve in specific Environments – “deliberate” strategy seems to work well in war, “emergent” strategy in urban planning, for example.In Mintzberg et al.’s (1998) typology of strategic management, “deliberate” strategy corresponds to the Design, Planning, Positioning, Entrepreneurial, and Cognitive Schools, “emergent” strategy to the Cognitive, Learning, Power, Cultural, and Environmental Schools.
More systematically, which attractor the system will settle into depends on external factors like scale, time horizon, and predictability of the environment, as well as internal factors like the influence specific agents have on system behaviour (i.e. their power) and the potential for self-awareness of the system.
With large scales, long time horizons, and low predictability, and/or
a low level of control and low potential for self-awareness, successful
patterns will tend to resemble “emergent” strategy. In such a context in
makes sense for agents with power to adopt a specific (meta-)strategy
themselves: design, i.e. deliberately set the conditions, for
emergence.The resulting process can be understood as implementing
a specific variant of the Configuration and Transformation School
For the resulting process or pattern of actions, this implies a focus on the Adjacent Possible and on improved position:
[T]the more uncertain the future, the more its essential logic is that of “taking a strong position and creating options,” not of looking far ahead.Rumelt (2011). Examples for formalisations of this approach are the Cynefin (Kurtz & Snowden 2003, Snowden 2005), Adaptive Action (Eoyang & Holladay 2013), and Liberating Strategy (McCandless & Schartau 2018) frameworks.
Thus agents shape strategy by exerting power either to directly influence patterns of action, or to establish conditions for the emergence of patterns – but in neither case do they relinquish or neglect their power.
- Eoyang & Holladay (2013): Adaptive Action: Leveraging Uncertainty in Your Organization
- James (2018): “Emergent Strategy”
- Kurtz & Snowden (2003): “The new dynamics of strategy: Sense-making in a complex and complicated world”
- McCandless & Schartau (2018): “Liberating Strategy: Surprise and Serendipity Put to Work”
- Mintzberg & Waters (1985): “Of Strategies, Deliberate and Emergent”
- Mintzberg et al. (1998): Strategy Safari
- Rumelt (2011): Good Strategy/Bad Strategy
- Snowden (2005): “Strategy in the context of uncertainty”
- Stacey and Mowles (2016): Strategic Management and Organisational Dynamics, 7th ed.