“The only constant in life is change.

The old saying from Heraclitus especially applies to the world of business, which is constantly changing and evolving. In order to succeed, businesses need to be able to adapt and change with the times. This is where emergent strategy comes in.

Emergent strategy is a long-term plan that emerges through the creation and accomplishment of short-term goals. It's focused on a company's ability to constantly evolve and adapt to an ever-changing environment. It focuses on creating opportunities and taking advantage of them as they arise.

In this article, we'll take a closer look at emergent strategy. We'll explore what it is, how it works, and why it's so important for businesses to succeed.

What is an emergent strategy?

When discussing emergent strategy, we must begin by looking at the emergent strategy definition laid out by Henry Mintzberg, the renowned management expert:

“Emergent strategy is a set of actions, or behavior, consistent over time, 'a realized pattern [that] was not expressly intended' in the original planning of strategy. When a deliberate strategy is realized, the result matches the intended course of action. An emergent strategy develops when an organization takes a series of actions that with time turn into a consistent pattern of behavior, regardless of specific intentions.”

In other words, as an organization's original intentions and goals are confronted with reality, that organization must adapt to be successful. The patterns of action it establishes as it adapts become a strategy that emerges to find success despite the original mission. 

Think of the companies in the 1940s that manufactured goods like tin cans, linens, or light bulbs. When the U.S. joined WWII, these companies had to convert their manufacturing lines to create goods for the war effort. And then, when the war was over and new markets emerged, they had to retool once again to meet the new market demand. 

Emergent strategy, however, isn't just about adapting to adversity. It's also about having the flexibility to adapt to new discoveries, new technologies, and even new opportunities that arise from demographic shifts.

Emergent strategy vs deliberate strategy

Deliberate strategy is the more traditional approach to business planning, in which businesses carefully map out specific goals for the future and structure their operation to achieve those goals. It's an effective strategy in stable environments. It helps businesses to focus their resources, provide clarity for employees, and set specific measurements of success.  

Deliberate strategy, however, is more rigid and less adaptable than emergent strategy. It can be difficult to change course once a plan has been put in place. This can make businesses less responsive to change and new opportunities. It can also stifle innovation, as employees are focused on meeting set objectives rather than thinking outside the box.

Why is emergent strategy so important?

As Mike Tyson famously said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” The key to a thriving business is the ability to adapt to adversity. A company's original plan might encounter unforeseen challenges that make success impossible if they stay on the same course. 

How many companies had to rethink their entire business models when the Covid pandemic made in-person business impossible? Gyms, event planners, and restaurants only survived if they used emergent strategies to adapt to changing realities.

In a rapidly changing environment, emergent strategy is more important than ever. This type of strategy focuses on taking advantage of opportunities as they arise, rather than trying to predict the future. It's flexible and adaptable, which means that businesses can respond quickly to changes in the market or new technologies. 

Emergent strategy also encourages creativity, as employees are given the freedom to try new things and make suggestions that might appear unorthodox at first. For instance, someone at Uber once said, “Since we can't drive as many people around, what if we deliver food as well?” That suggestion became UberEats.

What are some examples of emergent strategy?

Emergent strategy can take many forms, but all share a common goal: to create success in business by responding to change. There are a variety of ways that emergent strategy can be used, but three common ways are

  1. A company rapidly expands its product line in response to customer demand

  2. A company alters its advertising campaign to take advantage of a current event

  3. A company implements a new organizational structure in response to changes in the business environment

Product line expansion

In recent years, many companies have turned to these emergent strategies in order to achieve success. 

  • When Airbnb wanted to expand beyond room rentals and realized that their platform could be used for other types of rentals, they added options for vacation homes, apartments, and even castles! 

  • When Amazon first started out, it only sold books online. They quickly realized that their platform could be used to sell other items, so they added electronics, clothing, and just about anything else you can think of.

  • Google started out as a search engine, but it eventually added email, maps, and news, and acquired YouTube. 

  • Snapchat started out as a simple photo-sharing app, but later added messaging capabilities, filters, and other functionality and is now a billion-dollar messaging platform. 

Advertising with current events

You might remember the iconic Pepsi TV commercial using protesters as background, that emerged from the first summer of Black Lives Matter marches. These days it seems every ad campaign, from car sales to grocery stores, is using inflation and an impending recession as the core driver of the messaging. 

Organizational structure change

As successful as it was with Windows and Office products, Microsoft was struggling to keep up with other companies like Google and Apple. The tech giant was structured as segregated branches rife with internal strife between major departments, that often viewed each other more as competitors than partners within the same company. In 2014, a new CEO was hired to completely restructure the company, eliminating the internal separations that stagnated growth.

What are the emergent strategy principles?

There are four key principles of emergent strategy: flexibility, proactiveness, experimentation, and learning.

  1. Be flexible and responsive, rather than rigid and set in your ways. Be open to adapt to change and the environment around you. 

  2. Be proactive and prepared for changes, rather than reactive and caught off guard. In order to anticipate change, businesses need to have a good understanding of their environment and the forces that are at play. 

  3. Experimentation is crucial in emergent strategy. Businesses need to try new things and see what works, which means being willing to fail. Piloting new products and services or testing new organizational structures may not always end in success. 

  4. Learn from your mistakes. Mistakes are inevitable when using emergent strategy. The keys are reviewing performance, making adjustments, and being open to feedback.

Being open to change does not mean that you abandon all planning and structure. On the contrary, emergent strategy requires a clear vision and goals. What it does mean is that you're willing to change your plans with the situation.

The bottom line

There are some challenges associated with using emergent strategy, such as the difficulty of implementing it without the right organizational structure in place. Without the right leadership, those constantly changing goals can lead to free-for-all chaos.

However, these challenges are outweighed by the benefits of using this type of strategy in a rapidly changing world. Deliberate strategy focuses on static solutions that are not always adaptable to change. Emergent strategy takes into account that the world is constantly changing and businesses need to be able to rapidly adapt to these changes to be successful. 

Does your resume show off your ability to adapt to, and manage, change? Submit it now for a free resume review and find out!

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