Is an emergent strategy bad?: The advantages and disadvantages of strategy emergence

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What is an emergent strategy?

When we think of strategy, it is usual to think of the intended strategy. The plan that the firm has for how it is going to compete in a market. This is sometimes formally developed – potentially in an annual planning cycle. However, the reality is that firms often depart from this – there is an emergent element that combines with the intended strategy.

Is an emergent strategy bad?

It is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that an intended strategy is ‘good’ and any deviations from this are ‘bad’. While – as discussed below – there are potential problems associated with departing from an intended strategy, the characterization of one or the other as the desired approach is not the whole picture.

Advantages of an emergent strategy

The reality is that no matter how well prepared a firm is, no matter how much foresight you have developed of the environment, a company can never fully predict what is going to happen when they implement their strategy. This may go wrong. Assumptions may not hold. Competitors may make changes of their own. Or the environment that the company is operating in may change.

Plowing on with a course of action despite the issues faced is not necessarily a good idea. If the company had been assuming a particular state of the world, and it transpires that the world is different or changes from what is being assumed, then some elements of change to the firm’s approach may be needed.

Limitations of an emergent strategy

While there may be a need to deviate from the intended strategy, it is important to also not lose sight of it either. There is a danger that as soon as an issue crops up that is not in line with what was expected, the firm completely deviates from its intended approach – suddenly making decisions on the fly, that end up being inconsistent with one another. 

It is important to recognize that having a strategy is an important component of ensuring decisions made by a firm are consistent with one another. That they reinforce either other over time. While there may be a need to pivot from the intended approach, this does not mean that the firm should suddenly completely abandon its strategy either. Completely abandoning the strategy risks the firm having no underlying focus – and suddenly falling into the trap of making lots of idiosyncratic decisions.

Striking the balance between an intended and an emergent strategy

The reality is that having an emergent component of strategy is not bad itself – and is likely better than either extreme of rigidly following a strategy despite clear evidence that it is not working, or suddenly ignore the strategy completely making on-the-fly decisions. Really a balance is needed to allow some degree of flexibility within the strategy. Indeed, it is sometimes useful to embed some flexibility within the original strategy – to see it more as a guiding direction, helping to inform decisions, rather than a rigid plan that can’t be deviated from.