Emergent strategy

It has often been said that a business without strategy is a business without direction.  But exactly how important is clear strategic focus for today’s organizations?  How have strategies had to adapt to today’s fast moving, dynamic and challenging business environment?

There is something of a myth that when strategic management was originated as a discipline, back in the 1960s, the world was static and unchanging; nowadays the world changes so fast that any kind of long term planning is redundant.

Igor Ansoff, one of the founding fathers of strategic management thought talked of “planning horizons”. He described it, literally, like seeing the horizon – from a boat, for example. Sometimes the weather is clear and you can see a long way ahead. Sometimes it’s a bit foggy or cloudy and you can’t see as far. There is no ‘right’ length of time to plan ahead – it depends how far you can see.

I’m a great believer in a clear strategic focus. If you don’t know what kind of organization you are and want to be, and don’t know what you want to achieve, how can you make sensible decisions on resource deployment, investment or direction?

A key adaptation today is the move away from command and control and to consensus and involvement. Clearly, you get a better result if people buy into a strategic goal. In that way, Henry Minzberg’s concept of emergent strategy is a powerful one – your intended strategy will be degraded and diluted in its implementation and you will get something you didn’t quite figure you were going to get. Minzberg called this ‘emergent strategy’. Therefore, the smart thing to do is to work on areas like culture, values and ideology, so when you get an emergent strategy result, at least it’s broadly in line with what you intended in the first place. 

Writing a strategy is dead easy. I can do it for a client within an hour of meeting them, and it would be pretty good. Having it implemented is the difficult bit. So, my advice for leaders – and it is a leadership issue – is to work on putting people, systems, cultures, structures and values in place. And then make sure they are aligned – joined up, and pointing in the same direction. That’s a key leadership role – managing alignment. And when intended strategy turns into emergent strategy, as it surely will…it should still be ok. It might even be a better outcome.