Deliberate vs. Emergent Strategy

The misunderstanding of the proponents of “intelligent design” is similar to the misunderstanding of business leaders who assume strategy is purely top-down. Both assume that the intent of a single intelligence is carried out by its creation. In “intelligent design,” the intelligence is God. In business, the intelligence is a top manager or top management team, and the “creation” is the organization and incentives this team creates.

Complex adaptive behavior that may (or may not) appear intelligent is exhibited by business organizations as well as by natural systems. In business organizations, top management’s influence on that behavior, even if small, can be observed, measured, and explained. However, the influence of a “God” on nature is questionable, especially when so much can be explained scientifically by nature’s varied influences on itself.

From The Innovator’s Solution by Clayton Christenson:

In every company...two simultaneous processes---deliberate and emergent---are always operating...The deliberate strategy-making process is conscious and analytical...Strategy in this process is typically formulated in a project with a discrete beginning and end, and then implemented "top down." Deliberate strategies are...appropriate...if three conditions are met. First, the strategy must encompass and address correctly all of the important details required to succeed, and those responsible for implementation must understand each important detail in management's deliberate strategy. Second, if the organization is to take collective action, the strategy needs to make as much sense to all employees as they view the world from their own context as it does to top management, so that they will all act appropriately and consistently. Finally, the collective intentions must be realized with little unanticipated influence from outside political, technological, or market forces.

From Crafting Strategy, by Henry Mintzberg…

Ask almost anyone what strategy is, and they will define it as a plan of some sort, an explicit guide to future behavior. Then ask them what strategy a competitor or government or even they themselves have actually pursued. Chances are they will describe consistency in past behavior--a pattern in action over time. Strategy, it turns out, is one of those words that people define in one way and often use in another, without realizing the difference. ...just as a plan need not produce a pattern (some strategies that are intended are simply not realized) , so too a pattern need not result from a plan. An organization can have a pattern (or realized strategy) without knowing it, let alone making it explicit.

Other resources on emergent vs. top-down strategy:

Strategy is Destiny

The Origin and Evolution of New Businesses

Tags: Business, Philosophy, Reading

Updated at: 9 March 2006 12:03 AM