Deliberate Strategy: Truth or Fiction?

The distinction between deliberate and emergent strategy has been clarified by Mintzberg and Christianson. Christianson talks about three conditions that make deliberate strategies appropriate:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Finally, the collective intentions must be realized with little unanticipated influence from outside political, technological, or market forces.

Wholly deliberate strategies do exist. For example, in board games, it is possible to formulate a strategy that guarantees victory. When dancers, marching bands, and synchronized swimmers are choreographed, the conditions described by Christianson may actually be met.

However, outside such contexts, it certainly seems unlikely that these three conditions could ever be met. The first condition seems tantamount to omniscience, and how often is there certainty of the success of any strategy? The second condition seems tantamount to communication by replication of DNA (where each cell has global information but is able to act locally). The third condition seems tantamount to complete isolation, and how can there be success in isolation from market forces? In any case, the ability to predict the future seems to underly all three conditions. In business contexts, competitors are always trying to prevent the rise of the three conditions and disrupt strategies when they do arise.

To his credit, Christianson recognizes that

the emergent strategy-making process almost always alters the strategy that the company actually implements...Emergent processes should dominate in circumstances in which the future is hard to read and in which it is not clear what the right strategy should be.

So, the idea of deliberate vs. emergent strategy therefore seems useful only to distinguish a persistent naive belief from a wise and practical one. The naive belief is one of central planning, that a central authority can gather information, formulate plans, communicate them to a subservient workforce, and expect them to be executed flawlessly.

It has been suggested that deliberate strategy arose from military strategy. In particular, soldiers are trained to obey orders flawlessly and without question, rendering the second condition moot. Furthermore, the technology of warfare improved slowly for many years, so it is possible that all relevant information about a military campaign could be gathered, and outside forces could be anticipated.

That said, a wholly deliberate strategy still seems even less likely in a military context than in a business context.

The fact is, the idea of deliberate strategy gives a feeling of power to the central authority. It also gives them scapegoats: failure of the strategy can always be blamed on failure of execution by the workforce rather than on flaws in planning by the central authority. Meanwhile, there seems to be a human desire to attribute success to an individual, and the top manager is usually more than willing to take credit for it.

Before saying that deliberate strategy is a false idea, perpetuated by psychology and politics, but having no basis in reality, we must acknowledge that the effect of central planning cannot be neglected entirely. Central authorities frequently have powers not present among the workforce, including the power to send and receive communications and the power to enforce behaviors. The exercise of these powers can mean success or failure for the organization.

However, rather than distinguishing between deliberate and emergent strategy, it seems more important to understand the limitations of each, and how they can be implemented to compensate for each other’s limitations. An expectation of wholly deliberate strategy is likely to make an organization fail from rigidity and brittleness. An expectation of wholly emergent strategy is likely to render an organization a chaotic mess, unable to effect large-scale changes.

With proper balance between the two, the deliberate strategy enables scale and multiplication of effort. Emergent strategy enables adaptation, innovation, and openness to new opportunities.

It may be useful to consider another dimension of a strategy—its testability. Some strategies can be tested on a small scale, and the results—success or failure—can effectively inform their rollout on a large scale. Others, perhaps, cannot—the only test of these is full-scale execution.

Tags: Business, Economics, Politics

Updated at: 10 November 2010 10:11 AM