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The Balancing Act Between Deliberate and Emergent Strategy

In my previous article, The Reports of Strategic Planning’s Death Is Greatly Exaggerated, we discussed why top-down (deliberate/intended) strategy or bottom-up (emergent) strategy taken at extremes, doesn’t work.

Deliberate strategy assumes we can precisely predict and plan for the future. It’s a matter of collecting sufficient data upfront, doing proper analysis and creating a plan, that if executed will yield the desired results.

balancing act between deliberate and emergent strategy

balancing act between deliberate and emergent strategy

Unfortunately, we can’t predict the future with any accuracy when dealing with complex adaptive systems such as a competitive market place. Competitors aren’t going to sit back idly letting us have our way. And technology and other outside forces won’t sit idle either. The playing field is changing too fast, sometimes in ways we could not have imagined.

And likewise, if  we don’t have sense of direction, and a well-designed strategic process to manage uncertainly, our future will likely be controlled by external actors and events, resulting in a future we neither planned nor wanted.  It’s the old Alice and Wonderland (see video) conundrum: 

“Alice asked the Cheshire Cat, who was sitting in a tree, “What road do I take?” The cat asked, “Where do you want to go?” “I don’t know,” Alice answered. “Then,” said the cat, “it really doesn’t matter, does it?” Lewis Carroll,   

Not knowing where you want to go may be fine for  Alice and the Cheshire cat, but hardly a winning strategy for sustainable success.

Choosing the “best option” direction given imperfect information

Strategy is all about  making the best choices and setting a direction based on some combination of facts & experience, It’s about agreeing where to focus resources, energy and emotion to achieve long term sustainable success. It’s about deciding where to play and how to win in the market.

Chances are at the outset of strategy making process,  you will not know precisely what victory looks like. But as long as you have an initial sense, or idea, that’s sufficient to move forward.

Strategy, like innovation, is an iterative process. Direction will emerge and become clear as you test, validate and reshape your assumptions. This is the balance act that must be managed between deliberate and emergent strategy. 

Setting a bold direction

Direction is an overall goal of where a company or organization wants to be sometime in the future. It’s the end game of what your organization or future will look like. Without direction and buy in, an organization can’t focus its energy in achieving sustainable growth.

Thus, defining “victory” is critical. And it needs to be something far reaching but doable. The core value of forcing yourself into a specific definition of “victory” is that it narrows the field of play considerably. It allows us to focus resources and create a winning strategy working backwards from what victory looks like.

Kennedy’s space is a good example of specifying what victory looks like:

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.”

~ JFK – May 25, 1961

This is the epitome of a powerful victory (vision) statement.  The end game is clear, and its bold. There is no confusion of what victory looks like. And while the objective is specific, it doesn’t specify how.  That’s where and how the emergent strategy evolves and innovation happens.

Did Kennedy imagine and create his victory statement out of thin air? Of course not. He worked with his senior advisors in exploring what would be possible given the current and near term state of technology. And  based on what was a feasible, a bold and doable objective was defined enabling the US to win the space race.

Being bold, and living with the uncertainty of what unfolds in the future takes some guts.  I believe not being bold is the reason why so many strategic plans are nothing more than extensions of the budgeting process and guarantees status quo thinking.

Roger Martin points out if a strategic choice doesn’t keep you up at night, chances are your choice is not bold. And most likely incremental and non-inspiring resulting in maintaining the status quo.

In their book, Playing to Win, Martin and Lafley stress that if you want to compete successfully, you need to explicitly commit to winning. Just playing the game for the sake of playing, will lead to disappointing results.

Imagine what the outcome of the space program would have been if Kennedy’s victory statement was to build bigger and faster rockets than the Soviets. Sure, our American scientist and engineers could have done that, but for what purpose? What would the end game have been?

Probably something far short in both impact and achievement than landing a man on the moon. And probably at a far greater expense, since there was no clear goal to inspire the nation to win the space race.

If your goal is to be a vibrant ongoing concern in the future, your aspirations need to be bold and ambitious to escape status-quo thinking and inspire your team to create bold results.


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