Like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, flourish by engaging in emergent strategy methods that will set you apart from the rest

“If at first you don't succeed, try, try, try again.” It's one of those phrases that's been around for so long, and is so overused, that it can seem meaningless. But behind its connotation is a useful message about applying perseverance and stamina in order to obtain your targets. Being strategic is all about just that - achieving goals. It's identifying those long-term aims and interests, then setting out how to realise those particular objectives. Using an emergent strategy is one of the ways in which this need can be fulfilled within a company.

In this article, you'll learn what emergent strategy actually is, find out about its different elements, and discover when to best apply it within a business context - as well as some examples. You'll certainly need bags of business acumen and cognitive prowess to get to grips with it, so read on to find out more.

What is an emergent strategy?

The term “emergent strategy” was coined by Henry Mintzberg, a Canadian academic and a well-respected author on management and business. It's a method that arises from unplanned actions and initiatives that are either generated by employees or by senior level executives. A sort of trial-by-error type approach. It's one of the elements of strategy favoured by organisations to move forward, develop processes, and resolve issues.

With emergent strategies being seen as unpredictable, their advantage is that they can present companies with an opportunity to meet the needs of customers or clients in an improved way, while adapting easily to new circumstances. This, in turn, can make a business stronger by weathering financial storms or identifying new applications for products.

Emergent strategy versus deliberate strategy

You might have also heard the term “deliberate strategy.” This comes about when the leadership in a business takes organised, conscious, and thoughtful actions, based on certain known criteria, such as customer needs, strengths and weaknesses of competitors, market growth, segment size, and technological advancement, in order to improve business prospects. 

The difference between emergent strategy and deliberate strategy is that deliberate strategy is coordinated, whereas emergent strategy comes about in an unintentional way, emerging organically rather than as a planned route.

It's the well-established companies that are more likely to favour the deliberate strategy path, as it's definable and a known entity. This is due to the fact that history, reputation, and stability (if the organisation has been around for years) provide enough experience, confidence, and facts to allow board members to develop strategic plans that are low risk. It helps if all levels of staff are comfortable with knowing what the plans are, so they can all work towards these common goals as a team.

It does have a downside though. If your concentration is focused solely on implementing deliberate strategies to achieve the original goal, you might miss all those emergent opportunities to the left and right of you.

Emergent strategy, on the other hand, is more flexible as it evolves organically from spontaneous innovation. The goals are still apparent, but there's more room to manoeuvre and follow other priorities or opportunities as they come to light. Due to these elements, it's a favoured way for start-up companies to strategise, because of its fluid nature.

For businesses to flourish, it pays to be continually considering both methods. In this way, they will complement each other, rather than clashing up against each other all the time, with all members of staff being aware of the periphery instead of just the one direction towards an end target.

The different elements of emergent strategy

Check out the list below detailing the principles of emergent strategy that are required in business:

  • Collaborating - vital in any organisation, the ability of staff to pull together as a cohesive unit in order to solve problems is paramount to the company's success and can lead to emergent strategies that help firms to look at and assess how to approach change.

  • Adapting - as change is inevitably going to happen, whether from external forces or on an internal level, adapting to these changes is going to be really beneficial in the long run as it can help organisations to build strategies that are attainable, scalable, and flexible.

  • Learning - moving forward with discovering new ways of approaching issues or problems is helped by embedding a working culture where learning is part of any role. This, again, aids the development of processes and strategies for the good of the workforce and, ultimately, the business.

When to apply emergent strategy methods

It's not set in stone, but emergent strategy often thrives during the early stages of a company or following a big change, such as a product launch or when it's obvious that the competitive landscape is shifting.

It's also valid if the future of your business is uncertain and you're not sure which direction to take. By accepting this, you can easily adjust as more information becomes available, safe in the knowledge that you're aiming for an objective that's still viable.

It's wise to keep an eye on the workforce, and empower them to come forward with new ideas, so that the most promising of these can be considered, dissected, and, possibly, implemented.

The benefits to adopting emergent strategy as part of your business plan

Incorporating an emergent strategy approach into your business can reap many benefits:

  • Becoming flexible - this allows organisations to take a more fluid stance when faced with changes, either in the economy or within the industry that the business is part of

  • Taking a pragmatic view - channelling company or personnel resources towards effective processes can turn out to be much more valuable than sticking to a deliberate strategy

  • Embracing opportunity - having the freedom to grow in an unexpected direction can get rid of dead wood and give the business space to breathe and flourish

  • Improving the work culture - involving staff at every level so that they take ownership of their responsibilities, while not losing sight of the bigger picture, can lead to a positive and well-rounded workforce who are happy in their work and want to do well

  • Getting creative - encouraging creativity, and employing this to address new issues with innovative ideas, is always going to be a step in the right direction

Examples of emergent strategy at work

Check out two hypothetical examples and then a real-life one below:

  1. A popular café was consistently busy pre-pandemic days. But financial uncertainty hit in 2020 and, like a lot of small businesses, it needed to adapt quickly otherwise it would go under. An emergent strategy was required. Thinking on her feet, a bright spark of an employee suggested that takeaways could be delivered from the outside kiosk that was located alongside the café. It meant the working conditions conformed to pandemic rules but the café could still function, staff could still work and get paid, and, more importantly, customers could still purchase their fry-ups! As a result, the café remained financially stable and kept up its reputation as an adaptable and functioning place to eat and meet friends… while keeping at a safe distance, of course.

  2. A company that developed mobile apps, with an emphasis on gaming, identified its main target as teenagers aged between 13 and 17. Through meticulous analyses and following of trends, the marketing team noticed that, due to a high rise in purchases and downloads, there was a new segment popping up of women aged between 30 and 40. These consumers preferred games that were visually appealing and easy to master. An emergent strategy was born that focused the marketing and branding of these types of games towards this new market. If the company had stuck to its original strategic plan of targeting teenagers, it would have missed the opportunity to infiltrate a new market and thus secure more revenue.

  3. The business Confinity, which launched in 1998, provided security software for mobile devices. “Who?” I hear you ask. Exactly. Who's ever heard of them, right? Demand was low. Things were not going as planned. Something had to change. By keeping a close ear to the ground on what the market was doing, and by creating an emergent strategy that changed the company's direction to become an exclusive platform for digital payments in 1999, success was assured. The business adapted as it grew, pinpointing various opportunities that guaranteed expansion. Then, in 2002, it was bought by the auction site, eBay. It's now seen as the most trusted way of receiving and sending electronic payments by users across the world. Its name now? PayPal. And you've all heard of that, right?

The takeaway

Now you're up to speed with what emergent strategy means and entails, it's time to apply it in real life. Grab the bull by the horns and find ways to incorporate emergent strategies in your line of work. Or, if you're considering a new role, take a detailed look at your CV and ensure your strengths are there, along with examples of when you've come up with innovative approaches that have benefited your workplace.

Concerned your strategic approach to finding a new role is not as polished as it could be? Help is at hand if you take up the opportunity of a free CV review carried out by our experts at TopCV. This can point you in the right direction, offering tips and tricks to smarten up your documents. Then you can emerge into the light with the knowledge that you've done your best.

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