Taking yet another page out of Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Solution, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about deliberate vs. emergent strategies and their role in launching a new initiative.

Christensen describes a deliberate strategy as a course of action that you map out and execute based on your ingoing assumptions.  It’s your initial game plan.  The product of many long hours of strategic planning, your deliberate strategies are what you write in your business plan and present as your approach to win the market.

An emergent strategy is what you find after your deliberate strategy fails: a different course of action that only presents itself after you get started and learn more about the market.  It’s usually something that you never even considered in the deliberate strategy planning process.  You could only find it after the market had revealed itself.

You can spend lots of time researching, planning, and considering every angle when creating your deliberate strategy, but you can’t change the statistics:

90% of deliberate strategies fail.

The key to success in any new initiative is not to create better deliberate strategies. Rather, it’s to identify the emergent strategies as quickly as possible.

Deliberate and Emergent Strategies
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  • Or, as we otherwise know it:

    “No plan survives contact with the enemy”

    My definition of an emergent strategy is a complex strategy brought about via interactions at a lower level, usually governed by a set of simple rules. You might want to look into “Sugarscape” and other complex adaptive systems; I think some of the theory has great application to business.
    P.S. Being good at emergent strategies may come down to company culture – because the strategies that emerge are going to depend heavily on your people and your culture.

  • Simon Dexter


    Also, look into Conway’s Game of Life – computer program conceived to illustrate emergence of complexity from primitive rules in 2d worlds. I know it’s hard to connect it directly to strategy but you may be amazed by patterns which are created from seemingly irrelevant mechanics. Greg Egan’s “Schild’s Ladder” explores this idea in sci-fi context – he supposes that our entire world is an emergent system and, like game of life, we are just an outcome of some very simple rules operating on supersmall scales (much smaller than atomic.)

  • Awesome! Will check them out. Thanks for the recommendations.

  • Big +1 to culture. From my experience, it’s key to any planning process.

    There’s also an emotional element. It’s hard to admit your deliberate strategies are failing, throw them out the window and pivot direction to an emergent strategy. Agree it all comes back to culture.

  • Yeah, confirmation bias sucks. Note, also, that schema theory in psychology has a lot of evidence behind it for experts – that is, expertise is domain-specific, non-transferable, and lies in the ability for an expert to apply a developed “schema” (understanding) – to pick out the important information and discard the rest.

    The problem with that is if you develop a deliberate strategy based on an expert understanding of the market, you will be very vulnerable to changes or inconsistencies. Leading indicators will be dismissed, and other inconsistent information will be decried as insignificant, as people hold onto their strategy.

    Having a company culture where recognition of one’s mistakes is laudable, not shameful, is pretty important – where the focus is on the facts.

    I’ve been looking for a job more seriously for a few months now, and that’s hard to find (not to mention validate beyond an interview*). Probably *as* hard to find as a position matching skills I have/want to develop.

    * The closest I’ve seen recently is, during a phone interview at Facebook, the interviewer talked about “code winning arguments” – i.e. a practical demonstration trumps noise – which is an admirable focus on the facts, but I’m not sure about the environment rewarding mistake-finding in a positive fashion.