• Jewlya Lynn

Unpacking Emergent Strategy: Part 1

This three part blog offers a 101 level introduction to how emergent strategy has been explored by leading thinkers, and some of the ways to pull these threads of insight together. It is NOT a complete and thorough review of the concept, nor does it represent the full range of voices and insights about emergent strategy. It is also my interpretation of both the concepts and what each author is bringing forward, recognizing they offer a great deal more than we have space to explore here. We all have our lenses – I hope you have and will continue develop your own interpretation and insights about emergent strategy. To this end, there are links and resources throughout this document to support your learning journey.


Defining the Concept


Emergent strategy is a term that has been in use for decades. Many different theorists and practitioners have explored the concept and its application. In this piece, we will dig into three approaches (offered chronologically) that build on each other.


Let’s begin with a couple definitions:


“An emergent strategy is a pattern of action that develops over time in an organization in the absence of a specific mission and goals, or despite a mission and goals.” Henry Mintzberg


“Emergent strategy is about creating the conditions that expand the agency of a whole ecosystem to work toward a shared goal.” 4th Quadrant Partners


Emergent strategy is a “strategy for building complex patterns and systems of change through relatively small interactions” and “an adaptive, relational way of being.” adrienne maree brown


You may notice from these quotes that the first centers the organization, the second centers the ecosystem (and power/agency within that ecosystem), and the third centers the relationships in a system. The quotes come from some of the thought leaders at the forefront of emergent strategy and each brings something to the conversation that is helpful when thinking about emergence in the context of philanthropic efforts to support systemic change.


Learning from Henry Mintzberg: The organizational orientation


Henry Mintzberg is often cited as the person who coined the term emergent strategy. He comes from a business background with a heavy focus on organizational strategies. He explains that strategy is not a decision or even a set of decisions made upfront, but rather many different decisions that occur over time, all of which must be understood in context.

With his colleague, James Waters, he constructed the idea of strategy as “a pattern in a stream of decisions.” Sometimes this pattern is planned (though, inevitably, the realized strategy diverts from the planned strategy). Sometimes the pattern is emergent, with less attempt to predict the needs upfront, rather letting the pattern emerge as decisions are made along the way to respond to opportunities and needs. Regardless of planned or emergent, strategy can be undertaken collaboratively or imposed on others.


Mintzberg also uses the metaphor of a strategy being a garden, which encourages us to recognize that it can emerge from many different places, can sometimes (though not always) be consciously managed, must be allowed to grow over time, and though intervention can be meaningful, should not be overly controlled. Despite his organizational focus, much about this metaphor applies quite clearly to complex, adaptive systems, where attempts to control how change occurs over time are often unsuccessful, and intervening at opportune moments can be transformative.


One of the more compelling concepts from Mintzberg’s work when applying it to the work of philanthropic and non-profit systems change is the notion that strategy can be a pattern that emerges from past successful action. Rather than being an intentional choice, strategy can surface organically as the result of past actions that led to meaningful impacts, which then become embedded in how future actions are taken. Of course, this pattern of behavior depends on more than having success in past actions – it also depends on being engaged in learning that helps to make the patterns visible, interrogates them, and supports the adaptation of them. It depends on the strategists seeing our history in order to see beyond the present moment.


Learning from 4th Quadrant Partners: The learning and ecosystem orientation


Marilyn Darling, Heidi Sparkes Guber, and Jillaine Smith, the founders of 4th Quadrant Partners (4QP), developed a specific practice of emergent learning, grounded in the desire to support emergent strategies amid complexity. Their work has been refined over the years through practical application within philanthropic contexts among other settings and is grounded in complex adaptive systems theory.


From 4QP, we learn that emergent strategy is not just a series of decisions that an organization has control over (as seen in Mintzberg’s thinking), but also about creating the conditions for many actors within an ecosystem to work toward a shared goal.


Philanthropic strategies designed to change systems may promise to pay deep attention to the context of the system and be adaptive along the way, but typically continue to hold power tightly, directing the work of others and limiting their actions to those things the philanthropic organization believes are needed given their internally held systems sensing. This is not emergent strategy accordingly to 4QP’s description. Instead, emergent strategy acknowledges “the agency of the people in an ecosystem who are doing the real work of social change” and assumes each person has a unique perspective on what is happening, opportunities to act in the moment, and the skills to make rapid decisions.

Emergence, in the 4QP model, is not adaptation of a strategy or course correction by a philanthropic actor. They recognize that amid complexity in systems change work, emergent strategy is the collective intelligence and learning of the ecosystem that surfaces opportunities for action based on past successes and unexpected moments.


This is where adrienne maree brown’s insights about the people in the process of emergent strategy come into play. In tomorrow's blog, we'll explore her contributions.

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