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.
Weaving together different theories of emergent strategy
Mintzberg sees strategies emerging organically from past successes. Yet, within organizations and systems, we often see strategies and patterns that emerge organically and are deeply harmful. Something about these patterns make them successful, but that is not the same as the patterns being equitable, just, or acceptable. Within an organization, a pattern may sustain because it forced productivity in the short-term, yet it can be the very pattern that drives burnout, turnover, and other poor outcomes.
Within a system, a pattern may sustain because it directly rewards those in power. Yet, to provide those benefits, the pattern may be simultaneously causing harm to marginalized communities and undermining the long-term sustainability of the system and its resources.
4QP reminds us to be intentional about how we learn when engaging in emergent strategy and systems change, which helps us to not allow these organic patterns to be unquestioned. Remember: in their understanding of emergent strategy, 4QP seeks an ecosystem approach that empowers (or leverages the natural power of) many actors throughout the ecosystem. The beauty of this approach is that it creates an opportunity to collectively redefine what a successful system pattern looks like, who benefits from it, and how it will sustain.
brown not only describes emergent strategy as something shared, as a way of building power among many, she also reminds us to be bold, disruptive, and caring as we engage in emergence. She grounds the concepts of emergence, including how it grows into something greater than where it began, in the concepts of humanity and ecology and our need to care for ourselves and each other as we act as agents for change.
Together, these thought leaders have constructed a theory of how change can happen that is difficult to wrap our heads around – it contrasts with how we are taught strategy should be – and yet, it is hard to deny that it happens all around us, all the time. Observe any system you are working in: How much of what is happening is the result of intended, planned patterns? How much has emerged naturally over time? If emergence is how systems naturally change, then interventions that embrace emergence and expand who has the agency to engage in emergence may be our best route to changing systems.
Rob Ricigliano offers us this practical advice that helps to bridge between the certainty and structure of a planned strategy and the ambiguity of emergent strategy. In deploying emergent strategy, he explains that we must try…
“…to thread the needle between being too control-based (technical strategy) and eschewing any strategy as being too deterministic. For example, emergent strategy focuses on developing and testing key assumptions and well-articulated hypotheses and thinking probabilistically (instead of predicting or guaranteeing specific outcomes), identifying markers of progress while being open to other key shifts/impacts both positive and negative, focusing on improving effectiveness at understanding and engaging a system rather than claiming success or burying failure, etc.”
This leads us into the practical challenge of emergent strategy: moving from concepts that are compelling to a practice we can integrate into the organizational structures and boundaries within which we work. A topic for another day, but one that I have enjoyed exploring and experimenting with alongside many thoughtful partners.
Excited to keep digging deeper? In addition to the hyperlinks throughout this blog series, below are additional resources from the thought leaders named above and others who are exploring emergent strategy:
WHY emergent strategy is needed: Nick Obolensky and his team at Complex Adaptive Leadership have generated wonderful insights about complex systems that help us understand why emergent strategy is necessary.
WHY philanthropy needs to use emergent strategy: Marilyn Darling’s blog post at the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s shares insights about why philanthropic organizations should invest in an emergent approach.
HOW philanthropy can use emergent strategy: adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy Primer for Funders offers funders the next step – how they can show up to enable emergence in the ecosystems they work.
HOW philanthropy has actually used emergent strategy: Erica Snow, Jewlya Lynn, and Tanya Beer’s case study of a foundation approach to creating room for adaptation and emergence helps to investigate the how of emergent strategy, sharing tools and practices that could be replicated in other settings.