Emergent Strategies

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George R. R. Martin has said that there are two types of writers: architects and gardeners. Architects plan out the story meticulously, while the gardener plants a seed, but doesn't really know where the story will take them.

I think there are parallels here for how we define a business strategy.

The traditional architectural approach to defining a business strategy go something like this:

Business leaders go to a strategy retreat, define some goals and how they will change the business to meet them, then head off into the year with a plan.

This is no longer the best way to determine a company's strategic direction. Technological changes have greatly increased the rate at which an organization can change, and cultural changes have created an entire generation of professionals that want a greater sense of ownership of their work.

To meet these demands I believe business leaders need to be more like gardeners and plant a seed, then adapt as things grow. I refer to this method as an emergent strategy. An emergent strategy is one in which the key goal of the transformation is defined, but the path and nuances to achieve that goal evolve as it is pursued.

An emergent strategy is powerful because it embraces the inherent differences in understanding of the transformation goal for different areas of the organization.

Well developed communication paths up and down the organization are key to be successful with an emergent strategy.

When someone in IT or HR learns of the transformation goal their understanding of what needs to be done to meet that goal will be focused on their slice of the pie. This is expected and normal, however without the communication channels established to compare the individual initiatives organizations end up stuck moving in too many directions at once.

Depending on organization size this type of communication can be a simple committee of department heads that compare what they want to accomplish and how it will support the transformation. Having this committee meet early in the process will quickly uncover where a department's stated goal conflicts with the direction that another department wants to go.

This feedback often shifts the stated goal of the transformation, as timeline projections become more reliable once different departments weigh in on what they need to accomplish. This leads to a greater sense of ownership by everyone involved, as well as a strategy that more closely reflects that capabilities of the organization to deliver.

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