Deliberate and emergent, by design

crab sand

I've been trying to reconcile the apparent tensions between the deliberate and emergent strategy schools of thought. After all, it's a fundamental question at the heart of organizational life today.

Defining deliberate and emergent strategy

The deliberate strategy process is the one with which most people are most familiar if only because it dominated 20th Century organizational life and still does. A senior team reviews the market, the trends, the SWOT, the fruits of R&D, etc., and formulates strategy – where to play and how to win – that the wider organization is then charged with executing. And based on nothing more than atavistic agricultural habits that are now largely irrelevant, we exhibit a predilection for going through this process with a calendar based drumbeat.

Emergent strategy adherents on the other hand insist that such practice is pure fancy. It's divination beyond the realm of even the most cogent, gifted and able senior leadership team. The deliberate strategy process supports C-title egos and little else. Rather, we're better off making the organization sensitive to even the slightest changes, the weakest of signals, and developing an organizational fabric with the agility to react appropriately, to exploit opportunity and close down risk.

Among other things, Stowe Boyd's Manifesto for a New Way of Work asserts that the deliberate approach to strategy must give way to the emergent:

the nature of strategy changes in a time of great change, when the future is difficult to foresee; the role of leadership changes with it, as well; instead of concocting a strategic vision and pushing it out to the organization through cultural and managerial channels (the deliberate style of strategy) leadership must shift to distributed, action-based strategic learning about what is actually happening in the market: emergent strategy; this, as Henry Mintzberg observed, does not mean chaos, but unintended order.

Obviously, this is right up my street. I titled my 2011 book The Business of Influence on the basis that no organization is an island. It's a system of systems and a system within systems in continuous flux with continuous influence flowing all which ways, and any approach to strategy that ignores this fundamental is fit for no market but cloud cuckoo land.

Further, as I argued here in January:

We cannot simplify complexity (as opposed to complication), for it is a natural product, but we can learn to navigate it more simply. Until now, we have effectively had to ignore it because we simply did not have the information technologies and capacity for data collection. Rather, we had to rely on management rules-of-thumb, maxims that endured when considered to be right more often than wrong. Maxims may well have sufficed when that's all the competition had too.

Either / or

I began curating a Flipboard magazine on the broad topic of social business (as in 'being' social rather than 'doing' social) towards the end of last year, and I chose to christen it Social Business Design magazine in the hope the title encompassed a blend of the deliberate and the emergent. (More on "Design" later.) I have curated quite a few articles on deliberate / emergent including Professor Roger Martin's HBR article "Adaptive strategy is a cop-out" and Greg Satell's direct response in the same publication "The Only Viable Strategy is Adaption".

Such contributions appear to be of the either/or ilk, for sincere reason or the more polemical. Undoubtedly, in my opinion, adaption and responsiveness are awesome qualities, but rudderless responsiveness is just that. Rudderless. For me then this isn't really an either/or question.

As I noted in my post about Stowe's manifesto, my Attenzi story portrays how the team moves towards real-time sensory feedback in an organization-as-organism / business-as-biology metaphor. They begin to invest in planning for the execution of influence strategy rather than the mindless execution of plans, increasingly poised to respond to opportunity and threat, eager to learn and improve their learning capabilities.

Another curated article, this time by Prucia Buscell at the Plexus Institute, interprets a study under the auspices of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and this Stanford Social Innovation Review article:

While complex systems are unpredictable ... "sources of energy or convergence within the systems, known as attractors, can be observed and influenced." In social systems, attractors can be people, ideas, resources or events that lead a system to move toward, or away from, a goal.

Before we get too hypnotized then by the emergence of unintended order, we must remind ourselves that while chaos does indeed yield to emergent order, emergent order also yields to chaos. That's complexity. For the more mathematically inclined reader, this paper argues that we might undertake short-term predictions of the future evolution of complex adaptive systems and, effectively, nudge them away from undesirable states – very appropriate in our context here.

But such interpretation and application implies of course that the organization articulates what the goal is, what is undesirable and by corollary what is desirable, and for me then this must be in the context of values and purpose and the organization's deliberations on where to play and how to win.

An artful blend

The successful organization blends the deliberate and emergent artfully in designing strategy and execution in the pursuit of mutual value creation. The reference to artful is not accidental; as fascinating and as powerful as the science of big data and big analytics might be, there remains a visceral reliance on human smarts and intuition here, on the essence that still separates humans from the algorithm. The question then is: how is the appropriate position on that continuum of purely deliberate to purely emergent best established at any given time?

I suspect the answer lies in our growing understanding of complexity science. I work with the definition that complexity is a system with a seemingly random mix of chaos and order – reflected in the majority of the stuff I read on the matter. If we can instrument organization and its influence flows, if we can take its pulse and other vital signs continuously, then we might be able to have a good guess as to where we are in the chaos-order oscillations (that may vary for different facets of the organization), which might then guide us in moving up and down that deliberate-emergent strategy continuum. And as "essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful", this model will inform the art of the blend rather than substitute for it.

I see this blend in Dee Hock's Chaordic Organization. While Hock is regarded as an early champion of emergence in organization, the chaordic design process and its manifestations in real life blend the emergent and the deliberate. (Note to self: find out why that is exactly.)

While now is not the time to explore chaordic organization in more detail, readers who don't know about it will appreciate the definition of chaord:

1: any autocatalytic, self-regulating, adaptive, nonlinear, complex organism, organization, or system, whether physical, biological or social, the behavior of which harmoniously exhibits characteristics of both order and chaos. 2: an entity whose behavior exhibits patterns and probabilities not governed or explained by the behavior of its parts. 3: the fundamental organizing principle of nature and evolution.

We can also see the blend, or at least a typology of different contexts and the facility to move between them, in the Cynefin framework. In The new dynamics of strategy: Sense-making in a complex and complicated world (PDF), Kurtz and Snowden explain its application:

[It] originated in the practice of knowledge management as a means of distinguishing between formal and informal communities, and as a means of talking about the interaction of both with structured processes and uncertain conditions. It has now outgrown its application in knowledge management, having been in use by our group for several years in consultancy and action research in knowledge management, strategy, management, training, cultural change, policy-making, product development, market creation, and branding. We are now beginning to apply it to the areas of leadership, customer relationship management, and supply chain management...

I was confused by the framework at first because it works from different definitions for complexity, chaos, complicated and disorder to those with which I'm more familiar; that's not a criticism but reflective of the nascency of this stuff. Language emerges. Once I'd made that adjustment in my head this sense-making framework makes sense to me.

I'll return to both Chaordic and Cynefin in future posts.

On the question of design

The topic of deliberate / emergent came up from a different perspective in a recent workshop. The topic was design and it was argued that the title of my Flipboard magazine, Social Business Design, conveys a deliberate rather than emergent outlook by, well, design. We established that this perception was formed from a different understanding of the process of design. It appears that some interpret the design process as entailing a 'creative type' who, by some innate quirk, can lean heavily on instinct and deep inspirational powers to do the designy thing.

Legal design jam at Stanford October 2013 01
Legal design jam at Stanford October 2013 01 []
Actually, now I've written that, is this the type of mystical regard those masses lower in the typical corporate hierarchy must sustain for those C-title types as they deliberate and formulate, plot and plan? How do they know the right things to do?! Oh wise ones. Until witnessing the inevitable strategic missteps of course.

But back to design ...

Engineers are not the only professional designers. Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.

This second sentence is one of the most famous definitions of design, by Herbert Simon (The Sciences of the Artificial, 1969). As an engineer myself, I can safely say I have never designed in isolation from other engineers and non-engineers, and I love Simon's reference to and reverence for "everyone". It definitely plays to emergent approaches to strategy just as "preferred" conveys that the future has been deliberated.

In searching for a definition of design that addresses aspects of sensitivity more urgently I've discovered a recent masters dissertation by Dianne Hardin under the direction of Professor Craig Vogel that I wish I'd had to hand during the workshop – The Innovation Imperative: Not Without Design.


Individuals, and therefore organizations, possess different functional abilities to connect with other people – to care – and to leverage the elements of good design. This is where design excels, and I argue, it is the core of a design-driven organization; the ability to use a range of qualitative and quantitative empathy to listen in order to understand and articulate cultural change(s) and personal value(s) that inspires new idea(s) and insights.

... From these ideas emerges a model that seeks to create a framework for evaluating the design sensibility of an organization – The Sempathy Continuum Model.


Sempathy Continuum Model
The Sempathy Continuum Model, Diane Hardin, 2014

The emphasis on caring, on understanding, plays nicely into my social business mutuality stack.

For our context here, I like where Hardin takes us:

As a noun, design is defined as the role of change agent in organizations, groups and societies, constantly observing and recognizing trends that are influencing changes in cultural belief systems, and positively influencing a cultural reallocation of resources to create new connections with people and solve whole problems to produce new artifacts or systems that generate economic value.

While I'd want to delete Hardin's "economic" qualifier of value, I'm confident this summation of the design process and Simon's reference to some future preferred state encompass both the deliberate and the emergent.

In conclusion then, I believe deliberate and emergent strategy approaches must be blended together, by design.

Further reading

"Deliberate and emergent strategies may be conceived as two ends of a continuum along which real-world strategies lie." From Of strategies, deliberate and emergent, Henry Mintzberg and James A. Waters, Strategic Management Journal, Vol 6 Issue 3, 1985.

Porter or Mintzberg: Whose View of Strategy Is the Most Relevant Today?, Associate Professor Karl Moore, Forbes, March 2011.

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