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Try using an “Emergent Strategy” when you’re not sure which path your business should take.

Many companies, particularly when it comes to new technologies, are often unsure about which strategy to use. Experimenting on a small scale and seeing what works is called an “Emergent Strategy”.

It looks a bit like this:

Graphic adapted ex "Strategy Safari", Mintzberg et al (2009).

Emergent Strategy: A definition

Emergent Strategy is defined as: “A pattern is realized that is not expressly intended. Actions were taken, one by one, which converged over time to some sort of consistency, or pattern” (Mintzberg, Ahlstrand, Lampel, [2009])

When to use an Emergent Strategy:

Emergent strategies are a good option when companies are not sure which approach to take. It’s particularly valuable when companies are entering new markets as research shows that companies in this situation tend to start with the wrong strategy (Anthony et al. [2008]).  An Emergent Strategy is about taking small tentative steps, testing the ground until you discover the right path. Social Media experimentation is a good example where companies are deploying an Emergent Strategy.

Emergent Strategy Example: Warwick Business School’s Social Media Strategy

Researching my MBA dissertation on the use and development of social media, I came across a video on Vimeo detailing Warwick Business School’s (WBS) use of social media.

Take a look.

The video, published 2 years ago, outlines how WBS’ social media strategy developed “organically” in 3 phases, moving from an emergent to a deliberate strategy as WBS found out what worked.

  1. Students and alumni began to experiment with social media.
  2. The school decides to adopt social media and focus on 3 sites: Linkedin, Facebook and Twitter. Each with a different focus. The Twitter strategy was about getting to know the team and used as a heads-up for events. Linkedin was used as a formal portal to highlight professional interest groups and post jobs. Facebook was used informally for instance to display old photos and encourage alumni to get in touch.
  3. From the success and failures of these experiments the school is now looking to implement a “top down” or “deliberate” strategy to ensure a coherent, branded approach.

3 Steps towards designing your own Emergent Strategy

If you’re unsure about which strategy to use in your company, an “Emergent Strategy” might be a prudent option. The 3 steps steps towards building an Emergent Strategy are as follows:

3 Steps to an Emergent Strategy

Further Reading:

Anthony, S., Johnson, W., Sinfield, J., Altman, E., (2008) “Mastering Emergent Strategies –Taking Uncertain Ideas Forward” Excerpt from “Innovator’s Guide to Growth: Putting Disruptive Innovation to Work”, Boston, Harvard Business Press. Available (online) http://blogs.hbr.org/innovation/flatmm/mastering-emergent-strategies.pdf [Accessed 15/10/2011]

Mintzberg, H., Ahlstrand, B., Lampel., J. (2009) “Strategy Safari” 2nd Edition, Harlow, Prentice Hall.

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