For most businesses, a deliberate strategy is the most effective means to set specific goals related to growth, expansion, and profit margin. Businesses that adhere to a deliberate strategy typically create multi-year plans to achieve their desired results. However, unforeseen circumstances can lead to a new strategy that diverges from a deliberate strategy. This emergent strategy was not an intended course of action, but it develops despite the original strategic plan, and may provide benefits and drawbacks for a business.

The Elements of an Emergent Strategy

An emergent strategy is not predictable because it arises out of a specific set of circumstances that a business owner could not anticipate. In fact, in many instances, emergent strategies do not become apparent until the deliberate strategy that was originally implemented, fails to produce the desired results. Businesses faced with this kind of failure often adapt their plans to take advantage of the emergent strategy. Typically, emergent strategies develop from rank-and-file workers that recognize patterns and submit ideas about how to improve a process.

Example of an Emergent Strategy

Employees at the shoe giant Zappos suggested that supervisors grant them the authority to process customer requests without needing to place customers on hold for approval. This created an emergent strategy that was focused on pleasing customers by any means necessary, as opposed to adhering to standard protocol. By remaining flexible enough to shift to a winning strategy, Zappos quickly became known as a company that regularly topped the lists of the most customer-friendly businesses in the U.S.

Advantages and Disadvantages of an Emergent Strategy

One of the primary advantages of an emergent strategy is that it can help a business provide what customers actually want, rather than what businesses assumed customers wanted when they implemented a deliberate strategy. This is especially true when emergent strategies develop from a flawed deliberate strategy that has not produced the intended results. Another advantage is emergent strategies that are the result of innovations or ideas submitted by a company’s employees could boost morale, improve work culture, and make workers feel more empowered.

The main disadvantage of an emergent strategy is that it isn’t predictable, and therefore can’t be planned. In other words, emergent strategy occurs as part of the ongoing organizational activity. As a result, it does not offer a genuine alternative to more traditional deliberate strategy, especially for new businesses operating on narrow margins. Businesses, therefore, cannot abandon a deliberate strategy and rely on an emergent strategy to develop. Emergent strategy best serves to complement and serve as a corrective measure for deliberative strategy.