When you put in place a plan focused on…anticipated opportunities, you are pursuing a deliberate strategy. The second source of options is unanticipated — usually a cocktail of problems and opportunities that emerges while you are trying to implement the deliberate plan or strategy that you have decided upon. …
The unanticipated problems and opportunities then essentially fight the deliberate strategy for the attention, capital and hearts of the management and employees. The company has to decide whether to stick with the original plan, modify it, or even replace it altogether with one of the alternatives that arises. The decision sometimes is an explicit decision; often, however, a modified strategy coalesces from myriad day-to-day decisions to pursue unanticipated opportunities and resolve unanticipated problems. When strategy forms in this way, it is known as emergent strategy.
When the company’s leaders [make] a clear decision to pursue the new direction, the emergent strategy [becomes] the new deliberate strategy.
But it doesn’t stop there. The process of strategy then reiterates through these steps over and over again. constantly evolving. In other words, strategy is not a discrete analytical event — something decided, say, in a meeting of top managers based on the best numbers and analysis available at the time. Rather, it is a continuous, diverse and unruly process. Managing it is very hard — the deliberate strategy and the new emerging opportunities fight for resources.
[Shifting topic to careers:] If you have found an outlet in your career that provides both the requisite hygiene factors [eg salary, conditions] and motivators [eg personal satisfaction], then a deliberate approach makes sense. Your aspirations should be clear, and you know from your present experience that they are worth striving for. Rather than worrying about adjusting to unexpected opportunities, your frame of mind should be focused on how best to achieve the goals you have deliberately set.
But if you haven’t reached the point of finding a career that does this for you, then, like a new company finding its way, you need to be emergent. This is another way of saying that if you are in these circumstances, experiment in life. As you learn from each experience, adjust. Then iterate quickly. Keep going through this process until your strategy begins to click.
Clayton M Christensen in How Will You Measure Your Life?
Self-help Sunday. From recent experience helping an organization to update its strategy in response to fast-changing circumstances, I can attest to the accuracy of Christensen’s description of the unruly process fusing deliberate and emergent planning. We didn’t articulate it in those words, were maybe unaware that this was even happening, but that’s how it was.
His recommendation for consciously pursuing an emergent-strategy approach, when you haven’t yet stumbled on the work you love, rings true: adjust – iterate – adjust – iterate…