What Is Emergent Strategy? With Benefits and Examples

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published April 13, 2021

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Emergent strategy can help address the shortcomings of strategic planning for businesses. Learning about emergent strategy and its advantages can help you decide if it's the right type of approach for a business. In this article, we define emergent strategy, list its elements, describe the differences between emergent strategy and strategic planning approaches in business, offer reasons to use emergent strategy, describe the benefits to using this model for a business and offer examples of an emergent strategy for a company.

Related: Strategy For Growth: 10 Effective Methods for Businesses

What is emergent strategy?

Emergent strategy is an action model coined by author Henry Mintzberg that describes a business strategy that develops over time as a business balances its goals with changing circumstances. These strategies emerge after a business carries out a set of actions repeatedly to develop a pattern in its habits. Emergent strategy differs from deliberate strategy in business because the pattern of an emergent strategy is by definition unintended. Here are examples of unforeseen circumstances that can prompt emergent strategies:

  • Market changes: An unexpected change in a company's market or industry, like an unexpected increase in demand, can lead to emergent strategies as a company works to address these changes.

  • Economic changes: Fluctuations in the economy can also prompt emergent strategies.

  • New ideas: In some situations, an emergent strategy can result from an employee suggesting a new procedure.

Related: 10 Business Strategy Examples

Emergent strategy vs. strategic planning

The opposite of using emergent strategies for a business is setting and following a strategic plan to achieve business goals. The use of data to set goals is both a benefit and a challenge of strategic planning, which doesn't account for changes in a business's operations or performance the way an emergent strategy does. Often, businesses can benefit from a mix of planned and emergent strategies to both meet their goals and adapt to a changing environment because of unforeseen circumstances.

What are the elements of emergent strategy?

Below is a list of the principles of emergent strategy in business:

  • Learning: One principle of emergent strategy is learning, meaning that businesses can commit to using discovery as a driving force for developing strategies and processes.

  • Adaptation: Another important emergent strategy principle is adaptation. The ability to adapt to changing circumstances can help businesses create strategies that are flexible and scalable.

  • Collaboration: The ability of a company's employees to collaborate to solve problems can lead to emergent strategies that help companies address change.

Related: 7 Steps of the Strategic Planning Process

Why use emergent strategy?

An emergent strategy can be a natural result of a company adopting processes to address changing circumstances. When organizations embrace emergent strategy, they can use the power of change to guide their plans, visions and decisions, rather than a specified business strategy. This can allow businesses to adopt new and innovative processes through trial and error.

While emergent strategies can be unpredictable, they can give companies an opportunity to better meet the needs of consumers and adapt to new situations. The ability to adapt through the use of emergent strategies can help businesses weather financial hardship and discover new applications for their products.

Benefits of emergent strategy

Here are the advantages to using emergent strategy in business:

  • Practicality: Adopting emergent strategies can allow companies to put their resources toward processes that can be more effective than a company's deliberate strategies.

  • Learning: An emergent strategy offers companies a chance to learn from the strategy and its results. If an emergent strategy is successful, a company can formally add the strategy to its strategic plan.

  • Opportunity: The freedom to use and analyze emergent strategies in a company can give companies the opportunity to grow as a result of an emergent strategy.

  • Flexibility: Emergent strategy can allow companies to more flexibly approach changes in an industry or economy.

  • Creativity: The ability to create and learn from emergent strategies can help companies use creativity to address new problems with innovative solutions.

  • Improved culture: Emergent strategy in business can result in a more positive workplace culture as a result of increased creativity and flexibility in the business's strategies.

Related: 8 Strategies for Organizational Change

Examples of emergent strategy in business

Below are examples of businesses adopting emergent strategies:

Example 1

An employee at a clothing manufacturing plant notices that the company's standard process for cutting patterns from fabric leads to fabric waste. The employee designs a new way to make three garments out of an amount of fabric that only yielded two garments under the company's process. The employee notifies their manager and other garment employees about the efficiency, and the manufacturing plant adopts the emergent strategy of using less fabric to make more garments.

Example 2

A gym offering group exercise classes and personal training services experiences financial uncertainty as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The situation pushes the small business toward an emergent strategy: offering outdoor classes that allow clients to exercise with a much lower risk of getting sick. The emergent strategy allows the business to grow its operations and remain financially stable as a result of a higher consumer demand for safe ways to exercise and socialize during uncertain times.

Example 3

A mobile app development company focusing on games identifies its target market as children between the ages of 10 and 16. The company's marketing department notices a significant increase in downloads and purchases from a new market segment: women between 40 and 50. The marketing department researches the market and learns that the older market enjoys playing games that are simplistic and visually appealing. The company develops an emergent strategy for branding and marketing the game toward older audiences and experiences a significant increase in downloads.

Had the company followed its strategic plan for marketing the app toward children, it wouldn't have learned about the opportunity to seize a new market, so in this situation, an emergent strategy was beneficial for the company.

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