Some years ago, I had a conversation with my then-manager (who was also the company founder) about the company strategy.
“I really don’t think we need one”, he said. “Things are changing at such high speeds, it would be outdated as soon as we finish it. It’s better to just be flexible and opportunistic.”
Since then, I’ve heard many variations on this theme, usually from startup founders and indie devs. The core sentiment is always that strategy is too rigid and impractical for small or starting companies, and therefore a waste of time.
Deliberate and emergent strategy
In 1987, Canadian academic and business author Henry Mintzberg argued exactly this point. In analysing what executive managers actually do, he repeatedly found that classical strategy management is unrealistic. No-one sat down over weeks or months to craft a dozen-page strategy document, and then executed it step-by-step exactly as they imagined it.
In reality, Mintzberg found that companies often establish certain patterns that were not explicitly conceived of in a formal strategy—if there even was one to begin with. Mintzberg called this “emergent strategy”; the strategy that emerges by chance, circumstances and choices made on-the-fly, while companies are figuring out what works in the real world.
Strategy, he argues, exists on a spectrum. Deliberate strategy sits on one side, and emergent strategy on the other, with an infinite number of possible points in-between.
So does this mean that having no strategy is just as viable as an elaborately designed one?
Mintzberg believed that all viable strategies combine elements of both deliberate and emergent strategy. He called this approach “crafting strategy”.
By combining both types of strategy, you get the best of both worlds. You set a high level direction for your company, while leaving ample room to learn from and adapt to changing circumstances.
Where to start?
So, back to the company I worked for. Was my manager right, and was strategy just a waste of time?
I believed then, as I do now, that being even slightly deliberate about your strategy will greatly increase a company’s odds of success. Strategy is a way for your team to get on the same page about what you will and won’t do. This allows you to concentrate your efforts in the same relative direction, instead of having those efforts pull you in various unrelated directions.
So even if you don’t want to become highly strategic, there’s good reason to work on becoming “less unstrategic“. Fortunately, there are many places to start this process:
- Most larger strategy frameworks include working on your mission, vision and values. These are a great way to define what matters to your team, without restricting specific courses of action.
- Defining your target audience is also a great place to start. Frame your opportunity space in terms of what your audience wants and needs—again without restricting any paths from the outset.
- You could take the time to define your goals for the long term, and think about the intermediate steps you need to take to get there. Formulate these at the right level of abstraction, and you will still be free to fulfil these conditions in whatever manner you see fit.
- Or you could take the route of Rumelt’s strategy kernel. Take the time to analyze the challenge your company faces, and come up with a guiding policy that leaves room for various sets of actions.
If you didn’t think you needed strategy before, I hope I’ve been able to change your mind, even if just a little. A bit of strategic thinking can go a long way, and there are plenty of places to make a start.
If nothing else, you now know that, absent a proper strategy, you can tell your investors you have an emergent strategy approach.
Here are some next steps you can take if this essay has piqued your interest:
- Subscribe to my newsletter to get new essays just like this one straight in your inbox, every two weeks on Tuesday.
- If you want to start defining, or redefine, your strategy and are unsure where to start, I can help! Schedule an introductory meeting through my calendly page and let’s see if there’s a fit.