In business, the terms corporate strategy, organizational strategy, and strategic planning refer to the specific initiatives a company undertakes to work toward and achieve its strategic goals. No matter your business's size, understanding the underlying strategy that guides it is an integral part of being an effective leader and manager.

Corporate strategy often varies from business to business and depends on several factors. While there are numerous frameworks you can use to interpret your organization’s strategy, one effective way of doing so is through the lens of emergent versus deliberate strategy.

Related: 5 Tips for Formulating a Successful Strategy

Here’s an overview of emergent and deliberate strategy, along with an examination of when it may make sense for your organization to leverage one over the other.

What Is a Deliberate Strategy?

According to the online course Disruptive Strategy, a deliberate strategy is one that arises from conscious, thoughtful, and organized action on the part of a business and its leadership. It’s typically generated from a rigorous analysis of data, including metrics such as:

  • Market growth
  • Segment size
  • Customer needs
  • Competitor strengths and weaknesses
  • Technological trajectories

A deliberate strategy is often employed by large businesses or corporations that are firmly established within their markets. History and stability provide them with enough data and experience to plot out a long-term strategy (sometimes called a five- or ten-year strategic plan) and confidence in their ability to project that far out into the future. While useful, deliberate strategy comes with challenges.

“Being successful with a deliberate strategy is a very complicated problem,” says Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen in Disruptive Strategy.

Christensen explains that this is because most successful, established businesses consist of multiple people, teams, and departments working together toward a common goal. In such a system, individual contributors must understand how their work helps achieve shared goals and impacts others. If even a single contributor doesn’t execute their duties effectively or understand how their work affects strategic goals, then the company’s ability to reach its objectives is diminished.

“It’s critical that every employee understands what the organization’s strategy is,” Christensen says. “Because it’s only if they understand the strategy that they can then dissect it into individual activities they must successfully complete to implement the strategy.”

In short, Christensen notes that deliberate strategy only works effectively when everybody understands what the organization is trying to accomplish.

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What Is an Emergent Strategy?

An emergent strategy is one that arises from unplanned actions and initiatives from within an organization. It’s typically viewed as the product of spontaneous innovation, and often a direct result of the daily prioritization and investment decisions made by individual contributors, such as middle managers, engineers, financial staff, and salespeople.

Compared to a deliberate strategy, an emergent strategy is often more flexible. Though the organization still has goals that it’s working toward, there’s flexibility to adjust those goals and pursue other opportunities or priorities as they emerge. As such, many startups leverage an emergent strategy in their earliest stages.

“When you’re managing the process of emergent strategy, you’re not telling everybody that they have this piece or that piece,” Christensen says in Disruptive Strategy. “What you have to ensure is that all of the employees are looking for new opportunities to grow.”

Christensen notes that those may be opportunities that help an organization reach its original strategic goals or effectively cause its priorities and goals to shift.

“Very often, when a company is trying to implement a deliberate strategy, they’re focused on their [original] goal,” Christensen says. “On the right and on the left, there are emergent opportunities that they don’t even see because they’re so focused on the original goal. If you’re in a mode of emergent strategy, yes, you have to go after something in a deliberate way. But you have to plan on things to emerge on the right and on the left of that which you may never have thought about before.”

He stresses that, for an emergent strategy to work well, employees and managers alike should constantly look at the periphery—not just in the direction of the end goal.

When to Use an Emergent or Deliberate Strategy

It’s important to remember that the right strategy for a particular business depends on several factors. That being said, emergent and deliberate strategies are often pursued by companies facing certain circumstances.

Consider an Emergent Strategy If…

As a general rule of thumb, an emergent strategy may be the right choice for your business if the future is uncertain, and it isn’t clear what the right long-term strategy should be. By embracing an emergent strategy, you remain nimble enough to make adjustments as more data becomes available, while still knowing that you’re working toward a goal that makes sense.

Typically, an emergent strategy is most useful during the early phases of a company’s life, after a product launch, or when the competitive landscape is substantially changing.

When embracing an emergent strategy, it’s crucial to ensure that all employees are empowered to surface and elevate new ideas as they emerge so your organization can coalesce around those that are most promising.

Consider a Deliberate Strategy If…

Once a winning strategy is clear, it will likely make more sense to pursue a deliberate strategy that can set your company on course to achieve its strategic goals. Deliberate strategy is a better fit once a company has reached a certain level of maturity and stability, at which point it can shift away from survival toward growth.

Typically, the difference between success and failure when implementing a deliberate strategy is how well each person or department executes their tasks. Therefore, the strategy must make sense to everyone within the organization—from individual employees to top-level managers.

Different Strategies for Different Times

While some businesses perpetually embrace an emergent mindset, those that are most successful tend to shift toward a deliberate one once it emerges. Walmart is an excellent example of this principle in action.

Modern-day Walmart is well known for embracing a deliberate strategy of building large stores in small towns across the country, but this wasn’t always the case. After the success of his first store, Walmart founder Sam Walton decided to open his second one in a small, nearby town due to logistical reasons. As Walton’s success continued, more stores were added, often in small towns. Eventually, the company observed that this strategy was the best means of expanding its business, and it became its deliberate strategy. Walmart’s unplanned initiative of building new stores in small communities (its emergent strategy) transitioned into a thoughtful and organized action (its deliberate strategy).

As with Walmart, deciding which strategy is ideal for your business will depend on various factors, including its maturity and the competitive environment.

It’s important not to become so invested in a particular strategy that you blind yourself to other opportunities that arise. Though an emergent strategy can empower your business to rapidly pivot during uncertain times, committing to an emergent mindset may hinder the success of fully pursuing one initiative.

At the same time, committing to a particular deliberate strategy may cause your business to fall behind competition during periods of change. The most effective companies tend to be those led by professionals who understand when to apply both an emergent and deliberate strategy to their corporate plans.

Do you want to learn more about different strategies businesses can leverage to grow and succeed? Our six-week online Disruptive Strategy course can equip you with the tools, frameworks, and intuition to develop executive-level strategy and organize for innovation.

Tim Stobierski

About the Author

Tim Stobierski is a marketing specialist and contributing writer for Harvard Business School Online.