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Emergent and Deliberate Strategy

Christensen defines organisational strategy as being the right combination of that which is fixed and ‘deliberate’, and that which is more flexible, or emergent. Strategy, he says, is ‘not a discrete analytical event’ or something decided using best known numbers at the time in a meeting of senior managers. Instead, it is a ‘continuous, diverse, and unruly process’ that constantly evolves. So the art of managing this is not to dismiss anything that deviates from the original plan but to continually identify better options and then manage resources flexibly to nourish them. This might sound obvious, but rigid planning processes often mitigate against this and (particularly in large organisations) challenging the original plan could mean entering a morale-killing world of pain.

The example Christensen uses to illustrate the advantages of flexibility is the way in which Honda broke into America. The company’s strategy was based entirely around big motorbikes (since that is what US consumers seemed to favour), bringing them into competition with manufacturers like Harley. Some Honda employees started to use a few of the much smaller Supercub models to do a bit of weekend dirt biking in the hills around LA, a Sears buyer sees the interest this generates, decides to stock them in the outdoor equipment department, and a new opportunity for Honda, an innovative distribution strategy, and a whole new genre of biking, is born. Honda refocused their strategy on the Supercub which went on to become the best selling two-wheeler on the planet, in no small part due to their ability to break into the North American market.

In The Origin and Evolution of New Business, Professor Amar Bhide was able to show that 93% of all companies that ultimately become successful had to abandon their original strategy. And there’s a lesson in that for all of us.

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