Key concepts / authors

Strategic learning Unintended Order Emergent strategy Deliberate strategy

References to numerous Mintzberg texts (1972 - 1986)

Theme: The behavioural foundation of Strategy

Strategy often has been understood as what leaders plan to do in the future treating it as an analytical process to establish long-range goals and action plans for the organization.

Mintzberg defined strategy as: "a pattern in a stream of decisions" - making it strategy operational and tangible. From here one could analyse the leader's plans and intended goals compared to what the organization actually did.

Mintzberg and Waters argue that strategy can and must be seen in a wider perspective. They distinguish between deliberate strategies (realised as intended) and emergent strategies (strategies that emerge in an organization, but not guided by intentions.)


Deliberate strategy: A perfectly deliberate and intended strategy must satisfy 3 conditions:

  • Precise and articulated intentions must exist in a concrete level of detail
  • Seeing organizations as collective action, intention must be common knowledge to virtually all the actors in the organization.
  • These collective intentions must have been realized exactly as intended - (also meaning that no external forces could have interfered with them).

Emergent strategy: A perfectly emergent strategy is characterised by order, but in the absence of intention about it. It is although difficult to imagine action in the total absence of intention. Emergent strategy does not mean chaos, but in essence unintended order

The authors expect that purely emergent strategies are as rare as the purely deliberate one. It is more likely to find tendencies in the direction of deliberate and emergent strategies rather than perfect forms of either.

As a consequence of the above, the authors see emergent and deliberate strategies as two poles, where different types of strategy can bee said to exist in the space between them.

They introduce the following strategies, where the first strategies fall closest to the deliberate strategy-pole and ending in the last strategies closest to reflecting the characteristics of emergent strategies.


Major features


Strategies originate in formal plans: precise intentions exist, formulated and articulated by central leadership, backed up by formal controls to ensure surprise-free implementation in benign, controllable or predictable environment; strategies most deliberate.


Strategies originate in central vision: intentions exist as personal, unarticulated vision of single leader, and so adaptable to new opportunities; organization under personal control of leader and located in protected niche in environment; strategies relatively deliberate but can emerge.


Strategies originate in shared beliefs; intentions exist as collective vision of all actors, in inspirational form and relatively immutable, controlled normatively through indoctrination and/or socialization; organization often proactive vis-à-vis environment; strategies rather deliberate.


Strategies originate in constraints: leadership, in partial control of organizational actions, defines strategic boundaries or targets within which other actors respond to own forces or to complex, perhaps also unpredictable environment; strategies partly deliberate, partly emergent and deliberately emergent.


Strategies originate in process: leadership controls, process aspects of strategy (hiring, structure, etc.), leaving content aspects to other actors; strategies partly deliberate, partly emergent (and, again, deliberately emergent).


Strategies originate in enclaves: actors(s) loosely coupled to rest of organization produce(s) patterns in own actions in absence of, or in direct contradiction to, central or common intentions; strategies organizationally emergent whether or not deliberate for actors(s).


Stretegies originate in consensus: through mutual adjustment, actors converge on patterns that become pervasice in absence of central or common intentions: strategies rather emergent.


Strategies originate in environment: environment dictates patterns in actions either through direct imposition or through implicityly pre-empting or bounding organizational choice; strategies most emergent, although may be internalized by organization and made deliberate.

The fundamental difference between deliberate and emergent strategy is that whereas the deliberate focuses on direction and control - getting desired things done - the emerging strategy opens up for the notion of "strategic learning"


Emergent strategies do not mean that management is out of control - it is just more open, flexible, responsive and willing to learn. This is an important strategy in a complex, uncertain and changing environment. It best case scenario, it enables management to act before everything is fully understood.

Deliberate strategies help to manage, to impose intentions on the organization and to provide a sense of direction.

The conclusion is therefore, that strategy formation walks on two feet, one deliberate, and the other emergent. And the relative emphasis on one or the other may shift from time to time, but not the requirement to attend to both sides of this phenomenon.


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* Mintzberg and Waters (1985)

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