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Agile Strategy is a (fantastic) spot on the Strategic Continuum

February 12, 2024
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In 1985 Henry Mintzberg and James Waters coined the term “strategy continuum”, by which we can understand and make sense of strategy (Of strategies, Deliberate and Emergent). This work is still relevant today as we hear the ongoing discussions that suggest traditional strategy is dead and “agile” strategy is a resounding winner. But is this so simple? Is traditional strategy bad and agile strategy good or is it like everything… “yes AND”, and nuanced. (check out our blog post on the universal answer to everything is “it depends”)

We’ve investigated this because agile is here, predominantly adopted and at least partially successful in the majority of organizations, and yet, there seems to be a mismatch between how business strategy is determined (where its set), and how the ways of working in the organization best support it.  

Here is what we’ve learned. In essence, the strategy continuum can be understood as having polarities, but walking on two feet- one deliberate, and the other emergent. On the one end, deliberate strategy is where intentions are planned, clearly formulated, and subsequently translated into actions. On the other end, farthest away from deliberate strategy is emergent strategy. The farther you move along the continuum away from deliberate towards emergent strategy, the less precisely articulated is the strategy and therefore, the looser the central control. Emergent strategy emerges as a response to external forces. Deliberate strategy is crafted and curated (generally by leaders) with a relatively concrete level of detail, executed upon as exactly denoted by the people in the organization and leading to the intended outcome that was set at the time of the plan. It is important to note before we get too far along, that we (just as Mintzberg and Waters before) do not believe that one is right and another is wrong, but that there is a scale of applicability and nuances to each.  What we often call agile strategy today, can likely be explained as borrowing heavily from Mintzberg and Waters’ views as the areas between Umbrella and Process strategy. Obviously, because we at IncrementOne work in the realm of educating, facilitating and elevating teams in their ways of working (to support empirically backed learning attitudes to increase quality work and directly influence organizational results), we too are more partial to these “top of the horseshoe” strategies. We feel however, that despite all the talk about agile strategy, it’s few businesses far between that actively understand this, and even fewer who practice it.

What we often call agile strategy today, can likely be explained as borrowing heavily from Mintzberg and Waters’ views as the areas between Umbrella and Process strategy. Obviously, because we at IncrementOne work in the realm of educating, facilitating and elevating teams in their ways of working (to support empirically backed learning attitudes to increase quality work and directly influence organizational results), we too are more partial to these “top of the horseshoe” strategies. We feel however, that despite all the talk about agile strategy, it’s few businesses far between that actively understand this, and even fewer who practice it.

Why is that? We believe that traditional strategy (or the first three strategies closest to “Deliberate” strategy) is still prevalent in most businesses at least to a certain extent because of the sacrifices required to move away from it. Moving away from this means consciously moving away from the overly deliberate, thoughtful, and organized action of the part of a business and its leadership in generating boat loads of (predominantly historical) data, analyzing it and developing a 5–10-year strategic plan. It means moving away from “certainty” and “expert advice” and towards an inherently more risk-laden acknowledgement of “I dunno”. There are few leaders, and fewer boards of directors who are going to approve flowing large wads of cash to “Let’s try this” as a direction, but also, chasing certainty is fickle. While the more deliberate strategies on the strategy continuum can still be successful (we find this generally in large corporations firmly established within their markets with enough history and stability to withstand the most turbulent of times), it also often comes with a significant set of challenges.

According to the father of modern-day innovation and Harvard Business School professor emeritus Clayton Christensen, “most successful, established businesses consist of multiple people, teams, and departments working together toward a common goal. In such a complex 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 through collective action is diminished.”

In other words, if there is one person who doesn’t understand the strategy, or isn’t doing what they need to, to break it into tangible pieces of work to implement the strategy- then a source of waste that can adversely impact the overarching strategic goal is introduced. This requires an extraordinary level of control over the teams and people in the organization, as well as strong commitment to the charted course. It can also mean that when you’re heads down focussed on the deliberate strategy, emergent opportunities don’t benefit from being explored or developed. (This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad thing, focus is a beautiful thing after all!)

In contrast, something midway along the path to emergent strategy tends to be a better choice when the future is uncertain, when the organization’s competitive landscape is shifting significantly, or when the organization is small and still trying to establish itself. According to Mintzberg and Waters, “for a strategy to be perfectly emergent, there must be consistency in action over time in the absence of intention about it” … ie. for it to be called truly emergent, there would be no specific intention that led to the realization of an outcome. That is truly rare, and we believe, not entirely desirable either.


Our world today is inherently plagued by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity; this is the realm where organizations are better suited to adopting something around the middle and to the right of the continuum. (See image)

Even if most businesses in the world have at least partially adopted agile ways of working as status quo, there is still work to be done in shifting systemic paradigms and decentralizing strategic activities. Especially in organizations where there has been an attempt at scaling agility, this is a particular area we find ourselves often helping leaders and their teams fully embrace.  

If you’re down on the agile team thing but finding there may be a benefit to talk about how to make the more emergent of strategies work for your teams, talk to us. Having the right kind of strategy to fit the environment the business is operating in, together with the right expectations backed up by fit for purpose planning (so that teams can do their best thing) is the stuff our dreams are made of. And we really like making dreams come true.

Sources:  
https://online.hbs.edu/blog/post/emergent-vs-deliberate-strategy

https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/document?repid=rep1&type=pdf&doi=340a94390955041d19783f828a607803ad9910d9

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In 1985 Henry Mintzberg and James Waters coined the term “strategy continuum”, by which we can understand and make sense of strategy (Of strategies, Deliberate and Emergent). This work is still relevant today as we hear the ongoing discussions that suggest traditional strategy is dead and “agile” strategy is a resounding winner. But is this so simple? Is traditional strategy bad and agile strategy good or is it like everything… “yes AND”, and nuanced. (check out our blog post on the universal answer to everything is “it depends”)

We’ve investigated this because agile is here, predominantly adopted and at least partially successful in the majority of organizations, and yet, there seems to be a mismatch between how business strategy is determined (where its set), and how the ways of working in the organization best support it.  

Here is what we’ve learned. In essence, the strategy continuum can be understood as having polarities, but walking on two feet- one deliberate, and the other emergent. On the one end, deliberate strategy is where intentions are planned, clearly formulated, and subsequently translated into actions. On the other end, farthest away from deliberate strategy is emergent strategy. The farther you move along the continuum away from deliberate towards emergent strategy, the less precisely articulated is the strategy and therefore, the looser the central control. Emergent strategy emerges as a response to external forces. Deliberate strategy is crafted and curated (generally by leaders) with a relatively concrete level of detail, executed upon as exactly denoted by the people in the organization and leading to the intended outcome that was set at the time of the plan. It is important to note before we get too far along, that we (just as Mintzberg and Waters before) do not believe that one is right and another is wrong, but that there is a scale of applicability and nuances to each.  What we often call agile strategy today, can likely be explained as borrowing heavily from Mintzberg and Waters’ views as the areas between Umbrella and Process strategy. Obviously, because we at IncrementOne work in the realm of educating, facilitating and elevating teams in their ways of working (to support empirically backed learning attitudes to increase quality work and directly influence organizational results), we too are more partial to these “top of the horseshoe” strategies. We feel however, that despite all the talk about agile strategy, it’s few businesses far between that actively understand this, and even fewer who practice it.

What we often call agile strategy today, can likely be explained as borrowing heavily from Mintzberg and Waters’ views as the areas between Umbrella and Process strategy. Obviously, because we at IncrementOne work in the realm of educating, facilitating and elevating teams in their ways of working (to support empirically backed learning attitudes to increase quality work and directly influence organizational results), we too are more partial to these “top of the horseshoe” strategies. We feel however, that despite all the talk about agile strategy, it’s few businesses far between that actively understand this, and even fewer who practice it.

Why is that? We believe that traditional strategy (or the first three strategies closest to “Deliberate” strategy) is still prevalent in most businesses at least to a certain extent because of the sacrifices required to move away from it. Moving away from this means consciously moving away from the overly deliberate, thoughtful, and organized action of the part of a business and its leadership in generating boat loads of (predominantly historical) data, analyzing it and developing a 5–10-year strategic plan. It means moving away from “certainty” and “expert advice” and towards an inherently more risk-laden acknowledgement of “I dunno”. There are few leaders, and fewer boards of directors who are going to approve flowing large wads of cash to “Let’s try this” as a direction, but also, chasing certainty is fickle. While the more deliberate strategies on the strategy continuum can still be successful (we find this generally in large corporations firmly established within their markets with enough history and stability to withstand the most turbulent of times), it also often comes with a significant set of challenges.

According to the father of modern-day innovation and Harvard Business School professor emeritus Clayton Christensen, “most successful, established businesses consist of multiple people, teams, and departments working together toward a common goal. In such a complex 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 through collective action is diminished.”

In other words, if there is one person who doesn’t understand the strategy, or isn’t doing what they need to, to break it into tangible pieces of work to implement the strategy- then a source of waste that can adversely impact the overarching strategic goal is introduced. This requires an extraordinary level of control over the teams and people in the organization, as well as strong commitment to the charted course. It can also mean that when you’re heads down focussed on the deliberate strategy, emergent opportunities don’t benefit from being explored or developed. (This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad thing, focus is a beautiful thing after all!)

In contrast, something midway along the path to emergent strategy tends to be a better choice when the future is uncertain, when the organization’s competitive landscape is shifting significantly, or when the organization is small and still trying to establish itself. According to Mintzberg and Waters, “for a strategy to be perfectly emergent, there must be consistency in action over time in the absence of intention about it” … ie. for it to be called truly emergent, there would be no specific intention that led to the realization of an outcome. That is truly rare, and we believe, not entirely desirable either.


Our world today is inherently plagued by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity; this is the realm where organizations are better suited to adopting something around the middle and to the right of the continuum. (See image)

Even if most businesses in the world have at least partially adopted agile ways of working as status quo, there is still work to be done in shifting systemic paradigms and decentralizing strategic activities. Especially in organizations where there has been an attempt at scaling agility, this is a particular area we find ourselves often helping leaders and their teams fully embrace.  

If you’re down on the agile team thing but finding there may be a benefit to talk about how to make the more emergent of strategies work for your teams, talk to us. Having the right kind of strategy to fit the environment the business is operating in, together with the right expectations backed up by fit for purpose planning (so that teams can do their best thing) is the stuff our dreams are made of. And we really like making dreams come true.

Sources:  
https://online.hbs.edu/blog/post/emergent-vs-deliberate-strategy

https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/document?repid=rep1&type=pdf&doi=340a94390955041d19783f828a607803ad9910d9

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