Of Personal Strategies, Deliberate and Emergent

How did I get to where I am now? To what extent can I plan the future of my career, or my life?

These are some questions I asked myself this week after reading this profile on Clayton Christensen in the New Yorker. Christensen is a Harvard Business School professor who became famous as a strategic consultant and author about disruptive technologies. In the last minute of this video clip, Christensen talks about how he applies the idea of deliberate and emergent business strategies to his personal career. And it was this short clip that got me thinking.

Christensen is referring to a 1985 paper called Of Strategies, Deliberate and Emergent by Henry Mintzberg that is now taught frequently in business schools. Mintzberg says that all real business strategies fall somewhere on a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum is determined strategy, or a plan that is realized exactly as intended. On the other end of the spectrum is the emergent strategy, or a pattern of behaviors that are realized despite intentions. In other words, most companies have an explicit plan for how they want things to turn out, but things don’t always turn out exactly as planned. And sometimes businesses can’t believe where they ended up.

For example, most people know the legend of how 3M accidentally stumbled upon the billion dollar product called the Post-It Note. To use Mintzberg’s terms, sticky notes became an emergent strategy for 3M. The product emerged as a success even though the company had not intended it to. Perhaps not as famous as the sticky note is the 3M culture of innovation, which certainly was developed intentionally. The 3M leadership deliberately created – through explicit direction, budgets, controls, etc. – an innovative organization where accidents like the Post-It note were possible. The innovative culture was a deliberate strategy and the Post-It note was an emergent strategy.

This is all dandy if you happen to be a strategic manager, but what may be appealing to you, and is most appealing to me is the application of this thought process to an individual career or life. I couldn’t have predicted I would be working for a mattress company – I wanted to work in hospitality, maybe own my own restaurant. I stumbled upon my current career. Clayton Christensen intended to be the editor of the Wall Street Journal, but he turned out to be a Harvard professor. In life, things don’t always work out the way we planned.

What does all this mean for you and I in the future? Do we submit to chaos and give up any notion of control of where our careers or lives will end up? This was my initial reaction, but I don’t think chaos is real message here. Being aware of emergent themes or events in our lives simply means being open to learning new things and traveling down unexpected paths. Mintzberg wrote, “Emergent strategy itself implies learning what works – taking one action at a time in search for that viable pattern or consistency. It is important to remember that emergent strategy means, not chaos, but, in essence, unintended order.” That’s a perfect phrase – our lives seem to have some unintended order to them, don’t they?

Christensen takes this one step further. He said, “I don’t want to leave to chance the kind of person I want to be. That’s deliberate strategy to me… How I get there, the way the career emerges has been emergent [strategy]. It’s brought a lot of happiness to me to finally be able to frame what’s going on in my life in this way.”

I am sure I wouldn’t be able to predict to any significant degree of accuracy where my career will be in ten or twenty years. I will have to take my life one small step at a time, and be open to what emerges along the way. I can deliberately control – through my values, thoughts, and behaviors – what type of person I will be.

Clayton Christensen from http://www.claytonchristensen.com.