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IDEAS FOR LEADERS: Mintzberg's Better Way to Do Corporate Strategy

An original post by Karl Moore and Phil LeNirA few months ago I devoted my column to a discussion about the differences between Michael Porter's concepts of "deliberate strategy" versus Henry Mintzberg's "emergent strategy." As much as I had relied on Porter to guide my own career at IBM, and at Oxford and LBS, my new conclusion is that the world is no longer dependable, consistent, or predictable enough for leaders to rely only on deliberate strategic planning in advance. Strategic flexibility is now a requirement and that suggests, as I wrote, that "Mintzberg's emergent strategy is on the upswing." What does this mean practically for C-Suite executives who "do strategy"?Since then my friend and former student Phil LeNir and I've been doing some further thinking about this juxtaposition, Porter vs. Mintzberg, and its implications for organizations. Since we are seeing much less of a bunch of senior executives heading off to posh resorts to talk about Porter's 5 Forces and come up with the game plan for the next 2, 3, or 5 years, how then does strategy get accomplished?What's clear to us is that emergent strategy needs a completely different modus operandi, one that has the entire organization playing a role. Managers at all levels, and perhaps even employees, must feed into the strategic conversations, imparting their knowledge about what they are experiencing with customers or suppliers and what trends they are picking up on. Emergent strategy is therefore much more exploratory, dynamic, and organically home grown.This puts a burden on companies to become "learning" organizations. We know we've been hearing this term for at least a decade, but emergent learning to bolster emergent strategy finally makes more sense than ever before. If reality is constantly changing, the company cannot stop analyzing, assessing, and planning to keep up—or get ahead of—those changes. We have to admit, Henry seems to have seen this coming even years ago when he wrote, "The real challenge in crafting strategy lies in detecting the subtle discontinuities that may undermine a business in the future. And for that, there is no technique, no program, just a sharp mind in touch with the situation."The way we need to interpret this today is that organizations need lots of sharp minds—and not just at the C-suite level. Middle managers—the people who command the front lines of the workforce and have their feet on the ground where the action happens—have to be leaders who are constantly talking, learning, and innovating. I know Henry agrees with this 100 percent, as he has made the role of middle managers one of the major premises of his teaching.We are at a point where the pace of change is reconfiguring the very essence of organizational person. We need great CEOs and leaders of course, but basically, it is time to admit that for many organizations the hierarchical, (Kyle Hill and I talked about this two weeks ago) top-down chain of command, authoritarian organization is a formula of the past—just like the idea that the company strategy can be solidly fixed years in advance.For some people, this is exciting, albeit for others, it is undoubtedly frightening. But we need to get used to the idea that in an emergent world, the organizations that will fare the best most likely are going to be those that learn how to learn better, that put effort into creating not chains of command but chains of learning, by which we mean structures to support everyone learning, especially middle managers. These are the people who need to be constantly improving their skills, tackling new subjects, challenging themselves with new knowledge, and mastering new ways to think and manage.We are not suggesting that companies spend oodles of money sending middle managers away on learning junkets or to management training programs. The type of learning we are talking about can be done on the job, as part and parcel of their usual activities, through social or collaborative "learning events" like webinars, knowledge exchange workshops, and short topical courses that have relevance in the moment.It's "just-in-time learning" - where groups of middle managers realize they have a need to learn something and so they agree to meet up to tackle a topic, learn some new context, share their own knowledge and experiences, and then take their learning right back to their jobs where they apply it immediately. Their successes then cross horizontally to other managers in other divisions, and perhaps they also trickle up the ladder where senior executives buy into them and convert them into a wider strategic view. This is how emergent learning becomes emergent strategy.Harvard's Michael Beer has argued that some of the most powerful change ideas in an organization comes from managers working on real business problems which cut across functions, jointly solving the problem. Executives should then scale up some of these innovations and spread across the organization, thus leading to real, emergent change.Our sense is that this is precisely the style of learning and strategizing that Millennials love, this Post Modern generation that don't want to be led or managed, but "worked with." But the driving force of emergent learning is not due to a generational gap. Even without the Millennials around, it's what organizations need to do because this is a whole new world in which being able to think and act fast is the key to strategic survival.Phil LeNir is the President of CoachingOurselves, a firm he founded with Henry Mintzberg which uses an approach to 'just-in-time' learning for management teams based on discussion and reflection guided by management topic booklets written by Goldsmith, Kotler, Mintzberg, Schein, Semler, Ulrich, Moore and many more._______________________________________________The Organization Optimizer is a methodology for establishing a learning culture within any organization. Take the FREE Test Drive and learn how it works and how it contributes to that objective.