Experimentation v Planning v Emergent Strategy
Experimenting isn’t something I usually enjoy, but sometimes you just have to go against everything that you’ve learned and experience something new! I’m an organiser. I enjoy planning and I enjoy taking steps one by one towards an endpoint. But that’s not what I’ve been doing this month in my studio.
I’ve been experimenting with natural dyes, and I’ve been having enormous fun using eucalyptus leaves, dandelion leaves, onion skins and other natural dyes. Some experiments have been eye opening, others have been rather disappointing. But isn’t that the way with life—you can never tell! I’ve also been painting with dye onto felt to see what effects I can create. If any of my experiments turn out well, I’ll be taking them to the spinners and weavers exhibition in June.
The difference between my usual way of doing things, and the dyeing, is that with the experimenting mindset I don’t really have any clear plans or definite goals that I want to achieve. The whole idea is playing and experimenting and seeing what happens.
It’s the opposite when I teach writing. I teach how to plan very carefully, and then follow that plan to achieve your goal.
Both experimentation and planning approaches are valid, but there is also a “middle ground” approach of emergent strategy.
Experimentation, Planning and Emergent Strategy
When you approach a new venture there are two traditional approaches. You can approach it through either experimentation or planning. In the past, in business or in writing, I’ve argued that planning was definitely the way to go. But there are advantages to the experimentation mode of thought. I’ve many writing friends who enjoy going down the experimentation route, even though it means a lot of rewriting for a second draft.
However, there’s a third approach—a middle approach—that may be more appropriate in many situations.
In the planning mindset these are the things that we believe:
- We know where we want to go
- We need a plan to get there
- We make a plan
- We base it on historical facts and past successes
- We execute the plan
- We evaluate the plan
- We avoid failure
- We avoid uncertainty
- We incorporate detail
- Our numbers are based on assumptions
In the experimentation mindset the beliefs are different:
- We start, not knowing where we want to go
- We need value propositions rather than plans
- We place an emphasis on development
- We experiment and we learn
- We get the facts and insights from experiments
- We feed back our discoveries into new learnings
- We embrace our failures and try to improve
- Uncertainty is acknowledged, and then reduced by experimentation
- The details change depending on evidence from experimentation
- Our numbers are evidence-based
So, is one method better than the other?
I know from past experience that in some instances experimentation works, and in some instances planning is paramount.
Every business is different. Every person is different.
Take holidays for example. Some people enjoy the freedom of going on holiday and not knowing what they will do from day to day. Some people enjoy planning down to the last detail. For the first sort of person an unforseen event is not a disaster. There were no plans in the first place. For the second type of person such an event could ruin a holiday.
So maybe somewhere in between those two approaches would work best.
These days with technology failing all the time, it’s really important to be prepared to make changes at the last minute and to develop options and explore possibilities. That way, when disruption does arrive you’re ready with alternatives.
This approach is often referred to as emergent strategy.
The planner asks: what do we want to achieve?
The experimenter asks: what can we achieve?
The emergent strategist asks: what can we achieve with the resources that are at our fingertips at any given moment?
Emergent strategy seems to incorporate the good things about both planning and experimentation. The emergent strategists put some plans in place but are flexible enough to change them if circumstances demand. They free up their thinking to incorporate possibilities.
When you’re writing, this would include allowing space for change if you get a good idea as you’re going. You’re not locked into using your original plan if, all of a sudden, you get a brilliant intuition or learn a new fact that will take you in a different direction. At this point, you re-evaluate the remainder of the plan and take things along a different path if necessary—usually towards the same goal.
Emergent strategy is not strategy by prediction or strategy by discovery; it’s a flexible middle road.
I’ve decided that I should stop being one of those people who plan constantly and rely on those plans absolutely. I need to take more leaves from the emergent strategist’s book. Do you?