Project Management

Emergent Strategy: How To Lead Now

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Categories: Leadership

by Dave Wakeman

Did you get your vaccine yet? In the United States, we’ve done a good job of getting shots into people’s arms—and for the first time in a long time, things are starting to look normal. For project leaders, the ramp up and ramp down of the vaccination program is likely to be a good case study. But I don’t want to talk about that today, even though it’s amazing. Instead, I want to discuss an idea that’s close to the vaccine rollout and the leadership topics that I’ve been hitting on for the last year: the idea of how to lead now. Over the last year, I’ve gone back and taken a few classes so that at the end of the pandemic, I could be in a position to deal with whatever came next. 

One of the ideas I’ve been grappling with during my schoolwork has been the idea of emergent strategy. It’s a branch of strategic thinking that says that you might make a strategic plan, but what comes out the other side might be entirely different because your strategy has to react to the world it exists in. Sounds familiar, right? Isn’t that the world that project managers live in every day? Digging deeper, I realized that we can actually learn a few lessons on leading through the end of the pandemic using emergent strategy:

Flexibility wins: I’m all for planning like I’m sure most of the folks reading this are. But the pandemic has laid bare the idea that we can plan anything with certainty given how chaotic some of the news around the virus, the vaccines and the economy was. The lesson here is that we have to maintain our flexibility. 

This is the heart of emergent strategy. You pick a destination, make a plan, but recognize that you’re going to have to change course throughout the project to achieve success. The big difference I see from normal project thinking is that in an environment like this, the formal change process likely must be managed more tightly. 

Don’t be wed to preconceived ideas: Change is constant—we know that now more than ever. One challenge of leadership in modern times, especially on projects, is that we can’t know everything. The thing about this is that we also tend to hang onto our preconceived view of the project, the plan or the world around us. This “change is happening faster than ever before” narrative is a bit overblown, but what I do know is that our day-to-day reality can be impacted pretty quickly and we need to be able to rethink the context of a project.

Be open to feedback all around you: The key here is to pay attention to what the world is telling you. These “signals” may come in the form of news reports, conversations, premonitions or experience. Be aware of what’s going on around you and try to gain a holistic feeling for the world that your project exists in. 

This can be difficult to do because in the same way that there’s a lot of important information to study and deal with, there’s a lot of noise that can get in the way of good decision making as well. So you need to constantly balance the signals and the noise to keep your project moving forward.

Let me know what you think in the comments below.

Posted by David Wakeman on: May 22, 2021 10:32 AM | Permalink

Comments (2)

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Dear David
Very interesting the theme that brought to our reflection and debate
Thanks for sharing and for your opinions
What happened in the pandemic?
Suspension of some businesses (very few ... mainly related to tourism, namely aviation and hospitality, catering, and sale of products face to face (ex: sale of footwear and clothing).
The restaurant started selling its take-away products.
Clothing and footwear players selling their products online.
There were businesses that suffered a great boost, namely logistics.)
Now that activities are resuming in all sectors of activity (industries), what will change in the strategy of organizations beyond the process of digital transformation? (which was already underway before the pandemic).
I am convinced it was just a suspension (for a year)

Wow! Very interesting. Thanks for sharing.

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