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Crafting Strategy: Visionary, Intuitive, or Both?

In my first real corporate management job, I was tasked with guiding our operations leadership team through a strategic planning process. One of my older, wiser colleagues gave me a 1987 Harvard Business Review article called “Crafting Strategy” by Henry Mintzberg.

His article resonated strongly with me and became a touchstone over the years. As a matter of fact when I conceived this article, I knew exactly where my paper copy of “Crafting Strategy” was—not filed away, but in a tray on my desk where I could put my hands on it.

I’ll describe Mintzberg’s concepts for business, and then translate them to a writing context.

Approaches to business strategy

For me (and others, I believe), Mintzberg opened up the possibility of looking at strategy in a more holistic way.

Deliberate strategy

In his article, Mintzberg describes the sort of strategic planning process we typically think of—we set a vision and objectives, then figure out the steps to get there. We have an image of this logical-step-by-logical-step process resulting in clear, fully developed strategies. The strategist as visionary. He calls this a deliberate approach.

Emergent strategy

Mintzberg then postulates that sometimes we don’t realize what our strategy is until after the fact. We look at our past actions and see the patterns they have formed. “Aha! That’s what we were doing!” The strategies are formed rather than formulated. We have intuited our path rather than defined it. This he names emergent strategy.

The strategy continuum

Now of course, these approaches form two ends of a continuum. Whether we realize it or not, we use both. Some elements of business strategy are clearly defined; some elements come through intuition and gradual movement. Not all planned strategies work; not all actions result in patterns. But the combination of the two leads to Mintzberg’s phrase “crafting strategy,” which he argues better captures the essence of the process than “planning strategy.”

Much as a potter requires intimate knowledge of the clay, techniques she has tried in the past, and the ideas she has for future forms, the strategist requires intimate knowledge of the organization, what it has done in the past, and its capabilities for the future.

When you craft strategy, you become an artisan of sorts. I find that image appealing. It gives me the freedom to plan some things, to let others develop on their own, and then to mold and shape what exists into a more intentional form over time.

This is how I think about writing as well.

Approaches to writing

In the type of nonfiction writing my clients and I do, whether books or blog posts, there is a similar spectrum of writing approaches—from self-contained to emergent.

Self-contained writing

In self-contained writing, the subject matter itself limits the scope of the content. The author has a strong idea of what the thesis is, what topics need to be covered, where to get any missing information, and so on. The writing is easily outlined in significant detail.

This approach works well, for example, when you teach a class regularly, when you specialize in consulting on a topic, or when you frequently lead a defined process to achieve a targeted end result. You know exactly what needs to be covered.

Self-contained writing is like deliberate strategy. You plan it; you do it.

Emergent writing

On the other hand, emergent writing is more intuitive and fluid in its development. And, as you might guess, it corresponds with emergent strategy.

Emergent writing is appropriate when you develop a concept for the first time. “I know I need to write a book about my coaching approach, but I’ve never had to describe it in detail before and I’m not sure how.” “I know I need to write an article about what writers can learn from artists, but I’m not really sure how to boil it down.”

So you begin writing to discover what you think. Eventually you look at what you’ve written and say, “Aha! THAT’s what I’m trying to get at!”

I call that first draft a “discovery draft,” and I recommend you write it for yourself, not for any other audience. A discovery draft is the author’s chance to explore. Once the Aha occurs, then the author can better define the audience members and rewrite the draft with them in mind.

The writing continuum

Again, self-contained and emergent writing are two ends of a spectrum. (In the fiction world you may hear this called the plotter-pantser dichotomy.) Practically speaking, most of us use a combination of the two approaches, depending on how well we know our topic and what style of writing suits us personally.

Myself, I find fewer and fewer projects allow straightforward self-contained writing. I often struggle for a while in a discovery draft to figure out what I’m trying to get at (as I often say, “I think with my fingers”). Once I achieve my Aha, the subsequent molding and shaping of a piece comes rather quickly.

Implications

Why is this topic so important to me? Why do I find such resonance in it?

There is a frequent default in our society that we should be able to follow a magic formula and have our end result appear before us. It should be easy—just follow these steps!—and if it takes too long, you’re not doing it right.

That is fallacious thinking.

Sometimes a formula works (romance novels are a perfect example). Sometimes you do want that deliberate, step-by-step process. But often, the situation is much more complex than that. Life—business, writing, relationships—is just not that clear cut. And it takes work.

You are hereby allowed to not know exactly how your business strategy or your first draft will pan out. You have permission to look backward and decide what to build on. You have blessings and admonitions to write for yourself. You are allowed to explore your ideas without following anyone else’s instructions. You do not have to shape a pot; you can shape a vase. But if you want to make a pot, feel free to follow the guidelines for making a pot.

There is no one right way to develop strategy or to write a book. You get to craft it for yourself.

Funnily enough, the strategic planning process I led all those years ago followed the typical deliberative planning process (probably to a tedious degree for some of my colleagues). Now, however, I find myself equally as comfortable in the emergent space—both in business planning and in writing. And often, in life.

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