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  • Nozuko Tikayo

Prescriptive vs Emergent Approach


A strategy is an action plan built to achieve a specific goal or set of goals within a definite time, while operating in an organizational framework. According to Rajiv Nag, “Strategic management is the process of building capabilities that allow a firm to create value for customers, shareholders, and society while operating in competitive markets.”

It is necessary to have a detailed strategic plan in order to move an organisation from where it is to where management and stakeholders want it to be. This type of strategic plan is called a ‘prescriptive strategy’ and sets out in detail the activities that the organisation will take over a specific time frame (usually 3-5 years). These activities are designed specifically to shape the direction and future shape of the organisation in order to attain its goals and aspirations. The main reason for using this philosophy is based on the premise that if you don’t know where you are going how are you going to get there as a business? It is also asserts that having a precise strategic plan allows managers to understand what resources will be required and to make plans to develop skills and acquire the resources the organisation will need to enable it to achieve its goals.

The counter philosophy, which is called an ’emergent strategy’, argues that strategy should be fluid and be allowed to evolve over time in response to changes in both the internal and external environment. Proponents of this philosophy argue that the prescriptive strategy often puts ‘blinkers’ on the organisation which can hinder their ability to react to changes in the environment and take advantages of opportunities that present themselves. It is also argued that long-term plans are often based on incorrect assumptions, resulting in the strategy having unintended outcomes or consequences that could be potentially damaging to the organisation.


In general, both approaches have merits, so the most effective business strategies can include elements of both the prescriptive and emergent philosophies. To be effective, however, the strategic plan must be focused on a clear understanding of the desired future state of an organisation so that strategic decision making is based on whether or not the option being considered will help the firm attain their vision. The degree to which each approach is applied vs the other will vary depending on the environment in which the organisation is operating. For example, an organisation that is operating in a highly volatile environment where there is a great deal of change that can happen quickly will tend to adopt a more emergent approach.

A more prescriptive approach will be suited to organisations operating in a more stable and predictable environment. A practical example is of the leading Tech Companies such as Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook; these companies implement a combined strategic approach of prescriptive-emergent or emergent prescriptive so as to stay relevant in the ever dynamic and fluid business environment

With the above in mind, I would suggest that the most effective strategies will have a clear strategic plan with activities and outcomes that are aligned with the organisations goals. The results of the activities will be carefully monitored via an effective strategic measurement system to ensure that the intended results are being achieved. The organisation should remain agile in the sense that they should be willing to take corrective action and adjust or amend the strategic plan as and when necessary. Finally, management should be open minded and prepared to evaluate and, if appropriate, implement new ideas and pursue new opportunities.

With this in mind, it can be useful for management to review their strategic plan on a regular basis, normally annually although they should assess their performance and their strategic plan more regularly, ideally quarterly or even monthly, depending on the nature of the organisation and the environment in which a business is operating

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