Deliberate and emergent strategies and origins of projects


By Alan Stretton

Sydney, Australia



As a broad general observation, writers on project management tend to discuss how projects originate in one of two ways.

  • One group tends to focus on projects originating as part of the process of developing strategic portfolios of projects (and/or programs of projects) to help implement organizational strategic business plans.
  • The other group tends to see projects originating in more opportunistic or ad hoc ways, with little or no direct involvement in organizational strategic plans – although commonly with a requirement for alignment with the latter.

The first approach links project initiation directly with formal organizational strategic business plans, but the second only indirectly. However, I have found a way of discussing the origins of projects in a single context, rather than in the above two different contexts, via a paper by Mintzberg & Waters 1985. They developed an approach which broadens the concept of organizational strategy, by proposing a continuum of strategies that have deliberate strategies at one pole of the continuum, and emergent strategies at the other. One can directly associate the planned approach of the first bullet point above with deliberate strategies, and the opportunistic or ad hoc approach of the second bullet point with emergent strategies.

This then enables us to look at the origins of projects in the context of the Mintzberg & Waters continuum of strategies. After some discussion of the latter, we will look at how the origins of projects can be seen to relate to a basic organisational strategic planning sequence, which appears to cover all situations. In the next issue of this journal I propose to extend these discussions into the achievement of organizational strategic business outcomes and benefits, and projects’ contributions to these.


A continuum of strategies from “deliberate” to “emergent”

Mintzberg & Waters 1985 discuss the results of ten years of researching the process of strategy formation. They begin with the following observation.

Since strategy has almost invariably been conceived in terms of what the leaders of an organization ‘plan’ to do in the future, strategy formulation has, not surprisingly, tended to be treated as an analytic process for establishing long-range goals and actions plans for an organization; ….

As important as this emphasis may be, we would argue that it is seriously limited, that the process needs to be viewed from a wider perspective so that the variety of ways in which strategies actually take shape can be considered.

The wider perspective they bring to bear derives from exploring the relationship between leadership plans and intentions (intended strategies), and what the organizations actually did (realized strategies). In their words

Comparing intended strategy with realized strategy, as shown in Figure 1, has allowed us to distinguish deliberate strategies – realized as intended – from emergent strategies – patterns or consistencies realized despite, or in the absence of, intentions.

Their paper explores “the complexity and variety of strategy formation processes by refining and elaborating the concepts of deliberate and emergent strategy”. They say,

Deliberate and emergent strategies may be conceived as two ends of a continuum along which real-world strategies lie.

Mintzberg & Waters identify eight strategies in this continuum, as shown in Table 1.


To read entire paper, click here


Editor’s note: Alan Stretton, PhD (Hon), Life Fellow of AIPM (Australia), is a pioneer in the field of professional project management and one of the most widely recognized voices in the practice of program and project management.   Long retired, Alan is still tackling some of the most challenging research and writing assignments; he is a frequent contributor to the PM World Journal.  See his author profile below.

About the Author

Alan Stretton, PhD

Faculty Corps, University of Management
and Technology, Arlington, VA (USA)
Life Fellow, AIPM (Australia)


Alan Stretton
is one of the pioneers of modern project management.  He is currently a member of the Faculty Corps for the University of Management & Technology (UMT), USA.  In 2006 he retired from a position as Adjunct Professor of Project Management in the Faculty of Design, Architecture and Building at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), Australia, which he joined in 1988 to develop and deliver a Master of Project Management program.   Prior to joining UTS, Mr. Stretton worked in the building and construction industries in Australia, New Zealand and the USA for some 38 years, which included the project management of construction, R&D, introduction of information and control systems, internal management education programs and organizational change projects.  He has degrees in Civil Engineering (BE, Tasmania) and Mathematics (MA, Oxford), and an honorary PhD in strategy, programme and project management (ESC, Lille, France).  Alan was Chairman of the Standards (PMBOK) Committee of the Project Management Institute (PMI®) from late 1989 to early 1992.  He held a similar position with the Australian Institute of Project Management (AIPM), and was elected a Life Fellow of AIPM in 1996.  He was a member of the Core Working Group in the development of the Australian National Competency Standards for Project Management.  He has published over 180 professional articles and papers.  Alan can be contacted at [email protected].

To see more works by Alan Stretton, visit his author showcase in the PM World Library at http://pmworldlibrary.net/authors/alan-stretton/.