We live in a complex dynamic world which is difficult to understand. All of us see the
world from our own limited perspectives and in terms of mental models we have put
together over the years. Many of these mental models correspond to outworn best
practice paradigms which are not valid for the changing situation. The five disciplines
(Senge) can help us make sense of the deluge of data. Combined with proper dialogue
and reflection, we have a good chance of continually updating our mental models to
stay in tune with what is happening in the world.
The information that reaches us through the organisation has been filtered and
averaged, based on the culture of the organisation and the number of layers it has had
to pass through. Even the information we receive directly from outside sources is
interpreted according to confirmation bias in order to confirm our currently held
beliefs. Management traps show us how difficult it is to get true information to
decision makers. The Strategic Fitness Process has shown us how to be effective in
addressing the flow of information to the top and downwards again.
Human beings are uncomfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. As Morris says in
The Human Zoo:
The golden rule of leadership here, which in a rational age is an unpleasant one to
accept, is that it is the manner in which you do something that really counts, rather
than what you do. It is a sad truth that a leader who does the wrong things in the
right way will, up to a certain point, gain greater allegiance and enjoy more success
than one who does the right things in the wrong way.
In many organisations it is a sin to admit that you do not know what is happening or
what to do about it. Those who see more problems than the oversimplified reality can
accommodate, will learn to stay quiet and the organisation will continue in the wrong
direction. The need for reflection and discussing strategic issues then seems to be of
Most business people have realised that they need some form of strategy to stay in
tune with the changing reality. Not a month goes by without an article being published
in a serious peer reviewed journal proposing some kind of system or structure to
categorise the strategic reality the manager faces. Based on this certain prescriptions
are then made for dealing with the situation.
In my opinion this approach cannot be sufficient. For example, how confident can
management be that their situation is really in quadrant X? Does the same quadrant
description apply to different industries in different environments? Are all of the
company’s products and markets in the same quadrant? Will the industry stay in
quadrant X or is it slowly moving to the next quadrant?
Being prescriptive in an unstable environment seems not to be a good strategy.
Managers need a system to guide them in gaining experiential learning so that they
can continually make sense of their changing environment. Consultants should teach
managers to fish rather than catch the fish for them. This will reduce the impact of a
number of problems experienced when solutions are provided. Let’s say the consultant
did a thorough analysis on a particular problem and has put a strategy together. The
environment changes a few years later, but now managers do not have the skills or
confidence to interpret this new reality or to adjust their actions. The result is
Often the consultant himself draws up the solution. Since he does not have an in-depth
knowledge of the company or its culture, this is often done without any knowledge of
the obstacles inherent in the organisation. The consultant leaves and a few months
later the first obstacles appear. Since there is no ownership, the project dies a slow
We need to create an organisational culture where it is okay to admit that there are
certain things we cannot know, no matter how high the intelligence of the particular
individual. The culture needs to be open to dialogue to create shared meaning and
common purpose. During our dialogue we need to bring to the surface the details of
mental models we use.
Management traps, as explained by Argyris, are probably the most serious threat to
enacting the change required for strategy implementation. We get trapped by
behaviour that prevents learning and change – when we most need to learn, we
paradoxically work hardest at shutting down conversations, shutting down other
people, and shutting down ourselves. We tell ourselves and each other, “Don’t go
there,” where ‘there’ is any sensitive issue that might upset the status quo that
envelops us like a cocoon. We have tacitly agreed to rule off limits and to make
undiscussable topics that challenge our accepted sense of self and our comfortable
organisational routines. Having thus agreed to rule off limits any topics that might
help us change and grow, we become trapped in the status quo. We should be aware of
the difference between our espoused theory and actual theory in use.
There are no easy answers to solving this problem. Probably the best is the Strategic
Fitness Process as proposed by Beer.
We need to create enough structure for company dialogue/strategy to flourish and be
directed at the areas where it will initially have most impact. At the same time we
should allow for experimentation and unplanned results to be incorporated into our
strategy. I am therefore advocating the creation of shared meaning and targeted
experiential learning at the senior management level.
I believe the best place to start is through Strategic Learning, a type of Systems
Thinking which uses concepts and terms which are familiar and non-threatening to
managers. Since it allows for repeated dialogue and learning focussed on the 20% that
matters (the subsection of customers we want to provide with superior value offering)
we have a high probability of being successful. It enables executives to focus scarce
time and resources on those areas with best pay-off to the company. It also allows
executives to mobilize the company behind new ideas.
Change is disruptive to organisations, especially ongoing change. And yet as Pietersen
says, “Building an adaptive enterprise is the only path to long-term survival.”
Strategic Learning offers a new way to lead companies in a world of unpredictable
change. The greatest advantage of this system is arguably that it sets out a “practical
leadership process for creating an adaptive enterprise”. There is a high probability that
managers can master this process by themselves, something that is missing in many of
the fads and consultant-driven solutions available today.
In implementing Strategic Learning the biggest problem by far is to get the
organisation to align with the changing strategy. The Strategic Fitness Process has
been shown to do just that. Together with an awareness of management traps and
being skilled in dialogue and enquiry, it is possible to cheat the process of creative
destruction and enable companies to continue in their success.
In order to survive in the modern environment, where change is ever present and
seemingly accelerating, it is critical that we enable average teams to perform at an
above average level. To do this we need to provide our workers with Purpose,
Autonomy and Mastery as explained by Pink. Through the use of Theory of
Constraints it is possible to implement the basis of the Strategic Learning and
Strategic Thinking processes in a very short period of time. This should buy enough
time to properly implement the mentioned processes.
The Theory of Constraints contains many of the elements making up Strategic
Learning and Strategic Alignment. It focusses on identifying recurring conflicts
(internal and external) and invalidating the assumptions which cause these conflicts.
By focussing on leverage points this technique not only delivers value within a period
of months but also alleviates the time pressure managers are under. It is very effective
in laying the foundation for implementing Strategic Learning and Strategic Alignment
I hope you have found this book useful and I wish you and your organisation the
success it deserves. Through following these suggestions may you once again learn to
love what you do so that you never have to work a day in your life again.