Plotting the Route and Continuing on the Journey: Strategic Learning as a tool
to identify the right things and to manage the execution phase
“If you think education is expensive try ignorance.” ―Derek Bok
If strategic planning has been around for a long time and shows limited results, why is
Strategic Learning the answer?
Managers have developed certain mental models over the years which preclude them
from identifying the root causes of the problems in their environment. At the same
time, even when some do see the right action they need to take there are good political
reasons not to do anything.
In The Fifth Discipline Senge offers numerous excellent proposals for dealing with
these problems. They include building a culture where mental models are surfaced,
shared visions are created, team learning occurs, and where Systems Thinking is used
to integrate these disciplines. Yet the focus on short-term profits prevents such a
radical rewiring. The shock to personnel, who are suddenly exposed to these different
ways of thinking, could be substantial. There is significant risk in that as soon as the
guiding coalition moves on, the organisation returns to its original ways of thinking
and doing. Part of the problem is that Systems Thinking is best learnt from experience
and difficult to teach from theory.
I wish to suggest that Strategic Learning as proposed by Pietersen is a good starting
point for overcoming these problems. What is helpful about this system is that since it
is a simplified form of Systems Thinking, it uses terms that are familiar to managers
while making sure that the process stays dynamic and ensuring that experiential
learning can occur. Once managers have gone through one or two full cycles using
this technique, they should have the confidence to explore Senge’s five disciplines.
They should also be able to identify the best aspects of other techniques such as
Theory of Constraints, Dialogue Mapping, and know where to apply them to
maximize value from the Strategic Learning process.
Pietersen makes clear that strategy cannot be an annual event. It is a continuous part of
leadership’s responsibilities and requires a sequence of steps that is nothing other than
simplified Systems Thinking in action. In order to survive, an adaptive enterprise
needs to be built and maintained through adequate leadership. Change is disruptive
and is difficult to lead. Continuous change is even harder and executives find it
difficult to mobilize their workers behind these new ideas. In the section on Strategic
Alignment I set out a leadership process for creating an adaptive enterprise through a
dynamic cycle of sequential steps.
In his book The Living Company de Geus observed that “in the future an
organisation’s ability to learn faster than its competitors may be its only sustainable
As Pietersen points out, this does not tell us where to focus our scarce resources in
order to adapt successfully. Thus the main job of strategy is to make the most
intelligent choices about how to use our limited resources. With an environment that is
changing more rapidly, intelligent choice making depends increasingly on an
Organisation’s ability to make sense of the changing landscape through learning and
discovery, to translate superior insights into strategic action and to do so continuously.
We need the right combination of order and chaos for creativity to flourish. The need
for leadership has not gone away, but our concept of leadership should change from
the pursuit of static goals to one of continuously modifying a firm’s strategic focus in
response to changes in the environment.
What is Strategic Learning?
Strategic Learning is a practical leadership process for mobilizing the five
competencies to create an adaptive enterprise. It consists of a continuous dynamic
cycle around the following five competencies:
Insight: The ability to make sense of the changing environment (Situational
Focus: The ability to create an intense focus on the right things (vision and
Alignment: The ability to align and mobilize the entire organisation behind this
Execution: The ability to implement fast (implement and experiment).
Renewal: The ability to do the these things over and over without stopping.
8.1 Situational Analysis (Learn)
The purpose of this is to develop superior insights to use as a base for the firm’s
The insights are around customers, competitors, the firm’s own realities, industry
dynamics, the broader environment. The idea is to challenge assumptions and to
search for trends and root causes.
What are the underlying trends in our customers’ expectations?
In what distinctive ways are our traditional competitors serving the market?
How does their effectiveness compare with ours in the eyes of the customer?
Who are our non-traditional customers and what unique benefits do they offer?
Who is the most dangerous, and why?
The firm’s realities
What are the five-year trends on critical performance measures and what conclusions
can we draw from this?
Where are we making money and where are we not? Are we addressing our losing
What are our key strengths that we can lever for competitive advantage?
Which trends in our industry are the most important in shaping our destiny?
What are we currently doing to exploit these developments so that they produce
greater value for our customers?
What barriers must we overcome to take the lead in profitably exploiting these trends?
What are the top priorities?
What is happening around us that will impact on our business with regard to economic
trends, social habits and attitudes, technology, demographics, government regulation.
Situational Analysis must involve personnel from all over the environment, especially
those closest to the customer, and not just the top.
With the key insights/trends that have been identified, a list can be made of the
alternatives now facing the company as well as the pros and cons.
8.2 Vision and strategic choices (Focus)
“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s
not what it means at all. It means saying no to the 100 other good ideas that there are.
You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of many of the things we haven’t done
as the things we have done.” —Steve Jobs, CEO, Apple.
The key output from the strategy process is the clarification of the Vision and the
Strategic Choices. This follows from the Situation Analysis.
Making choices is more about what we will not do than what we will do. There are
three elements to strategic choice:
Which customer will we serve and which not and what products will we offer
What will we do differently or better than our competition to achieve greater value
for our customers and superior profits for our firm? ( Winning Proposition)
Five key priorities the firm will pursue to realise its winning proposition.
Before going to the alignment stage, these priorities need to be broken down into
operational goals. Look at each priority and ask what gap needs to be closed for it to
occur. For example, as Pietersen says “to raise the sales from products introduced over
the last three years from 20% to 40%.”
Each gap should contain milestones, should have a champion. Targets should be
worldwide best practices and not local ones. If there are better practices out in the rest
of the world, sooner or later it will find its way to your market.
Strategy is as much about what you choose not to do as it is about what you choose to
do. Focus requires trade-offs, and trade-offs introduce risk. Those leaders who are not
willing to take risks will never make it to the top of the strategic summit.
8.3 Align the organisation (ALIGN)
Effective project management is required to close the gaps identified. The existing
alignment has developed in order to support the previous strategy, this now needs to
be changed. The following elements must work together in support: measures and
rewards, structure and process, people and culture.
Measurement and rewards
What is the use in trying to introduce a new set of practices while continuing to
measure and reward the old ones?
Structure and Process
In order to support the new strategy, should the firm be organised by product line,
customer grouping, function, geography or some other principle?
People need to be focussed, skilled and motivated.
For focus we require well-defined and clearly communicated strategic choices. If the
skills required are different, the firm may need to find partners or acquire an
organisation with the skills available.
Since we are compelling people to change, we will run into most of the problem areas
discussed earlier in the ebook. Some principles of Change Leadership are:
Set a shining example.
Create a simple compelling statement on the case for change.
Communicate constantly and honestly.
If all else fails remove those who resist.
Generate short-term wins.
Fixing the culture is the most critical and most difficult part of corporate
transformation. Culture can be thought of as a means to an end. In a society culture is
a set of beliefs and behaviours that persist over time because they help that society to
solve its challenges. Every society has an elaborate system of rewards and penalties
designed to ensure that supportive behaviours continue and destructive behaviours are
8.4 Implement and experiment (execute)
Since much of the world is unpredictable and thus difficult to interpret a deliberate set
of experiments should be rolled out for organisational learning. This step then feeds
back into Situational Analysis.
This strategy should then be captured in a short document consisting of the following:
Key insights generated by Situation Analysis.
The vision statement.
The strategic choices and a list of key priorities.
The gaps that need to be closed to achieve the priorities.
The plan for aligning the organisation behind strategy.
A list of experiments to stimulate further learning.