Continuously Updating the Plotted Route: Advice for successful implementation
of Strategic Learning
Although Strategic Learning puts down an excellent theoretical framework it can still
fail through poor execution. Breaking down mental models and obtaining experiential
learning takes time. Failure at the start of this process can discredit the concept. It is
important to involve a facilitator in the beginning; someone who has an understanding
of Systems Thinking and techniques to facilitate group learning and dialogue. As with
all change management efforts, early successes are critical to maintain momentum.
Finally, we should note that not all problems need to be solved. Some need just to be
managed since the creative tension between opposite poles is what keeps the company
in touch with the changing realities on the inside and outside.
As suggested in the overview, changing your mental model takes time and skilful
management. Horwath writes:
Strategic thinking, and the actions taken to follow through on it, requires an
appetite for risk. Strategy calls for focus and the trade-offs that inherently follow,
but many managers decide they would rather play it safe. In most organizations,
sins of commission—taking a risk and failing—are punished much more harshly
than sins of omission—not taking a risk and missing out on a great opportunity.
With both political (your reputation within the company) and career (not wanting to
jeopardize your next promotion) ramifications to consider, many managers
consciously opt out of strategic thinking.
In Learning to think Strategically Julia Sloan records her interviews with a set of
internationally renowned executives famed for their ability to think strategically.
These executives were self-taught and developed techniques from real life that worked
for them. It is interesting to note that there are similarities between what they practise
and the Senge disciplines that need to be mastered. From this one could conclude that
good strategy is within our reach, provided we keep working at it.
All of the executives interviewed described a holistic perspective to learning. They
were comfortable with not having a finite task to complete in the ‘cycle’ of strategy-
making, because they believed that creating strategy was a continuous process. This is
similar to the ancient Greek notion of strategy, one that implied an expectation and
assumption that there would be incomplete and inaccurate information, contradictions,
and things that could not be rationalized.
Considerable research shows that the most significant Strategic Learning is a result of
engaging in tough and difficult situations, not from ‘fun’ situations.
This emotional component is necessary to ensure that we are adequately prepared to
move forward with good strategic thinking in addition to planning. The executives in
the study seemed to believe that an absence of this emotional component would lead
to a lack of stamina or drive necessary to pursue a truly good strategy.
The old adage that past success is a predictor of future success may hold true for
learning to think strategically. Executives who can use reflective processes to connect
a past experience to a future challenge (those who learn from their experiences) are
likely to be successful at strategic thinking. When we engage in reflective processes, it
enhances our ability to broaden perspective, activate the imagination, and ultimately
allows us to think in ways that result in competitive strategy-making.
In Sloan’s book a Polish CEO explained how he begins to think about strategy:
You need a reason to begin. Sometimes the reason is only to survive. Sometimes
the reason is to fulfil a dream or an idea you cannot let go of. Sometimes the reason
is to avoid a punishment or you are afraid something terrible will happen. But the
reason must be a powerful one, or you will not really make strategy; it will only be
a simple plan.
Planning can be step by step, but strategy is not. You must have a strong reason.
And you must feel and believe this reason deeply. Otherwise, you have no
motivation to look for the bigger picture, and the work of thinking and searching
will be too exhausting and difficult. So it must be something you feel very strongly
about. To build a strategy requires inspiration; you must want something deeply. If
that happens, then you must think carefully to yourself about why this is worth so
much trouble because I tell you, you will lose sleep, who knows, maybe friends
over this! You know, I said that strategy is not so simple. But you must continue no
matter how tedious or troublesome. Because if you really believe something, it will
need to have a strategy. You must see a very broad picture without a frame – it has
The following are several suggestions which Julia Sloan has found helpful for
fostering frame change:
Vary the composition of groups and teams to enable exposure to new perspectives.
Enable out-of-the-ordinary conversations and presentations with ‘outsiders’,
including those outside a functional group, a product group, an industry sector, or a
particular level of management.
Establish interactions with academics, politicians, consultants, professionals from
various fields, children, teenagers, young adults, middle-aged and mature adults,
religious leaders, people from an extreme range of economic backgrounds, and
those of diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds.
Managers must have profound knowledge of the system under their control. This
means that they are aware of the changing market needs, major customer
complaints and how the equipment and processes lead to these problems. This
seems to be the area where smaller owner-managed companies keep on
outperforming the larger ones.
Meetings need to be held on a regular basis where group learning can occur.
If this profound knowledge is not available at the very least we would need to
bring into the process lower level employees who do have a detailed knowledge of
how the systems work.
Managers must be aware of the typical stereotyped paradigms that they are using
in their industry .
A facilitator needs to be available to bring to the discussion examples of what
happened in other industries under similar circumstances.
Seniority has to be suspended, younger members pulled into the committee should
have as much opportunity to speak as senior members.
Dialogue for learning needs to be enabled.
The strategic plan needs to explicitly address obstacles to implementation.
Managers must create their own plan, the facilitator must only facilitate.
These recommendations from Julia Sloan are remarkably similar to those that arise
from the Society for Organisational Learning and the work of Senge.