Strategic Learning: The Secret to Implementing Strategy

Many executives believe that setting strategy is easy. Implementing strategy is the true challenge.”Our clients, like so many managers and executives, are pretty savvy when it comes to developing business strategy — even in today’s challenging context,” says CCL’s Laura Quinn, a researcher and manager of the Developing the Strategic Leader program. “They are more likely to struggle with leading in a way that helps them to implement and refine strategy. In other words, they need help with the ‘strategy for doing strategy.'”To close the gap between strategy and execution, organizations need to understand strategy as a learning process, says Quinn. “Formulating strategy is not an event followed by implementation. It is a learning process.”

CCL works with senior leaders and management teams to develop the individual skills and organizational processes for strategic learning. Based on both research and practice, CCL’s Strategy as a Learning Process (SLP) helps clients focus on the external environment and apply the right deployment of resources to the right initiatives. The SLP model has five primary elements:

Assess where you are. Strategic leadership requires a clear understanding of the competitive climate facing your organization. Do you effectively collect and interpret information about the organization’s external environment? Are you clear-eyed about your internal situation? Do you regularly and realistically assess your organizational strengths and weaknesses?

Understand who you are and where you want to go. Strategic leaders need to understand the spoken and unspoken culture of the organization and its leadership. Examine your vision, mission and values. Imagine the company 10 or 20 years in the future — then look at the distance and direction you must travel to succeed. Do people throughout the organization share a common vision of its future? Do they embrace a common set of core values? Are the vision and values driving the behaviors you need to get where you want to go?

Learn how to get there. How do you draw on insight, information and vision to determine priorities and formulate the strategy? Business strategy should be based on an understanding of key strategic drivers: the relatively few but critical determinants of long-term success for a particular organization in a particular industry. Do both bottom-up and top-down direction inform and shape the strategy? Does your organization have widespread, clear agreement on the two or three most important priorities in which it should invest its limited resources?

It’s also important to develop a leadership strategy for addressing the human and organizational capabilities that are essential to implementing the business strategy. Do you have broad agreement about the culture and leadership behaviors required for future success of the business?

Make the journey. How does strategy translate into action? What are the tactics to take to implement strategy? How does strategy seep into the lifeblood of the organization? Are decisions and behaviors throughout the organization consistent with the strategy?

Check your progress. Strategic leadership requires a continuing assessment of your organization’s effectiveness. This involves looking at indicators of current performance compared with expected performance. Do your key metrics keep your organization focused on the two or three top priorities for strategic success? Do you have metrics related to developing future capability? Are adequate investments being made now to assure your organization’s sustainable competitive advantage in the future?

“Strategic learning is much like the scientific process of hypothesis testing,” says Quinn. “Leaders formulate theories about what it will take for the organization to be successful. They then test their theories using, in effect, business experiments in which they implement tactics arising from those theories.”

“Through these experiments everyone in the organization learns about what is and is not working, and the leaders use that new information to amend their theories of the business.”


© Copyright 2009, Center for Creative Leadership. All rights reserved. Printed with permission of Center for Creative Leadership.
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3 Comments on “Strategic Learning: The Secret to Implementing Strategy”

  1. businesssprouts Says:

    thanks for the post. very insightful.



  2. Shubho Ghosal Says:

    This is the way I like it. Simple but pertinent messages. It is true that coming up with a strategy ie easier than executing it. Part of the challenge, I believe, is that the team developing the strategy is different from the one executing the strategy, and the execution team may not have the right incentive to follow strategy. Part of strategizing should be reflecting upon the metrics that will be used to measure execution, and putting ownership of the metrics on the people responsible for execution. Also, letting middle managers participate in the late stages of strategy development might mean greater commitment and a sense of belonging from them, resulting in better execution.

    What do you think?


  3. azjogger Says:

    Strategizing or planning is the foundation of the management function . It is the first function in the four basic funtions of management, i.e. plan, organize, direct and control. To be of value, a planning document must be dynamic… constantly being updated and revised to reflect the ever changing environment.

    Your point on metrics is key. Without the ability to measure plan performance, it will be tougher to know how well you or the company has performed.

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