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3 Elements of a Strategic Learning Cycle-Part 2

value creation

by Kenneth Rudich

Note: This post follows Part 1.

A Disciplined Learning Cycle

Disciplined learning stems from having a formal decision-making framework as a common reference for everyone in the organization to follow (particularly when it involves proof of concept).

It offers clues for how people should conduct themselves, and it provides a procedure for constructively hashing out information and resolving disagreement.  Though it’s always useful to have a shared framework, it’s especially useful when cross-functional teams are involved.

Here’s an illustrative example to consider for a disciplined learning cycle:

  • Identification and/or Adaptation of a Strategy and/or Tactics: establishing or adjusting strategy or tactics to reach the next desired level of performance.
  • Planning, Testing and Process Mapping:  developing or adjusting procedures/processes to effectively carry out the strategy and tactics across the value chain.
  • Application or Implementation: formally incorporating their execution into the value chain.
  • Quantitative Measurement and Qualitative Assessment: deploying tools to evaluate actual results against strategic goals and tactical objectives.

Each successive pass through this framework should strive to build upon the accumulation of insights and knowledge obtained over time.  The ideal scenario is to have this process function like a virtuous cycle of decision-making improvement.

Enterprise-wide Involvement

Most, if not all, employees should be encouraged to take part in the strategic learning cycle.

With that said, it should be noted that the roles and expectations will differ among them.  An individual that is responsible for high level strategic thinking will not have the same kind of assignment as someone at the tactical level.  The secret is to blend them together – the strategic and the tactical – in a manner that will make them simpatico.

With an endowed chair at the Harvard Business School, Rosabeth Moss Kanter offers a broader perspective for doing this.  She contends there are two different types of strategy: one is the longstanding convention of a scripted strategy, and the other is what she calls improvisational strategy.

According to Kanter, scripted strategy, like scripted theatre, is top-down and is comprised of an “analyze-plan-act” sequence.  It puts a face on the future by conveying the business course and direction, and it gives clues on how everyone else should proceed.  The scripted strategy becomes the focal point around which all the other activities are formed.

Improvisational strategy, on the other hand, is more bottom-up in approach and is comprised of an “act-learn” sequence, during which small steps are taken to grow a strategy through action.  Much as the actors in improvisational theatre are relied upon to invent applicable responses to changing circumstances, so too are the employees in improvisational strategy.  The idea is to have a fluid transition (along with an intraprenurial spirit) for when real life circumstance doesn’t follow the script.  In this case, the alternative is to give employees the freedom to improvise – that is, some defined amount of wiggle room, or a safe zone, to invent solutions through trial and error.

Kanter believes improvisational strategy has certain advantages over scripted strategy.  According to her research, improvisational employees were more likely to run adaptive experiments and prototypes in response to customer reactions, while scripted employees waited for answers to come cascading down from the top.  Cross-functional Improvisational companies were nimble in the face of uncertainty; scripted organizations showed a tendency to become paralyzed.

If responsiveness is critical to the success of the enterprise, then improvisational strategy has a far better chance of fostering it, claims Kanter.  The improvisational employees typically emerged from the period of experimentation with improved models for meeting the organizational goals and objectives.

Andrew Campbell, Director of Ashridge Strategic Management Centre, asserts that neither type of strategy is better than the other.  Both serve a vital purpose when integrated to complement one another.  Kanter says, “Leaders still need to establish themes, set goals, identify priorities, and assess results, seeding new projects and weeding others.  But instead of relying on the script, they empower the actors to invent productive responses to changing circumstances.”

An effective mix could well give an enterprise the edge it needs to consistently achieve customer fulfillment better than anyone else.

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