Successful strategies come from learning organizations

August 29, 2008

Not long ago, my 13-year old cousin came to spend some time with me. It was her summer vacation, and as a precocious (er, precious) young teen, her parents are constantly trying to find news ways of keeping her out of trouble. We spent the week doing various activities – and of course each of which required a different strategy to get her interested in doing whatever I had planned. (Even shopping required a strategy!)

This got me thinking: parents are no different from managers. They have to constantly create new strategies to guide their children through an evolving environment. Just as authors of the book “A Simpler Way” Margaret J. Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers write: “In classic evolutionary thought…each of us invents our own survival strategies as we struggle against the environment.”

But if we all have survival strategies, how do we ensure our strategies obtain the desired results each and every time? And why do some people/organizations always seem to have the better approach?

The answer is simple: it’s by creating an environment that encourages learning. Learning allows people to gain important new skills and knowledge, which in turn fosters superior thinking and innovation. New ways of thinking and creativity allow people to come up with better ideas for their company and how to execute them. In short, continuous improvement comes from continuous learning.

Two ways strategy can create a learning environment

Fred Nickols suggests strategy is perspective, position, plan, and pattern. “Strategy is a term that refers to a complex web of thoughts, ideas, insights, experiences, goals, expertise, memories, perceptions, and expectations that provides general guidance for specific actions in pursuit of particular ends.”

While strategy might be the plan for how to achieve a certain goal, there are two schools of thought in how a company draws their map: there are intended strategies and emergent ones. Intended, or “prescriptive” theories suggest that companies should come up with strategies that are logical, rational and well set out ahead of time. Emergent ones evolve in response to factors in the environment. They are not always rational, logical or well mapped out, but they are flexible and adaptive.

Although there is some merit to following a prescriptive approach, many academics suggest it is unrealistic to do so entirely because, as Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers write, “Systems are fluid relationships that we observe as rigid structures. They are webby, wandering, nonlinear, entangled messes.” Instead, the key is to balance both in order to allow for the best possible strategy.

In fact, W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne, authors of the bestselling book Blue Ocean Strategy suggest that the right strategy – not the company or industry – is why some companies sustain high performance. In their research they failed to find any perpetually excellent company or industry. Instead, they found a common pattern across those companies that applied the highest level of innovation to their strategy moved past their competitors to excel. The question, is how?

Organizational learning is at the heart of strategic thinking

If strategy is about preparing for an unknowable future by adopting a learning perspective, then according to professor and author Ken Starkey, learning is at the very heart of strategic planning.

Tony Golsby-Smith, founder and CEO of Australian-based 2nd Road believes the first task in creating superior strategies is to change how organizations approach strategic thinking. He suggests we place too much emphasis on logic and analysis. The key to progressive, innovative strategies lies in “design thinking”.  This is exactly what Tim Brown, CEO of Ideo suggests as well.

What Brown and Golsby-Smith allude to is that creative thinking and innovation come from a deep understanding of what people want and need in their lives. In other words, it’s putting logic and analysis aside, and simply observing how people live. In doing so, we learn about their wants, needs and behaviours and we experiment (much like Edison) until we find a brilliant idea to make people’s lives better.

But perhaps the best form of learning, as suggested by Golsby-Smith, is to incorporate a wide range of unstructured thoughts and views. Using dialect methods, organizations can create shared interpretations of the world and thus come up with better, more holistic and coherent strategies that supersede the competition.

Breaking down the barriers to create a learning organization

However, some academics suggest that organizations will not learn effectively until the sub-cultures that exist in every organization – that is the executive management, middle management and lower-level employees learn how to communicate with one another.

To do so, they must break down the different languages and assumptions about what is important each group holds. For instance, executive management may have a sharp sense of the big picture, but they may lack insight into the operational processes. For lower-level employees the reverse is also true. By creating a common language and a shared experience these communication barriers can be broken and each individual in the company can read from the same book. All of a sudden a new picture emerges.

How The Tatham Group fits in this picture

Typically people want to learn new ways of creating better strategies, but they have no idea where to start. Tatham teaches its clients how to get started on the journey of creating and fostering a learning environment. First by creating a common language and shared experience, then by allowing people to concentrate on learning rather than running around and fixing broken processes, and finally by teaching people to constantly challenge the status quo so that they can quickly respond to changing environments – all while being true to their core values.