Leadership Insights Archive

Strategic Learning by Willie Pietersen

Subtitled 'how to be smarter than your competition and turn key insights into competitive advantage', this book is about how to build adaptive organisations that are able quickly to assess the shifting environment and repeatedly translate insights into winning strategies.

Traditionally strategy was approached as a planning exercise; now, says Pietersen, we must reframe it as a learning exercise.

Speed of change - history's 4 big revolutions

The context for this is evident when we look at the relative time frames of the four historical revolutions Pietersen identifies. Note the pace of change and how fast we are now moving.

  1. The agrarian age (+/- 8000 BC) - from hunter gatherers to crop growers, settled communities emerge
  2. The industrial age (+/- 1750) - from muscle to machine power, productivity rises exponentially
  3. The information age (+/- 1950) - from machine power to digital power, information becomes ubiquitous
  4. The conceptual age (+/- 2000) - from information power to interpretative power. Sense making becomes the new battleground and a new model of leadership is required that values speed over size and knowledge over hard assets.

Strategy vs Planning

STRATEGY - is about doing the right thing PLANNING - is about doing things right
  • determines where to compete and how to win
  • about making the right choices
  • creates an intense focus on the few things that matter most
  • about putting strategy into action
  • provides order and discipline
  • creates forecasts, logistics and budgets

The strategic learning cycle

Nielsen's model has four linked steps-learn, focus, align and execute-which build on one another and are repeated in a continuous cycle. Strategic Learning is a leadership process that generates a cycle of ongoing discovery and adaptation. The first two steps enable strategy creation, the second two lay the foundations for the strategy implementation.

  1. LEARN - conducting a situation analysis provides the basis for strategy creation through generating insights, implications and strategic challenges.
  2. FOCUS - where you define strategic choices and vision, establishing your winning proposition, priorities and gaps.
  3. ALIGN - it is now essential to align the business system with the strategy so that the measures & rewards, structure & process, culture and people all support implementation of the strategy. This is often the hardest part of the cycle.
  4. EXECUTE - this stage entails implementation and experimenting to fuel organisational learning. We can never be completely sure what is going to work, so adaptive organisations must maximize their chances of finding favorable strategic variations through continuous experimentation and learning, bringing us full circle back to stage one.


Simplicity, Pietersen says, is the most important concept to keep in mind for strategic learning to be effective. But not as a short-cut. Simplicity is hard work, he says, citing the quotation below.

"I'm sorry to write you this long letter, but I didn't have time for a short one"
Blaise Pascal