Strategy As Learning
The Playbook helps you develop a customized Theory of Leadership that lays out your role as a leader in designing, advancing, and in the process learning better how to achieve equity at scale.
The Playbook helps you develop a customized Theory of Leadership that lays out your role as a leader in designing, advancing, and in the process learning better how to achieve equity at scale.
This section describes how to reorient the activity of your organization, school, class, or team so that your overarching strategy is learning. Once you’ve reviewed this section, review the other three drivers. Together, they constitute a Leading Through Learning approach that you can make your own through your Theory of Leadership.
Learning leaders build systems where every strategy is treated as a hypothesis1Edmondson, A.C., & Verdin, P.J. (2017, November 09). Your strategy should be a hypothesis you constantly adjust. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2017/11/your-strategy-should-be-a-hypothesis-you-constantly-adjust implemented and constantly tested to meet the individualized needs of every child, family, and community. When new or unexpected conditions, challenges, or ideas emerge, they are quickly flagged and addressed. The system’s structures are flexible enough to meet evolving needs; the culture communal enough to generate shared ownership of every system responsibility, failure, and success.
Creating this system requires learning leaders who both facilitate and participate in learning, applying to their leadership strategy and system design the same scrutiny they apply to the activities of other stakeholders in their system.
Learning leaders select, customize, and build capacity around a continuous improvement-based learning methodology that treats each strategy, large and small, as a hypothesis—from the organization’s strategic plan to an individual’s strategy for enacting their responsibilities. Continuous improvement extends beyond the siloed problem-solving common in education, through which leaders apply improvement methodology to discrete problems of practice or short-term initiatives. Authentic learning leaders structure—and support all stakeholders in treating—their entire system, each of its components and strategies, and all forms of daily practice as experiments in how to accomplish the system’s goals and achieve equity. The improvement methodology becomes the means for drawing out the expertise of a broad cross-section of stakeholders, generating a common vision, creating a structure for embedded and sustained customization and improvement, and instilling a common language for collaborative learning.
New to Continuous Improvement? A Process for Disciplined Inquiry
Continuous improvement methodologies abound (e.g., The Model for Improvement, Results Oriented Cycles of Inquiry, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching’s approach to improvement science, Kaizen, Six Sigma). While the particularities of these methodologies differ, they’re all designed to support stakeholders in answering three core questions:2Adapted from Langley, G. J., Moen, R. D., Nolan, K. M., Nolan, T. W., Norman, C. L., & Provost, L. P. (2009). The improvement guide: A practical approach to enhancing organizational performance (2nd ed.). John Wiley & Sons.
When the answer to the second question is “no,” each of these methods use the following steps to answer the third question.
Equity-advancing continuous improvement methodologies embed liberatory design principles throughout the process so that improvement efforts help stakeholders embrace complexity, build relational trust, heal, and transform power.3Anaissie, T., Cary, V., Clifford, D., Malarkey, T. & Wise, S. (2021). Liberatory design. http://www.liberatorydesign.com.
Transformative change requires using continuous improvement to manage your overarching strategy and approach, substrategies and approaches, and isolated problem-solving, necessitating broad uptake of the chosen methodology and associated learning dispositions. Learning leaders move away from compliance-oriented approaches to implementation focused on ground-level staff (e.g., teachers).
Instead, learning leaders and those they lead tailor and apply the chosen methodology as “a compass, not a map,”4Mehta, J., Yurkofsky, M., & Frumin, K. (2022, March 1). Linking continuous improvement and adaptive leadership. ASCD. https://www.ascd.org/el/articles/linking-continuous-improvement-and-adaptive-leadership using as a North Star broad uptake across the system, rather than perfect implementation of the process. Improvement routines become an intuitive rhythm for learning that all members of the community—including leaders—can reasonably apply in their daily practice. Rather than front-loading improvement training, learning leaders help team members and stakeholders learn directly through application. Learning leaders closely monitor uptake, help stakeholders tailor the process to their needs, and as they learn what works, adapt the methodology. In full form, learning leaders and their team simultaneously do two things: enact the mission of the organization and get better at doing so all the time.
As Isobel Stevenson recommends, boil down your learning methodology and process to its core components, keeping application of the learning process at scale as your North Star.
Reference the High Tech High (HTH) improvement method diagram and Partners in School Innovation’s Results-Oriented Cycle of Inquiry (ROCI) one-pager as examples.
Armed with their learning methodology, learning leaders architect dynamic organizational structures that embed Strategy as Learning into the daily operation of the organization. The system design and structure supports broad application of the methodology; ongoing improvement and customization of service provision govern activity and reinforce and communicate core values. Learning becomes a core function rather than an unwieldy add-on to other work—and when challenges emerge, leaders look first to flaws in system design, not to “bad” or “incompetent” system actors.
Learning leaders design and build systems that look and function like dynamic networks. They move away from static, hierarchical, and siloed organizational schemata toward flatter, more collaborative and dynamic designs that allow stakeholders to operate as a coordinated learning community, adapting quickly to challenges and changes in conditions, learning from one another’s successes and failures, and advancing toward shared goals more quickly.5Aghina, W., Ahlback, K., De Smet, A., Lackey, G., Lurie, M., Murarka, M., & Handscomb, C. (2018, January 22). The five trademarks of agile organizations. McKinsey & Company. https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/people-and-organizational-performance/our-insights/the-five-trademarks-of-agile-organizations
Learning leaders architect networked systems that minimize horizontal and vertical silos and create communication and connective pathways that support joint work, problem-solving, and the spread and application of knowledge. Individuals are grouped in teams by common objectives. These teams are clustered together based on shared content and circumstances, with high-density ties allowing for immediate transfer of complex knowledge, trust, and ongoing learning.
Clusters are bridged through cross-functional teams and other low-density ties that spark innovation, bring fresh perspectives and expertise, generate diverse knowledge pools, and facilitate knowledge sharing and application of expertise.
In these dynamic, learning-oriented systems, the role of leadership changes. Leaders are no longer positioned as central experts, strategists, shot callers, and directors of learning, but instead as fully participatory and integrated “learners in chief.”6Spear, S. J. (2009). The high-velocity edge: How market leaders leverage operational excellence to beat the competition (2nd ed). McGraw-Hill. Leadership teams become learning command centers7McCannon, J., & Margiotta, B.K. (2015). Inside the command center. Stanford Social Innovation Review. https://doi.org/10.48558/D008-8B19 or hubs, leveraging their central vantage point to facilitate improvement activity across the system.
No one organizational chart8Satell, G. (2015, June 08). Organizational restructuring: What makes an organization networked? Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2015/06/what-makes-an-organization-networked captures what a networked organization looks like. Learning leaders monitor, inform, and shape the ever-evolving system design, which shifts in response to evidence of what works.
Eliminates structural barriers between strategy development and implementation
Learning leaders design their systems to blur what Follet calls the “sharp-line between strategy and execution.”9Ansell, C. (2011). Pragmatist democracy: Evolutionary learning as public philosophy. Oxford University Press. They create ongoing feedback loops between strategy and implementation, understanding that local challenges are the grist for system-level improvement. In practice, this dynamic disrupts traditional concepts of where expertise lies—in the many doers rather than the few directors—and enables the system to adapt system-level strategy more quickly.
Embeds collaborative learning into daily practice
Learning leaders build, prioritize, and protect time and space for collaborative learning, reflection, and improvement routines, adjusting other applied work accordingly. In describing her experience working at Partners in School Innovation, ground-level implementer and regional leader Uchenna Lewis said, “There’s a spaciousness created for learning that I had never experienced as an adult.”
To create a similar “spaciousness for learning” in their systems, learning leaders set shared learning goals and roles, establish a regular cadence for learning routines, and build strong connections between individuals, teams, clusters, functional responsibilities, and content areas so the system functions as a holistic learning engine rather than as a series of discrete, disconnected learning workstreams.
Perhaps most critical to ensuring that these structures produce strong learning is respect—nothing devalues a learning space faster than insufficient planning and lackluster facilitation from learning leaders. Effective leaders collect consistent feedback; shift the structure, facilitation style, and content of the spaces in response; and are explicit with participants about how they have integrated feedback.
Consider whether your system is currently designed to make learning and doing inseparable.
Learn how leaders at Partners in School Innovation have designed a system where learning and doing are inseparable.
“To belong is not just to be a citizen or member in the weakest sense, but to be able to participate in co-creating the thing you belong to.”John A. Powell14powell, j. a. (2020). Bridging or breaking? The stories we tell will create the future we inhabit. Nonprofit Quarterly, 14.
Learning leaders foster a culture to match their improvement methodology and learning-driving structures. Transformative change requires that stakeholders across the system feel collective responsibility for progress toward the system’s shared vision—equity at scale. In a mature learning system, nothing is “somebody else’s problem” because the system is understood as an integrated community of care. When stakeholders see a challenge or an opportunity, they feel a responsibility to raise the alarm and take action. All system actors act as stewards of improvement, who look out for, raise, and respond to issues in the system, even when those issues fall outside their immediate domain of influence.
Learning leaders redefine success as the pursuit of ever better. Fostering a learning culture starts with a radical redefinition of what it means to succeed. Rather than relying on traditional definitions (e.g., performance related to lagging outcomes, compliance with preset rules), learning leaders measure success by a new metric: individual and collective progress toward goals. The system and individuals improve even when high standards are met. Highfliers and leaders become those who learn quickly, customize well, and support others in doing the same.
Learning leaders demonstrate a fierce commitment to shared vision, values, and goals. They act as moral agents,15Palmer, P. J. (2007). A new professional: The aims of education revisited. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 39(6), 6–13. challenging positional leaders, entrenched ways of working, and elements of strategy that are not serving the system’s most marginalized students and communities. They treat failures as learning opportunities and create an environment where system stakeholders feel safe to fail.16McKinsey & Company. (2020, February 18). Have you made it safe to fail?https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/mckinsey-digital/our-insights/fasttimes/have-you-made-it-safe-to-fail They recognize and reward innovation and risk taking and highlight what was learned, why the risk was worth it, and how the system is better as a result. When failure happens, they communicate early and often that system design and leadership are implicated, and they work with stakeholders to shift system structures. Stronger system design and routines, rather than perfection from staff, accelerates success. Those successes and the learning journey are captured and told in stories that build relationships and commitment to the shared mission and spread knowledge of what works.
Pursue improvement in their own leadership practice
Learning leaders apply the same improvement standards to themselves that they expect of others. They have an approach for designing, guiding, and participating in system learning and improvement and constantly test their practice to achieve desired results. Once their approach is captured in a Theory of Leadership, leaders transparently and methodically improve their own leadership approach, the same way they improve their organization, team, or network strategy. Being explicit helps guard against a natural inclination to adjust recollection of anticipated outcomes once results are in (e.g., “I always thought this would play out like this.”).
Living out this approach requires a number of “soft” behaviors: humility, vulnerability, a willingness to constantly learn, and an openness about when and about how you’ve fallen short or where you do not have answers. Underlying this practice is a simple question: “How can I do better today than I did yesterday?”
Codify and apply shared values
Learning leaders create and highlight a sense of collective identity by working with others to recognize the qualities of their system that differentiates it from others. They capture those norms and values, ideally in a short and quippy list, and keep them front and center, posting them publicly in shared workspaces and grounding any collaborative work by returning to them as norms. Being explicit about these values is critical—keeping them tacit makes it more difficult to communicate, measure, refine, and apply them consistently across the system.
Once these norms and values are defined, learning leaders regularly assess their own leadership practice and system design against them and help those they lead do the same. At High Tech High, for example, “sparking joy” is a value that leaders and community members say is critical to effective learning. Leaders and staff across the organization constantly assess their design decisions and behaviors against that value : “Is this activity we’re designing for the network convening going to spark joy? Is how I’m coaching teams sparking joy?” When behaviors or system design is not living up to or furthering those values, leaders respond and help others do the same.
Over time, these values become integrated into the fabric of the community through institutional myths and stories.17Bolman, L. G., & Deal, T. E. (2017). Reframing organizations: Artistry, choice, and leadership (6th ed.). John Wiley & Sons.
Create cultural markers of community membership
Learning leaders leverage markers of community membership to bring social cohesion and a sense of belonging to diverse learning cohorts. Learning leaders may elect to pick a unique, thematically compelling name for the system, develop a logo and a website, reinforce a community-specific lexicon, and invest in branded clothing and other physical signals of membership. They enact rituals and traditions that reflect shared values—for example, closing each quarterly full-group learning session with storytelling, applauding outside a retiring faculty member’s final class, or inviting new staff to dine one-on-one with organizational leaders. And they identify and model shared “ways of being” that distinguish members of the system.
Intentionality around these efforts is especially important in new and geographically dispersed systems (e.g., multistate networks, national organizations) where stakeholders have had fewer opportunities to develop organic community ties and symbols. The goal is not to exclude outsiders—in fact, systems that inspire transformative change are always ready to welcome new members18McCannon, J. & Margiotta, B.K. (2015, January 21). Inside the command center. Stanford Social Innovation Review. https://ssir.org/articles/entry/inside_the_command_center – but to establish a social glue to support collaborative learning work.
Help translate private feelings and ideas into public action
“A capacity to translate private feelings into knowledge and then public action, when warranted, has been an engine of every movement for social change.”Parker J. Palmer19Palmer, P. J. (2007). A new professional: The aims of education revisited. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 39(6), 6–13.
Learning leaders recognize feelings, experience, and stories as critical data for transformative systems change.20Safir, S., & Dugan, J. (2021). Street data: A next-generation model for equity, pedagogy, and school transformation. Corwin. When staff feel overwhelmed, students feel unsupported, and families feel excluded, these are not just personal challenges. They are indicators of system breakdowns that can reveal specific, actionable areas for intervention.
Because this perspective is antithetical to how many professionals have been taught to behave, learning leaders train stakeholders to “stay close”21Palmer, P. J. (2007). A new professional: The aims of education revisited. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 39(6), 6–13. to feelings and translate them into actionable knowledge, asking questions like: How did you feel today? What, if anything, do these emotions tell you about your practice? System design? What would need to change to shift how you’re feeling?
Learning leaders create communities where stakeholders feel comfortable being vulnerable and sharing the knowledge gleaned from feelings to incite action.
How conducive is your system’s culture to ongoing learning in pursuit of ever better?
For a formal values articulation exercise, use Step 3.1 in the Companion Guide to collaboratively assess your own leadership practice and system design against the Leading Through Learning principles.
Explore how leaders in the High Tech High CARPE College Access Network have cultivated a learning culture that contributes to improvements in student outcomes.