Communicating in the Fog of Disaster: A Step-by-Step Approach to Building Your Organization’s Crisis Communication Strategy

Authored by: Daniel T. Murphy

Imagine the unthinkable. You have spent years developing a highly successful business, building your brand by delivering exceptional products and services to your customers, taking care of your employees, and giving back to the community. Then suddenly, your organization is devastated by an earthquake, wildfire, terror attack, or mass casualty. Or, perhaps you learn that a hurricane coming up the coast is likely to make landfall exactly where your business is located. You ask your staff to break out the company’s Crisis Communication strategy so that you can begin communicating critical information to all affected stakeholders. Your staff seems puzzled. “What strategy?” they ask.

These days, every time day we open the newspaper or check our Twitter feed, we see unexpected crises happening in the world. Perhaps it is an earthquake in a country where your organization has a manufacturing facility. Perhaps a wildfire is threatening an area where your company has its regional warehouse. Or, maybe a branch location of your organization has been victimized by a terror attack.

As a leader, if you wait until a crisis is impending or a crisis has occurred, you are rolling the dice. If you are betting that you will make smart communication decisions during the fog of crisis, you are putting at risk everything that you have worked hard to build. Agile, brand-focused companies anticipate crisis so that they can protect their brand and reputation, and possibly even improve their brand and reputation. The recent mass shooting event at the Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas is a good example of what happens when leaders – In this case, hotel leadership, the tourist board, city government and multiple law enforcement agencies – clearly did not have a sufficient crisis communication plan in place before the attack occurred. The result was unnecessary chaos, miscommunication, loss of organization credibility, and proliferation of conspiracy theories.

Philosophically Speaking

Whether your organization has experienced a sudden, unexpected crisis such as a wildfire or earthquake, or whether you are faced with a hurricane that is days or hours away, you should be able to pull one single all hazard strategy document off the shelf, open up that document to page one, and begin communicating the right information to the right stakeholders at the right time, and using the right media.

To begin with, that means approaching the problem with an all hazard mindset. In other words, your organization should not have separate communication strategies for fires, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, terror attacks, etc. Rather, your organization should have one single, yet flexible Crisis Communication Strategy to execute in any crisis situation. What does that mean from a tactical standpoint? A best practice is to have one single Crisis Communication Strategy binder with one single documented strategy. That single strategy should be supplemented by annexes in the back of the binder to address specific tactics for specific hazards (e.g., the use of sirens for approaching tornados). The all hazard approach has two key benefits. First, it helps conserve finite resources by reducing duplication of effort. Second, it simplifies training and exercising, and contributes to continuous improvement. People train on one method, and emergency planners exercise, evaluate, and consistently improve one method.

A Crisis Communication Strategy should also be collaboratively developed. The business landscape is littered with organization improvement initiatives that either partially or fully failed because they were developed by a small number of people in a vacuum or by an organization’s leadership team in an echo chamber. Like all organization improvement initiatives, an effective Crisis Communication Strategy should be developed, not FOR the stakeholder groups that will be impacted by a crisis, but rather WITH those stakeholder groups. A carefully planned and executed stakeholder analysis is the cornerstone of an effective Crisis Communication Strategy. From a tactical standpoint, that requires a working session-based, iterative approach. An initial working session is held with a small group of known stakeholders to conduct the stakeholder identification session. The stakeholder identification session will likely generate a list of additional stakeholder groups. A second working session is held with representatives of the expanded list of stakeholder groups.

A Methodological Approach

We can all agree that “winging it” does not work, right? So, how can an organization take a systematic step-by-step approach to build a useful, all-hazard, collaboratively constructed Crisis Communication Strategy? Here is a step-by-step approach that combines multiple techniques proven effective both in government and in the commercial sector.CCS Building 20171026

Step 1 – Best Practices Survey: One good way to begin developing a Crisis Communication Strategy is to survey what other organizations have done. Consider the size of your organization, your geographic location, the types of hazards your organization is most likely to face (e.g., snowstorms in the northeast, wildfires in the west), and your particular industry segment. Make a list of organizations that might have a similar hazard risk profile. Research those organizations and talk to your peers in those organizations about past communication tactics they have used and the lessons they have learned in times of crisis. Even organizations that compete with one another should be willing to work together if the goal is to save lives and livelihoods.

Step 2 – Stakeholder Identification: The mechanical development of your Crisis Communication Strategy really starts here. Make a quick list of the stakeholder groups who you think would need or want information from your organization in a time of crisis. If you are a high school, your list might include students, parents, faculty, school board, city officials, etc. Invite a representative from each of those groups to an initial working session. In your first working session, conduct a brainstorming activity to validate and refine your list of stakeholder groups.

Step 3 – Content Identification: Conduct a second working session with representatives from your refined list of stakeholder groups. Brainstorm content areas. Ask the team, “In a crisis situation, what things will people want to know about?” Your brainstorming exercise will likely generate dozens of ideas. When you have completed brainstorming, aggregate your ideas into 20-30 content groupings.

Step 4 – Stakeholder/Content Alignment: For this exercise, consider using a large whiteboard or a large wall where you can post Post-It notes. Create a table with a column for each stakeholder group and one row for each aggregate content grouping. Then, agree on a way for the team to multi-vote on what are the two or three most important content areas for each stakeholder group. When you have completed the Stakeholder/Content Alignment table, put it aside for a moment.

Step 5 – Channel Analysis: Every organization will have a different set of channels available for communicating content to stakeholders. The channel analysis begins with an additional brainstorming session. Create a list of print media channels (e.g., local newspapers, newsletters, etc.) available to your organization. Then create similar lists for broadcast media (e.g., local radio stations, television stations, etc.), and electronic/social media (e.g., company website, email, Facebook, Twitter, etc.). Then, create a second whiteboard table to assess each communication channel against the following criteria:

  • Level of Effort (high, medium, low): How much effort will it require you organization to use each channel. As an example, Twitter will likely cost you less effort than broadcast television.
  • Speed (high, medium, low): How quickly can you deliver information through the channel.
  • Coverage (high, medium, low): To what extend does the communication channel cover each stakeholder group. For example, if your organization is a senior citizen’s center, Twitter coverage might be relatively low.
  • Organic (yes, no): Is the communication channel organic (owned by) your organization? In other words, does the channel allow you to communicate direct to the stakeholder groups (e.g., email)? Or, will you be reliant on a brokering organization (e.g., media company that owns a radio or television station).
  • Resilience (high, medium, low): In times of crisis, what is the likelihood that this media will be available for use? For example, if hurricanes are a primary hazard for your organization, social media channels, because they rely on Internet connectivity, might be less resilient than broadcast radio.

Step 6 – Action Planning: Keep in mind that this step is more art than science. Post the tables from both the Stakeholder/Content Alignment and the Channel Analysis on the wall. Have conversations with your stakeholder group representatives. Consider marking up the Stakeholder/Content Alignment table with a different colored marker to aggregate groupings of stakeholder groups and content groupings for communication via specific channels. For example, if you are building a Crisis Communication Strategy for a university, you may decide that both evacuation routes and shelter locations will be communicated to both students and faculty by email and Twitter. The Stakeholder/Content Alignment and the Channel Analysis together can then be used as a backdrop to inform the development of a detailed tactical communications plan with actionable timings, tasks, and assignments. Your tactical plan should have a level of detail that looks something like this:

Timing Task Assignment
Event Day -3 Send press release with evacuation routes to local newspapers. Print Media Lead

And to provide perspective, if you are a medium-sized manufacturing organization, and your tactical plan is comprehensive, your list of tasks will likely be at least in the dozens.

Reminder: The Crisis Communication Plan should be developed with an “all hazard” approach. The output of Step 6 especially should be written so that it fits most crisis scenarios. Tasks relevant for specific hazard types (e.g., Send press release with instructions for snow plowing requests) should be placed in hazard specific appendices (e.g., Winter Storm) in the document.

Step 7 – Critical Success Factors: Step 6 was focused on creating a task-based tactical plan to help an organization in crisis immediately start communicating the right information to the right audiences via the right channels. Step 7 should be more of a step back and reflection on lessons learned from crises and disasters where organizations (especially your own organization) did NOT communicate well. Step 7 should result in a list of critical success factors for the organization’s leadership team. In other words, while Step 6 might provide a chief executive with sufficient detail to provide comfort in a tactical path forward, Step 7 should yield a list of “bigger” success factors that will help leadership avoid big mistakes.

Step 8 – Package: Step 8 is the packaging of the Crisis Communications Strategy document. The outputs of Steps 1 through 7 should all be included in a physical (not electronic) book or binder that can be easily pulled off the shelf so that communications can begin immediately, whether crisis has already occurred, or whether crisis is impending. While Steps 6 and 7 should be the centerpieces of the Crisis Communication Strategy, the output of all steps should be included in the binder so that future teams responsible for updating the strategy will be able to understand the context of the current strategy. In the end, the chapters of a Communication Strategy might look something like this:

  • Chapter 1: Introduction and Purpose of this Crisis Communication Strategy
  • Chapter 2: Roles and Responsibilities
  • Chapter 3: Key Stakeholders and Content Areas
  • Chapter 4: Communication Channels
  • Chapter 5: Detailed Crisis Communication Plan
  • Chapter 6: Critical Success Factors
  • Appendices: (Hurricane, Flooding, Fire, Winter Storm, Terror Attack, Mass Casualty)

Steps 9, 10, 11 and 12: These steps should mirror the emergency management lifecycle. In Step 9, the Crisis Communication Strategy should be used to identify and procure necessary resources (e.g., hire a social media manager, order bullhorns, etc.). In Step 10, communications personnel must be trained on the tasks that the strategy will require them to perform. In Step 11, the Crisis Communication Strategy should be exercised, first via tabletop exercise and then in functional and full-scale exercises. Finally, in Step 12, lessons learned from exercises should be incorporated into the next iteration of the development cycle.

Final Thoughts

Crisis always brings risk to an organization. However, for organizations that prepare in advance, crisis can also provide an opportunity for an organization to shine. Chief executives typically spend significant time and resources on business continuity plans so that, when crisis occurs or crisis is imminent, they have alternative locations for their supply chains, service centers, and especially supporting IT infrastructures. Chief executives recognize that operational agility is not only a plus, but quite possible a requirement for survival in an increasingly competitive business environment. Top performing organizations also understand that that operational agility must be matched with communications agility. In other words, when crisis occurs, as it inevitably will, leadership must be able walk across the office, pull a binder off the shelf, open to page one, and begin communicating the right information to the right audiences at the right time, and via the right channels.


Strategy of Attrition in New Jersey and Italy: How George Washington and Quintus Fabius Maximus Waged War

Authored by:  Daniel T. Murphy


George Washington’s father was a tobacco planter who died when the future president was only eleven years old.  As a result, according to David McCullough, because of the family’s reduced circumstances, Washington had only seven or eight years of schooling by a private tutor.  Unlike many of his Virginia contemporaries, Washington had “no training in Latin or Greek or law.”[1] Yet, he ironically waged a war of attrition against British forces in New Jersey and Pennsylvania during the years 1776-1781 that very much resembled the Second Punic War waged by the Roman general Quintus Fabius Maximus against Hannibal of Carthage in 218-203 B.C.

Washington was described as being a “man accustomed to respect and being obeyed,” yet “amiable and modest.”[2]  John Adams said Washington would have “great effect in cementing and securing the union of these colonies.”[3]  Likewise, Romans saw in Fabius “soundly-based judgment,” that he “never acted on impulse,” and was “steadfast and resolute in all circumstances.”[4]  Fifteen years prior to the American Revolution, Washington had proven himself as a Colonel in the French and Indian War.  Fifteen years prior to the war against Hannibal, Fabius had led the Roman legions in a victory over the Ligurians in Tuscany.  Thus, we are comparing two battle-tested commanders.

In the American Revolution and in Rome’s Second Punic War against Carthage, Washington and Fabius both explicitly opted to fight wars of attrition against their adversaries.  Washington opted for an attrition strategy because he led a developing yet recently degraded army with limited operational capabilities.  For Fabius, it was because he commanded a remnant army and faced an adversary that was knocking at the gates of Rome.  Washington intended to use time to exhaust the British army, to either cause the British people to become weary of the fight, or to eventually strike the British army when its forces had become sufficiently depleted, and strike when the time was right.  Fabius similarly sought to exhaust the Carthaginian army.  Washington’s and Fabius’s attrition warfare strategies can both be examined via the Clausewitzian trinity dimensions of people, military and government.


Most importantly, both Washington and Fabius recognized that, in their particular conflicts, it was Clausewitz’s second dimension – the military – that was most critical.  For both commanders, the army was the center of gravity, and the army would need to survive at all costs.

When Washington was defeated in New York in 1776, the future of the Revolution became questionable.  According to Russell Weigley, “Washington’s first object in his defensive war was to defend not any geographical area or point but the existence of his army.  If the army could be kept alive, the Revolutionary cause would also remain alive.”[5] British forces used amphibious and maneuver warfare tactics to defeat Washington’s Continental Army in New York in November 1776.  For Washington, it was a significant learning event.  As a result, he essentially sought to avoid any full-scale confrontation with British forces for the remainder of the War, stating explicitly that a decisive battle with the British army was “incompatible with our interests.”[6]  Washington recognized the “amazing advantage” the enemy derived from their command of the sea, and that it kept American forces “in a State of constant perplexity and the most anxious conjecture.”[7]  Thus, Washington adhered rigorously to the principle of concentration of force, insisting that he would not divide his army.[8]  And he spent significant effort on recruiting and retention.  In a 1777 letter to Congress, he wrote “I must beg you will write to the Assemblies of the different States, and insist upon their passing a law, to inflict a severe and heavy penalty upon those who harbour deserters . . . Our Army is shamefully reduced by desertion.”[9]

Similarly, when the Roman army was defeated, and the Consul Flaminius was killed in the battle at Lake Trasimene in 224 B.C., Rome’s future existence became questionable.  The Carthaginian general Hannibal had transited his army across the Mediterranean to Spain, had then crossed the Alps into Italy, and after killing Flaminius and fifteen thousand of his troops, had been laying waste to the Italian peninsula.  As Romans had done when facing previous existential threats, they elected a temporary dictator with total government and military authority.  Like the Congress in Philadelphia selected a battle-tested Virginian aristocrat, Rome selected a battle-tested patrician aristocrat.  Like Washington, Quintus Fabius Maximus realized that what remained of the Roman army after Trasimene needed to be kept alive at all costs.

Fabius understood that Hannibal’s army was not incredibly large (although he had a powerful cavalry), and it was poorly supplied.  He urged Romans to “have patience and on no account to engage a commander who led an army that had been hardened in many contests for this very purpose of forcing a decisive battle.”[10]  Instead, in Clausewitzian fashion, they should allow Hannibal’s strength, which was currently at its peak, to “waste away like a flame which flares up brightly but has little fuel to sustain it.”[11]  In other words, Fabius wanted to wait for the culminating point at which the capabilities of the recently defeated Roman legions would be sufficiently restored, and Hannibal’s capabilities would be sufficiently degraded.  So, Fabius and the Roman army essentially followed Hannibal up and down the Italian peninsula for fifteen years.  When Hannibal stayed still, so did Fabius.  When Hannibal marched, so did Fabius.  Fabius typically camped his army in the mountainous areas nearby Hannibal’s army so that he could watch over Hannibal’s movements, and simultaneously reduce his own exposure to the Carthaginian cavalry.[12]  When opportunities arose, Fabius made harassing attacks, as he did at Casilinum where his army killed eight hundred of the Carthaginian rear guard.[13]  As a result of these tactics, Fabius earned the nickname “Cuncator” (lingerer).  Like Washington, Fabius had many critics, but was confident in his strategy of attrition – “I should be an even greater coward than they say I am if I were to abandon the plans I believe to be right because of a few sneers and words of abuse.”[14]


While Washington and Fabius both understood that the survival of the army meant the survival of their cause, they also appreciated the government dimension of the Clausewitzian trinity.  Thus, they both spent a considerable percentage of their efforts aligning their strategies with their respective civilian government leaders.

While some members of the government clambered for a decisive engagement (including an invasion of Canada), Washington was constantly cautioning in his letters to Congress that “We should on all occasions avoid a general action or put anything to the risk unless compelled by necessity.”[15]  At times he seemed to be fighting an information warfare campaign with his own leadership, reiterating his strategic logic on a daily basis.  In a letter to John Jay he underscored why the Continental army was not ready for anything other than attrition warfare – “In the present depreciation of our money, scantiness of supplies, want of virtue and want of exertion, ’tis hard to say what may be the consequence.”[16] Likewise, Fabius was constantly re-selling his attrition strategy to the Senate and other members of the civilian leadership in Rome.  Several influential leaders wanted to replace Fabius with his Master-of-the-Horse, Marcus Minucius, who argued for an immediate pitched battle.[17]


Both Washington and Fabius were also attuned to the populace.  The one occasion when Washington risked a decisive engagement with British forces was at Brandywine in September 1777, because he appreciated the people dimension of Clausewitz’s trinity, and determined that he could not give up the nation’s capitol without a fight.  Earlier in 1776, Washington recognized that the American people were reluctant to continue the war.  New York had been a disaster, and the British blockage was beginning to have an effect on the American economy.  Washington knew that the people needed to see a success.  The daring Christmas raid across the Delaware against Trenton was intended to do just that.  The victory shifted public opinion back in favor of the Revolution.  The funding came in.  The government authorized Washington to “use every endeavor,” including bounties, to convince the troops to stay with the army.[18]  And, the army’s fighting ability was kept in tact – Truly an example of the dynamic nature of Clausewitz’s people, government and military trilogy.

Similarly, a main reason why Rome won the war against Hannibal was because Fabius, in most cases, was conciliatory to the Italian towns that had been terrified into cooperating with Hannibal.  Rather than punishing collaborators, Fabius opted to “reason with them sympathetically . . . without inquiring too closely into every case of doubtful loyalty or treating every suspected person harshly.”[19]


After Trenton, Congress told Washington what Rome had told Quintus Fabius Maxiumus two thousand years before – That he was “entrusted with the most unlimited power, and neither personal security, liberty, nor property be in the least degree endangered.”[20]  Washington’s answer to Congress was “I shall constantly bear in mind that as the sword was the last resort for the preservation of our liberties, so it ought to be the first thing laid aside when those liberties are firmly established.”[21]  And at the end of the conflict, Washington did not need any coercion to lay down his sword.  Similarly, Quintus Fabius Maximus’s greatest hour was when the Carthaginian conflict had ended, and he willingly gave up his dictatorship in the name of democracy.  He was one of the last Roman dictators to do so.

Copyright Daniel T. Murphy 2012


David McCullough, 1776 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006).

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Russell Weigley, The American Way of War (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973).

[1] David McCullough, 1776 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006), 44.

[2] McCullough, 43.

[3] John Adams to Abigail Adams, June 11, 1775, in Adams Family Correspondence (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1963), 215.

[4] Plutarch, Fabius Maximus, 1.

[5] Russell Weigley, The American Way of War (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973), 12.

[6] Weigley, 14.

[7] Weigley, 12.

[8] Weigley, 14.

[9] George Washington Letter to the President of Congress, January 31, 1777, Washington, George, 1732-1799. The writings of George Washington from the original manuscript sources: Volume 7, Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library, ttp:// (accessed April 3, 2012).

[10] Plutarch, 2.

[11] Plutarch, 2.

[12] Plutarch, 5.

[13] Plutarch, 6.

[14] Plutarch, 5.

[15] McCullough, 207.

[16] George Washington to John Jay, May 10, 1779, in The Life John Jay With Selections from His Correspondence and Miscellaneous Papers. by His Son, William Jay in Two Volumes. Vol. II., 1833, (accessed April 3, 2012).

[17] Plutarch, 8.

[18] McCullough, 286.

[19] Plutarch, 20.

[20] McCullough, 286.

[21] McCullough, 286.

Why Organizational Learning Really Begins with March

Authored by Daniel T. Murphy

Today’s landscape of organizational learning (OL) research can be traced back to ideas put forth by pioneers such as March (1991), Senge (1990), Argyris and Schon (1996), and Schwandt (1997). March may be the best example. One of March’s (1991) key contributions is that he challenged follow-on scholars to study how variables such as socialization rate, speed of learning, and turnover impact OL, and have either positive or negative consequences on an organization’s performance as an explorer or exploiter.

March’s legacy can be seen within recent studies in four different countries. Granerud and Robson (2011) conducted a quantitative case study of 13 Danish OHS 18001-certified manufacturing companies, examining how Occupational Safety and Health Management Systems (OSHMS) certification enhances or hinders OL, continuous improvement (CI), and organizational performance. Hung, Lien, Yan, Wu and Kuo (2011) conducted a quantitative study of 1,139 technology industry companies in Taiwan, exploring the relationship between Total Quality Management (TQM), OL and innovation. Real, Roldan and Leal (2014) conducted a quantitative study of 140 randomly selected companies in the Andalusia province of Spain, studying the influence of entrepreneurial orientation and learning orientation on OL. Doiron (2014) conducted a quantitative study of 1,100 individuals on 72 project teams exploring the relationship between OL and organizational identification at the project team level. Like March, all four scholars developed and tested hypotheses to understand the impact of variables on OL. Hung et al. (2011) developed four hypotheses, Real et al. (2014) five hypotheses, and Doiron (2014) five hypotheses. Granerud and Robson’s (2011) study was also hypothesis-based, but did not report the specific hypotheses developed.

While all four studies were conducted in the “spirit” of March, each was grounded in a different theoretical framework. Granerud and Robson’s (2011) study was grounded on Ellstrom’s (2001) five levels of OL: organizational; reproductive; basic productive; advanced productive and creative. Hung et al.’s (2011) study was grounded on a simple three element conceptual framework developed by the researchers. Real et al.’s (2014) study was developed from Crossan and Berdrow’s (2003) and Crossan, Lane and White’s (1999) “4I” model where OL occurs through institutionalization, integration, interpretation and intuition across the organization, its groups and its individuals. Doiron’s (2014) study was grounded on in Ashforth, Harrison, and Corley’s (2008) and Ashforth, Rogers, and Corley’s (2011) theory that OL enables organizations to maintain, refocus, or transform identity in response to environmental changes, and provides sensemaking to the members of the organization.

For the most part, the four studies did not have significantly contrasting definitions of OL, though each emphasized a particular thought leader’s definition. For example, Granerud and Robson (2011) suggested an aggregated definition of OL based on at least seven definitions from scholars such as Levitt and March (1988), Argyris and Schon (1996), Ellstrom (2001), and Anand, Ward, Takakonda and Schilling (2009). In Granerud and Robson’s (2011) study, OL occurs when ideas, techniques and experiences, whether from within the organization or from the outside, are shared and applied to improve performance. Hung et al. (2011) also suggested an aggregated definition with elements from Argyris and Schon (1996), Wang, Yang and McLean (2007), Inkpen (1998), and Dodgeson (1993), but mostly from Senge (1990), emphasizing OL as a dynamically balanced relational process in which organizations acquire external knowledge and adjust their activities. Relying on their own definition of OL from a previous study, Real et al. (2006) believe OL is generated at the heart of the organization via its individuals and groups, and that it drives the generation and development of capabilities that enable the organization to improve its performance and results. Doiron relied mostly on Schwandt (1997), suggesting OL is a system of actions, actors, symbols, and processes that enables an organization to transform information into knowledge, thus improving adaptability.

The most important takeaways from these studies are the practical insights that can help organizations adapt, innovate and compete in their respective industries. Granerud and Robson’s (2011) findings suggest certification programs can help companies become better exploiters (March, 1991). However, companies should not expect certification programs to drive innovation and exploration, unless the certification program is coupled with internal processes that are specifically designed to drive innovation and exploration. From Hung et al. (2011), we learn that, while TQM alone can help a company become a better exploiter (March, 1991) OL might be combined with TQM to help an organization keep exploitation and exploration balanced. The study by Real et al. (2014) suggests companies with entrepreneurial cultures can gain competitive advantage against other entrepreneurial companies through structured OL programs. And, in larger entrepreneurial companies, OL has a greater propensity to take root. Finally, Doiron (2014) teaches us that team identification results in positive outcomes such as improved cooperation, extra effort, higher job satisfaction, increased job involvement, stronger motivation, lower turnover, and higher performance. Organizations can achieve such benefits by increasing project team learning across multiple dimensions. Taken together, the four studies underscore March’s key message from more than 25 years ago, that organizations can work purposefully to adjust organizational levers, and that those levers can have positive inputs on OL and ultimately organizational performance.


Anand, G., Ward, P., Takikonda, M., & Schilling, D. (2009). Dynamic capabilities through continuous improvement infrastructure. Journal of Operations Management 27(6), 444-461. doi: 10.1016/j.jom.2009.02.002

Argyris, C., & Schon, D. (1996). Organisational learning II. Boston, MA: Addison Wesley Publishing.

Ashforth, B. E., Harrison, S. H., & Corley, K. G. (2008). Identification in organizations: An examination of four fundamental questions. Journal of Management, 34(3), 325-374. doi: 10.1177/0149206308316059

Ashforth, B. E., Rogers, K. M., & Corley, K. G. (2011). Identity in organizations: Exploring cross-level dynamics. Organization Science, 22(5), 1144-1156. doi: 10.1287/orsc.1100.0591

Crossan, M. M., & Berdrow, I. (2003). Organizational learning and strategic renewal, Strategic Management Journal, 24(1), 1087–1105. doi: 10.1002/smj.342

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Dodgeson, M. (1993). Organizational learning: A review of some literature. Organizational Studies, 14(3), 375-394.

Doiron, J. A. (2013). The cross-level relationship between project team learning and project team identification: A social action perspective. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). The George Washington University, Washington, DC, United States.

Ellstrom, P. E. (2001). Integrating learning and work: Problems and prospects. Human Resource Development Quarterly, 12(4), 421-435. doi: 10.1002/hrdq.1006

Granerud, L., & Robson, S. (2011). Organisational learning and continuous improvement of health and safety in certified manufacturers, Safety Science, 49(1), 1030-1039. doi: 10.1016/j.ssci.2011.01.09

Hung, R. Y., Lien, B. Y, Yang, B., Wu, C., & Kuo, Y. (2011). Impact of TQM and organizational learning on innovation performance in the high tech industry. International Business Review, 20(1), 213-225. doi: 10.1016/j.ibusrev.2010.07.001

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Real, J. C., Roldan, J. L. Leal, A. (2006). Information technology as a determinant of organizational learning and technological distinctive competencies. Industrial Marketing Management, 35(1), 505–521. doi: 10.1016/j.indmarman.2005.05.004

Schwandt, D. R. (1997). Integrating strategy and organizational learning: A theory of action perspective. Advances in Strategic Management, 14(1), 337-359.

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Wang, X., Yang, B., & McLean, G. N. (2007). Influence of demographic factors and ownership type upon organizational learning culture in Chinese enterprises. International Journal of Training and Development, 11(3), 154-165. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2419.2007.00278.x



Article citation Evidence Framework

(OL theory/definition)

Evidence Source

(where/who/how did they get their evidence)

Evidence-based Findings; Practical Insights
Granerud, 2011


Theme: Certification as a variable

Studied: How Occupational Safety and Health Management Systems (OSHMS) certification affects OL, continuous improvement (CI), and performance.

OL Definition: Ideas, techniques and experiences, from within the organization and outside, are shared and applied to improve performance. Definition based on 7+ definitions from scholars such as Levitt and March (1988), Argyris and Schon (1996), Ellstrom (2001), and Anand, Ward, Takakonda and Schilling (2009).

Grounded: On Ellstrom’s (2001) five levels of OL: organizational; reproductive; basic productive; advanced productive and creative.

Quantitative: 13 Danish manufacturing companies.

Four phased data collection approach: (1) preliminary visits and interviews; (2) OSHMS assessment by independent auditor; (3) workshop; and (4) on-site interviews, including semi-structured one-on-one, group, written and electronic documentation review, and participant observation.

Hypotheses and data analysis not described in the article.

Analysis: Across six dimensions: learning characteristics, level of learning; CI practice; CI performance; OHSMS adoption; and CI and OHSMS strategic application.

OHSMS certification supports lower (transactional/exploitative) levels of OHSMS-related CI.

More advanced (explorative) improvements are driven by firms’ processes, and/or are found in firms that do more than just the minimum requirements for OHSMS certification.

Best performing companies placed emphasis on employee participative routines, rather than on OHSMS reporting.

OHSMS certification may generate process improvements beyond the legal requirements

Key Takeaway: Certification programs can help companies become better exploiters (March, 1991), but should not be expected to drive innovation/exploration.

Hung, Lien, Yan, Wu and Kuo (2011)


Theme: TQM as a variable

Studied: Relationship between Total Quality Management (TQM), OL and innovation.

OL Definition: Dynamically balanced relationship in which organizations acquire external knowledge and further adjust activities. Authors reference multiple thought leaders, including Argyris and Schon (1996), Wang, Yang and McLean (2007), Inkpen (1998), and Dodgeson (1993), but mostly resting on Senge (1990).

Grounded: On three element conceptual framework developed by the researchers.

Quantitative: Likert questionnaire distributed to 1,139 technology industry companies in Taiwan.

Four hypotheses: (1) TQM positively relates to OL; (2) OL positively relates to innovation; (3) TQM positively relates to innovation; (4) OL mediates TQM and innovation.

Data from previous studies focused on TQM (leadership support, employee involvement, CI and customer focus), OL (culture and strategy) and innovation (product and process).

Analysis: Correlational and regression analysis with results presented in a structural equation table and graphic model.

TQM has a significant and positive impact on OL and innovation.

Future studies should include a broad sample of firms from other industries.

Key Takeaway: While TQM alone can help a company become a better exploiter (March, 1991) OL can be combined with TQM to help an organization keep exploitation and exploration balanced.

Real, Roldan and Leal (2014)


Theme: Entrepreneurial orientation as a variable

Studied: (1) Influence of entrepreneurial and learning orientation on OL; (2) Influence of OL on organizational culture and performance; and (3) How organization size influences entrepreneurial orientation and OL.

OL Definition: From authors’ prior article: OL generated by individuals and groups in the organization, and drives development of capabilities that improve performance. (Real, Leal and Roldan, 2006).

Grounded: On Crossan and Berdrow’s (2003) and Crossan, Lane and White’s (1999) “4I” model (OL institutionalization, integration, interpretation and intuition across organization, groups and individuals).

Quantitative: Study of 140 firms in Andalusia, Spain.

Likert survey to firms dependent on technology innovation.

Five hypotheses: (1) OL mediates entrepreneurial orientation and perceived business value (PBV); (2) OL mediates learning orientation and PBV; (3) Firm size moderates relationship between entrepreneurial orientation and OL; (4) Firm size moderates relationship between learning orientation and OL; and (5) Firm size moderates relationship between OL and PBV.

Analysis: Variance-based equation and partial least squares modelling to predict dependent variables in four dimensions (entrepreneurial, learning orientation, OL, PBV).

OL partially mediates the influence of entrepreneurial orientation on perceived business value.

Learning orientation has significant effect on PBV.

Entrepreneurial orientation has a greater positive influence on OL in larger firms.

Learning orientation has a greater influence on OL in small and medium-size firms.

Key Takeaway: Companies with entrepreneurial cultures can gain competitive advantage against other entrepreneurial companies through structured OL programs. OL has greater propensity to take root in larger entrepreneurial companies.

Doiron (2014)


Theme: Team identification (TI) as a variable

Studied: Relationship between OL and organizational identification at the project team level.

OL definition: OL is a system of actions, actors, symbols, and processes that enables an organization to transform information into knowledge, and improving adaptability. (Schwandt 1997)

Grounded: On Ashforth, Rogers, and Corley’s (2011) argument that OL enables organization to maintain, refocus, or transform identity in response to environment, and provides sensemaking to members.

Quantitative: Study of 1,100 individuals on 72 project teams using a Likert-based survey. Country not specified.

Five hypotheses: (1) Team learning is related to TI; (2) Team learning associated with culture is related to TI; (3) Team learning associated with strategy is related to TI; (4) Team learning associated with structure is related to TI; (5) Team learning associated with the environment is related to TI.

Analysis:   Hierarchical linear modeling.

Analysis supported all hypotheses.

Team learning is related to team identification.

Team learning associated with strategy, culture, structure and the environment is related to project team identification.

Key Takeaway: By increasing project team learning across multiple dimensions, organizations can achieve improved cooperation, extra effort, higher job satisfaction, increased job involvement, stronger motivation, lower turnover, and ultimately, improved performance.


Distributed Leadership at Sea: Why the Navy is an Example of Leadership Agility

By Daniel T. Murphy


Military and civilian historians have spent decades and countless thousands of pages trying to understand the nature of U.S. Navy leadership. In most cases, the study has focused on what Bennis (2007) has called the “bad old days” when heroic leadership was taught through the biographies of great men. The great leaders themselves, including Farragut, Jones, Nimitz, Spruance and others have been studied by dozens of biographers. Yet, the focus on leadership personalities, rather than the “practice” of leadership leaves a gap in understanding what makes an organization tick. Scholars believe the study of leadership needs a new lens. I believe the Navy is no exception, and, I believe distributive leadership theory can provide that lens. This paper seeks to provide a snapshot of Navy shipboard leadership through a distributed leadership perspective. To that end, I interviewed a Navy officer who, based on his education, training, officer specialty, and history of assignments, might be considered a “typical” Navy leader. To be specific, I interviewed a 33-year-old male surface warfare officer (SWO) named Lieutenant Commander (LCDR) Mark T (pseudo name). LCDR T has served multiple tours of duty at sea and on shore. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, and has been a division officer and a department head on destroyers and cruisers. He has not yet served as a ship’s executive officer or commanding officer.

Through a Distributed Leadership Lens

For my interview with LCDR T, I created an interview protocol grounded in Gibb’s (1954, 1968) and Gronn’s (2002, 2008) theory of distributed leadership. Gibb is generally credited as the first scholar to use the term distributed leadership, and suggested that leadership exists in a continuum of situations. On one end of the continuum, leadership can reside with a specific individual. On the other end of the continuum, leadership can be distributed amongst many.   Four decades after Gibb coined the term distributed leadership, Gronn reiterated Gibb’s theory and suggested that leadership tends to pass between individuals based on the situation, not on the capabilities of the people, and that leaders simply lead followers in the direction that the followers would have gone anyway. The interview with LCDR T was semi-structured and focused largely around: (a) whether Navy leadership at sea is highly centralized, highly distributed, or somewhere in the middle, and (b) whether leaders really do simply lead followers in the direction that the followers would have gone anyway.

For the record, while contemporary leadership theorists seem to imply (my opinion) that bad old heroic leadership is somewhat indescribable by leaders themselves, I believe most Navy leaders can describe leadership in a tangible way, and that they do have a consensus around multiple leadership attributes, and especially around one specific element. That element is accountability, also known in the military as “one throat to choke” when things go wrong.

Situationally Dependent

The key takeaway from the interview with LCDR T is that shipboard leadership is neither highly centralized, nor highly decentralized. Sometimes it is one, and sometimes the other. Where exactly Navy leadership resides on Gibbs’ and Gronn’s spectrum is highly dependent on the situation. As an example, LCDR T points to Navy shipboard leadership at the topmost level. For more than two centuries, presidents, policymakers, and admirals have directed Navy ship captains to take their ships to the far corners of the world, and they have trusted those captains to act as they see fit, often in highly volatile situations. Presidents have trusted Navy ship captains to suppress piracy on the Barbary Coast in the nineteenth century, to practice “gunboat diplomacy” in the early twentieth century, and in recent years, to keep open the Strait of Hormuz using tactics that the commanding officer deems “appropriate” to the task at hand. Even in today’s highly interconnected Navy, where real time data is available from the shipboard tactical level to the regional combatant command, and even to the White House situation room, Navy captains are trusted to act as they see fit. This is a point cannot be understated. Even in an era when upper command echelons can take significantly more tactical control of the battlespace, they generally do not. Instead, they continue to operate in a traditional distributive/delegation-oriented manner.

Extensibility of Authority

LCDR T suggested that an effective Navy leader institutionalizes that same distributive/delegation mindset within his or her own ship, and allows department heads, division officers, work groups and individuals to do their jobs as they see fit. For the most part, leaders care only that officers and sailors adhere to shipboard policies and regulations that meet the legalities of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), and fit the norm of practices that have evolved as best practices through the decades, and in some cases through the centuries. As an example, the process for fixing a ship’s geographical position using celestial data is considered “settled science”, and cannot be changed. However, the process for recovering an aircraft in distress is always open to collaborative review in order to improve safety and efficiency. LCDR T emphasizes that the majority of ships’ commanding officers in the Navy these days have completed graduate studies in leadership and management. Thus, they tend to be very aware of, and do try to practice the same principles of process improvement, balanced measurement, empowerment, cross-functional focus, etc., as their civilian counterparts.

If the “philosophy” of Navy leadership resides at the more distributed end of the leadership spectrum, LCDR T pointed to a situation where the opposite is true. Sometimes a ship is in an emergency situation, and orders “general quarters” or GQ. This occurs when a threat is imminent, when the ship is in danger due to fire, flooding or some other situation. When that happens, the ship’s captain is “much less interested” in hearing about anyone’s ideas for process improvement or improved morale. When GQ is ordered, all members of the ship’s crew have very specific reporting relationships and very specific tasks to accomplish. If one sailor does not do their job, the entire ship or operation may be at risk. Similar to the GQ situation is when the ship initiates flight operations or when the ship sets the “search and rescue detail” or the “towing detail” or the “law enforcement” detail. At those times, the ship shifts to a very “command and control” environment where leadership is not very distributed at all.

When Command and Control Really Isn’t

I must don my scholar practitioner hat for a moment her, and explore LCDR T’s argument regarding GQ. Contrary to LCDR T’s argument, one could argue that a GQ or other emergency scenario is the moment where leadership on a Navy ship is at its most distributed point. For their entire careers, sailors and officers at all levels in the organization do train on what to do when things go wrong. Yet, along with the technical things they have been taught (e.g., how to apply a jubilee clamp to a broken fire main pipe, how to respond to a man overboard, etc.), they have also been taught to remember to use their intuition. Like the captain who has been trusted to act as he or she sees fit to suppress Barbary pirates (or Somalian pirates these days), a Repair Locker Leader is trusted to use resources as he or she sees fit to suppress a fire or flooding situation. Like the ship’s captain, oftentimes, that leader must improvise, and sometimes that leader must break some rules.

Regarding Gronn’s (2008) assertion that leaders simply lead followers in the direction that they would have gone anyway, LCDR T could not disagree more. “I think you are right, that people intuitively know what they should do. Except in a fog of war situation, most situations aren’t so complex that people don’t know intuitively what they should do. But throughout history, there are many examples of where people knew that something was wrong, and they still allowed it to happen. That’s why bad old leadership, as you called it, is still very relevant. And not just in the Navy either.” (LCDR T interview, 2017) In other words, leaders, increase the likelihood that followers will choose the right course of action. And how do they do that? “They lead. They go first,” says LCDR T.


So, what can we recommend for the Navy? Should we move to the more centralized side of Gibb’s (1954, 1968) and Gronn’s (2002, 2008) spectrum of distributed leadership, or should we move to the more distributed side? I recommend the Navy not change a thing. The Navy exemplifies the notion that distributed leadership is not a strategy to be implemented, as some organizations believe it is. Rather, it is a spectrum within which all organizations exist. Surely, some organizations should seek to move a bit more in the direction of distribution, and other organizations should move a bit more in the direction of centralization. In my own experience as a Navy officer and as a management consult, I believe most organizations do not need to shift too far either way. Most organizations reside in a particular location in the spectrum because that is the point to where they evolved for good reason. More importantly, what we can learn from the Navy is that an organization’s location on the spectrum should be dynamic, depending on what the organization is experiencing at any given time. A nimble organization should be able to situationally shift left, or situationally shift right.

At the beginning of the interview, I tried to read LCDR T’s expression and feelings. I believe he was somewhat stressed by the idea of having to categorize Navy leadership. Is the Navy a command and control organization, or are we a distributed leadership organization? As LCDR T spent time describing the situations in his organization, he became more comfortable seeing the organization as neither one nor the other. The nature of leadership at sea is situational, and unless it is forced into the wrong direction, the organization finds its place in the distributed spectrum in a natural way, just as it has done for centuries.


Bennis, W. (2007). The challenges of leadership in the modern world. American Psychologist, 62(1), 2-5. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.62.1.2

Gibb, C.A. (1954). Leadership. In G. Lindzey (Ed.), The Handbook of Social Psychology, Vol. 2, (pp. 877-917). Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Gibb, C.A. (1968). Leadership. In G. Lindzey & E. Aronson (Eds.), The Handbook of Social Psychology (2nd ed.), Vol. 4, (pp. 205-283). Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Gronn, P. (2002). Distributed leadership as a unit of analysis. Leadership Quarterly 13(4), 423-451. doi: 10.1016/S1048-9843(02)00120-0

Gronn, P. (2008) The future of distributed leadership. Journal of Educational Administration, 46(2), 141-158. doi: 10.1108/09578230810863235

Consulting Versus Diagnosing: Lessons Learned through Two Seminal Works and Twenty Years as a Management Consultant

By Daniel T. Murphy


During more than two decades in the management consulting world, this consultant has been a practice leader, project leader, trainer and mentor to dozens of new practitioners. The challenge is always twofold. First, new practitioners must be taught the basics of their practice area. For example, organizational change management (OCM) consultants must be taught OCM, and business analysts must be taught business analysis techniques. The second part of the challenge is always more difficult. How does one teach a consultant to be a good consultant? And, which texts can help provide time-tested perspectives and techniques?

Whether studying organizational consulting from a traditional business perspective, or from a more social-behavioral perspective, two texts have become classroom standards. This consultant has read both books as a student in a traditional business education graduate program, and also as a practitioner while working as a consultant in four of the “Big Six” management consulting firms. The two books are especially valuable when read in concert with one another. The first book provides a bigger picture of the consulting process. The second book is more tactically focused on diagnosis. A medical analogy might suggest that the first book tells how to treat a patient from the time they walk into the doctor’s office with an ailment until the time they depart fully-cured. The second book focuses specifically on how to diagnose the patient’s ailment.

This paper will summarize some of the most salient topics within each of the two books. The paper will also seek to contrast the purposes of the two books, underscoring the difference between consulting and diagnosing. To do so, the paper will be organized around the five consulting phases described in the first book, since that book provides the more macro view of the consulting lifecycle. And, to help make real the concepts described in the two books, the researcher will provide examples from multiple previous client engagements of his own. Finally, throughout the paper, this consultant hopes to make clear the parts of the consulting lifecycle where he himself is passionate and where he believes he has added the most value in his career.

The first book is Peter Block’s Flawless Consulting: A guide to getting your expertise used (2011). Since it was first published in 1986, the book has helped literally millions of consultants, especially organizational change and organizational behavior consultants, in organizations large and small, and in all industries, plan and execute consulting engagements.   At the beginning of the book, before jumping into the first phase of the consulting lifecycle, Block lays out three goals that he believes should be consistent across all consulting engagements. First, the consultant must establish a collaborative relationship with a client. Like all consultants, this consultant has seen (and participated in) a percentage of client engagements that were not successful. In several of those engagements, the clients stated that they felt the consultants consulted “to” them or “at” them, rather than collaborating “with” them.   Unfortunately, this is a typical occurrence in the consulting world. Block’s approach is intended to decrease the likelihood of that happening. Second, Block suggests solving problems so that they stay solved. This consultant couldn’t agree more. Consultants and clients often try to treat symptoms, rather than discovering and problem-solving the true root cause of a problem or phenomenon. Again, the medical analogy is apropos. Third, Block emphasizes the need for attention, not only to the technical or business problem at hand, but to the relationships as well. Unfortunately, a percentage of consulting engagements are simply not successful, or are only partially successful, which is one of the reasons why Block wrote his book. Honestly, consultants, including this consultant, have been responsible for a landscape littered with innovative and well-constructed technology and business solutions that failed because the human element was not properly addressed. Block’s approach seeks to address the variety of people-related components in an engagement that must be done well in order to achieve project or program success, including executive sponsorship, stakeholder identification and alignment, skills and knowledge alignment, and communications planning and execution.

Phase I: Entry and Contracting

Block’s first phase is entry and contracting.   The consultant engages with the client to build an initial description of the problem that needs to be solved, or at least describe the symptoms that concern the organization. Also in this stage, as emphasized in Block’s first objective described above, the consultant begins to build rapport with the client so that information is free-flowing between the two parties, and the expectations of both are clearly articulated. The emphasis on collaboration is critical. If the client is simply hiring an extra “pair-of-hands” (Block, 2011, p. 24) to fix a problem that they do not have time to fix, then the engagement is not really a consulting engagement at all. Rather, it is a contracting engagement.   The consultant and client then must agree that the consultant or consulting team is equipped to address the problem. They must also agree on the dimensions of what will be studied, including the specific tasks that the consultant will do to address the problem, when and where those tasks will be performed, who will complete the work, and the terms, conditions and fees associated with that work.

As described in Block’s third objective, the Entry and Contracting phase must pay attention, not only to the work to be completed, but to the human relationships. For example, the consultant must take time to identify who in the organization really wants the problem addressed? Who will provide executive sponsorship for the engagement, so that the consultants can proceed forward with sufficient credibility and authority? Who will be the day-to-day point of contact for the consultants to address logistics needs? What specific roles and contributions are expected from both consultants and client team members? What will be the vehicles, venues and timing by which the combined engagement team will communicate? And most importantly, what specific actions will be taken by all parties in order to continue to build trust and rapport as the engagement progresses. The Entry and Contracting phase ultimately ends with a contract signed by the consultant and client documenting expectations by both parties. Typically new consulting relationships require contracts with a greater amount of detail. In cases where trust has been previously built through prior engagements, a less detailed contract may be sufficient.

While Block seeks to enable “whole” consultants who can become reasonably adept at the entire consulting lifecycle, this consultant has learned that the larger and more complex the consulting engagement, the more that the contracting activities require experienced contracting professionals. Client culture also comes into play. On one end of the spectrum, some clients work very naturally and trustfully with consultants, often based on their history of experiences with consultants. On the other end of the spectrum are clients that do purposefully misrepresent their intentions, with the intention to pay less for more services. More often, a client who hasn’t themselves been a consultant is simply not very adept at describing what they want the consultant to do, especially at the beginning of the engagement. Block describes these situations as “agonies of contacting”. (Block, 2011, p. 107) After two decades of work, and much reflection, this consultant has opted to focus as much as possible on what he does best (and what he likes to do the most) which are the next two phases of the consulting lifecycle – Discovery and Dialogue and Analysis and Decision to Act.

Phase 2: Discovery and Dialogue

For Block, the Discovery and Dialogue phase is ultimately intended to develop an “independent and fresh” (Block, 2011, p. 159) look at what is going on in an organization, create client commitment and ownership and move the client to action. He emphasizes that a consulting engagement is not research. Rather, it is action-oriented. For example, while a researcher is interested in all factors that have an impact on a situation or phenomenon, the consultant is primarily interested in identifying what can be controlled or changed. And, according to Block while a researcher seeks to eliminate bias (although scholar practitioners might disagree with Block on that point), a consultant is paid to bring their bias. For example, this consultant has been hired many times by clients based on prior experiences in a specific industry, or experience solving specific business problems and experience with specific technologies, and has sold tens of millions of dollars of consulting work based on having “fixed this same problem down the street.”

Block emphasizes that the consultant should strive for something more than merely solving a tactical business problem, but rather to help create a new future for the organization or some part of the organization. He points to two methodologies that can be helpful in this regard, including Sternin’s (2002) positive deviance, and Cooperrider’s (2005) appreciative inquiry. Yet, here is where Block steps back and does not deeply explore the multitude of options available to rigorously diagnose problems in organizations. After briefly mentioning the Sternin and Cooperrider methods, and emphasizing the need for a “whole system” approach that includes all stakeholders related to the problem being addressed, Block leaves the discovery slice of the consulting lifecycle to other theorists, and pushes forward to what he describes as the “call to action”. (Block, 2011, p. 163) With that in mind, this paper will now turn to the second book that is the subject of this course.

While Block provides a more macro picture of the consulting process, Michael Harrison’s Diagnosing Organizations: Methods, Models and Processes (2005), is more tactically focused on diagnosis. Harrison tries to help the consultant understand the nature of a problem or phenomenon in an organization. First, Harrison breaks down the mystery of diagnosis into three digestible parts: process, modeling and methods. Process is essentially a further breaking down of what Block describes at a more macro level. Specifically, a diagnostic phase must be described in tangible steps, including: (a) Entry and Contacting, which overlaps with Block’s same named phase; (b) Study Design where the consultant selects a diagnostic method and measurement procedures, develops a sampling model, determines the analytical methods and tools to be used in the study, and the administrative procedures that will help the diagnosis move from planning through execution; (c) Data Gathering, where the consultants conduct document reviews, client interviews, observations, questionnaires, workshops, etc.; (d) Analysis, which is where the data collected is aggregated, compared, etc., using a variety of qualitative or quantitative methods and tools, and finally, (e) Feedback, where the results of the analysis, plus general findings and recommendations are communicated to the client.

Second, Harrison provides valuable guidance regarding the difference between using a previously developed diagnostic model versus a grounded model that emerges as a study is conducted. In some cases, and especially when diagnosing a very tangible business problem such as employee attrition, loss of market share, etc., the consultant may be able to leverage a previously developed off-the-shelf diagnostic framework. That framework might include all the necessary tools and techniques required to determine an appropriate population sample, plan and implement data collection, analyze the data, and present the results. Harrison points out the risks of such an approach, specifically that the study may fail to address the challenges and problems critical to the specific situation. This consultant can attest to that risk, having had multiple clients through the years voice their concern that the consultants brought a “cookie cutter” approach that did not take into consideration the company’s particular operating environment. For that reason, Harrison discusses the value in developing grounded diagnostic models that “emerge during the initial study of the organization and focus more directly on client concerns.” (Harrison, 2005, p. 14) To explain the idea behind a grounded model, Harrison describes a case study in which consultants initially drew on two diagnostic frameworks, and then tailored those frameworks for the situation. The first was an open systems framework that helped assess the current-state business strategy, and its relevance within a changing external environment. The second was a political framework which helped guide the client leadership team in mobilizing support for change. In the feedback phase, output from the two frames was combined into a final set of findings and recommendations. This consultant has used similar approaches combining client-tailored versions of Kaplan and Norton’s (1996) Balanced Scorecard approach for documenting an organization’s integrated strategic objectives and measures with Senge’s (1990) organizational change model to present a holistic path forward for business transformation.

Third, and perhaps the most significant value in Harrison’s work is its emphasis on having an open systems paradigm in the diagnostic phase. No matter what specific organization theory (e.g., organic theory, etc.) forms the analogy of a consultant’s or client’s perspective on what makes an organization tick, that analogy is likely based on some open theory starting point. A key challenge in the diagnostic phase is to help the client expand their view beyond the specific things that are occurring within their organization, or within their particular corner of their organization. An effective open systems-based organizational diagnostic model assesses how phenomena inside the organization are affected by things outside the organization, and how things outside the organization are affected by things within. Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Uber are all examples of companies where things internal to the organization had dramatic ripple effects society-wide. Harrison provides an example of a graphic model depicting an organization’s tangible behaviors, processes and technologies at its center – The things that Schein (1984) would call the cultural artifacts of the organization. Outside the artifact core is the organization’s cultural layer, which affects the tangible artifacts at the center (inputs) and, is itself affected by those tangibles (outputs). Outside the cultural layer is the external environment, which affects the culture (inputs) and, is itself affected by the culture (outputs). The consultant uses such a model as a starting point to inform multiple activities in the diagnosis phase, including development of the data collection instruments, the analytical approach, and if appropriate, when presenting findings to the client.

Depending on the client environment, the consultant should determine whether to keep the open systems model in the background, as a quiet theoretical construct, or more in the forefront, and central to the consultant-client conversation. This consultant has used graphics similar to Harrison’s, and tends to lean more toward explicitly sharing it with the client. For example, this consultant recently helped a financial services client analyze its changing competitive environment. The consulting team posted an open systems graphic model to frame the conversation regarding the client’s external environmental influences versus its internal capabilities, and how those capabilities had evolved in recent years and months. In this particular situation, the client did not view the model as too scholarly for the “real world.”

Harrison suggests consultants approach the diagnostic process from a combined outside in/inside out approach, through an environmental relations assessment (ERA) which includes the following activities: (a) Describe the conditions in the organization’s operating environment. Harrison cites the oft-used SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) as an example of such an activity; (b) Describe the external entities with which the organization interacts; (c) Identify the organization’s internal groups and individuals that regularly interact with the external entities; (d) Describe the way those groups respond to demands from those external entities; (e) Assess the effectiveness of those responses; (f) Identify opportunities to improve those responses. This consultant has completed dozens of diagnoses of sales and service organizations that essentially mirrored Harrison’s six step process. For example, in a recent engagement with major motion picture company’s human resources organization, the consultant’s team conducted a SWOT-like analysis to compare the organization’s reputation amongst actors and actresses. The team then identified external entities (e.g., agents, agencies, production companies, Screen Actors’ Guild, etc.) with which the organization regularly interacted. In a multi-day working session, a collaborative consultant/client team process-mapped and created typologies of the most typical customer interactions. The team then noted the customer interaction points where process breakdowns most often occurred, and the failures that caused the most customer distress. Finally, the team identified the most meaningful customer interactions where process-based, technology-based and behavior-based improvements could contribute to a more customer-focused experience.

What makes Harrison especially valuable is the way he brings open systems theory from the organizational level down to the group and individual levels. Again, the top-level organizational layer affects and is affected by what happens at the group level. Groups within the organization affect and are affected by what happens at the individual level. This is especially useful in informing the development of data collection instruments, whether those instruments are qualitative or quantitative, or survey-based, interview-based, etc.

As a consultant and client work through the process of diagnosis, they will be best served to occasionally step back from Harrison’s deep focus on diagnosis, and once again look at the engagement from Block’s macro perspective. In fact, Harrison specifically refers to Block’s emphasis on early client engagement and a collaborative approach in order to “increase the chances that their findings will reflect the experiences and perceptions of key clients and will therefore be believable to clients.” (Harrison, 2005, p. 13) This consultant can attest that even some of the most watertight diagnoses of root causes and some of the highest potential solutions have been left to gather dust on the client’s bookshelf. Block emphasizes that the call to action must be a focus from the beginning of the diagnosis phase. The client must be included in the development of the instruments and events whereby facts are gathered, the model or models that are used for data analysis, and the methods by which results and recommendations are documented and communicated. For Block, a critical action-oriented tactic is to understand how an existing problem is currently being “managed” by the client. This is what Block calls the “social system problem” (Block, 2011, p. 172). Understanding the social system problem is a pre-requisite to understanding how a potential solution to the root cause will need to be implemented, and whether such a solution can be implemented at all.


Phase 3: Analysis and the Decision to Act

In most consulting engagements, the most important output of Phase 3 is the list of recommendations and actions that are generated by the analysis. It could also be argued that recommendations and actions are defined or more fully refined in Phase 4. Block does not dedicate much time to explaining the analysis process, since the specifics of the analysis will be largely driven by the specifics of the preceding diagnostic phase. However, Block does spend significant time addressing the decision to act. To reiterate, Block argues that the challenge is to begin building the call to action from the beginning of the diagnosis phase. The call to action is especially important during data analysis, and in selecting the methods by which the results of the analysis and recommendations for improvement are documented and communicated. In particular, the consultant must focus early and often on resistance, and remember to not fight resistance head-on, but instead allow it to “blow itself out” (Block, 2011, p. 149) like a storm. Block suggests three steps. First, the consultant must watch for, and discover, signs of resistance from the beginning of the engagement and throughout. Second, the consultant must “name the resistance” (Block, 2011, p. 153) in a neutral way that will allow the resistance to be addressed by the client without making it worse. Third, the consultant should be quiet, and let the client respond. Block advises “Don’t keep talking. Live with the tension.” (Block, 2011, p. 155)

For at least two decades, consulting teams have been designing business strategies, business processes, and technology solutions that could potentially have saved a failing organization had those solutions not been stopped or incorrectly implemented. While Block does not provide a magic list of tactics to ensure a successful call to action or decision to act, he does provide multiple tidbits of advice throughout the book, including 16 tactics for “consulting with a stone”. (Block 2011, p. 157) For example, the consultant should ensure that the project has a sufficiently high-level sponsor who agrees that there is a problem, believes the problem is bad enough that it needs to be fixed, is willing to invest resources in fixing the problem, agrees with a collaborative approach, has the authority to engage all stakeholders, and is willing to abide by what the discovery and analysis shows. In the experiences of this consultant, nearly every project failure or partial failure occurs because one of those specific success factors was missing, which is curious, since every organizational change management (OCM) methodology at every major consulting firm in the world addresses each of those success factors.

Phase 4: Engagement and Implementation

In the opening paragraph of Chapter 16, Block himself ponders why, in his first edition of Flawless Consulting, he devoted only two pages to the implementation phase. Presumably, it is because implementation is a fairly cut and dried thing. The recommendations or actions that were generated in Phase 3 are validated and refined at the beginning of Phase 4. They are then placed on a implementation plan or project plan with specific tasks required for their implementation. Each task is given a begin date, end date, resources, etc.

One must ponder, however, why Block continued to keep engagement and implementation combined into a single phase, even in the most recent edition of his book. The most likely explanation is that Block chose to continue to adhere to the five phase lifecycle that he originally developed in 1986. Most modern consulting methodologies have since broken out engagement as an individual ongoing OCM work stream that supports all consulting phases from beginning to end. Block defines engagement as “the art of bringing people together.” (Block, 2011, p. 250), and identifies eight ways that the consultant can seek to keep stakeholders engaged in the effort. The first is transparency, especially from top-level leadership who has hopefully sponsored the engagement. Second is to renegotiate expectations regarding participation. If members of the organization expect to contribute to diagnosis, problem-solving and creating change, that is a good thing. If historically, they have simply tolerated change to be done to them, then expectations should be renegotiated. A shared solution is a more powerful solution, has more buy-in, and is more likely to be implemented. Third, Block recommends rearranging the room, both literally and figuratively, to reinforce collaboration, a tactic that Schein (1984) might identify as a purposefully created cultural artifact. Following along Schein’s point of view, having a physical chair for representatives from each impacted stakeholder group contributes to what Block calls “whole-system discovery”. (Block, 2011, p. 175) In other words, the chair arrangement can signify, and therefore help reinforce the organizational values of collaboration and flatness. Fourth, create a platform for openness and doubt. Stakeholder concerns can only be addressed if they are known. This consultant has had clients who embrace technology platforms such as, where company and executive reviews are viewed as opportunities for improvement. This consultant has had other clients who view such tools as threats and venues for sedition. Fifth, Block recommends consultants ask “What do we want to create together?” (Block, 2011, p. 269) As explained at the beginning of the paper, this consultant has had positive experiences where clients felt that the consultants consulted “with” them to co-construct a collaborative future. This consultant has had less positive experiences with other clients who felt that the consultants consulted “to” them, and architected a future “for” them in which they had little skin in the game. Sixth, Block recommends creating a “new conversation” (Block, 2011, p. 270), with bigger objectives than mere operational improvements. Such an objective is especially relevant for a scholar practitioner-focused consultant who is not merely seeking to help an organization achieve top or bottom-line business benefits, but rather is seeking to help change the world. Seventh, Block suggests choosing commitment and accountability. This may be Block’s most powerful message – That “low faith” (Block, 2011, p. 271) tactics such as incentive schemes and legislating accountability are only partial solutions that create their own deadweight. This consultant has seen this phenomenon especially in government organizations where millions are spent on accountability schemes intended to prevent the misappropriation of only thousands. The alternative is to have faith that people want to have high goals for themselves and for each other, and they want to be accountable. And finally, Block recommends utilizing peer accountability as a driver of change because it is significantly more powerful that accountability to a supervisor.

Phase 5: Extension, Recycle, or Termination

While Block does not have a chapter specifically dedicated to his final phase in the consulting lifecycle, he does have chapters focused on the key actions that should occur, or be reinforced in this phase. For example, in the chapter on preparing for feedback, Block emphasizes some of the do’s and don’ts of presenting the findings at the end of the engagement. He suggests focusing on the things that the client has control over changing, and on areas where the client is already doing some work. He suggests the consultant should strike a balance between confirming the client’s opinions that are correct or nearly correct, and appropriately confronting the client on the things that they are missing, or the things they are doing that are self-defeating. Block strongly suggests being assertive and authentic, but not aggressive, especially since the end of the engagement is when the consultant is presumably trying to sell a next phase of work.

An organizational diagnostic engagement is often the first phase of a larger, more transformational project that might include process improvements, technology improvements and especially people improvements. The people part of the transformation typically includes helping the organization develop skills, knowledge and behaviors that are absent or weak in the current organization, and need to be strengthened in order to become a more effective organization in the future-state. And, even if the next phase of the project is a pure technology implementation with no specific people components to implement, there will always be a need for an organizational change management (OCM) effort to help align stakeholders around the solution being implemented. When the client sees the consultant not as judge, jury, prosecutor, or defendant, but rather as a “witness” (Block, 2011, p. 225), then the client is more likely to bring the consultant along to the next project phase as a trusted advisor. And, the next phase is almost always bigger in both mission and revenues.


As explained at the beginning of this paper, developing management consultants is always a twofold challenge. Practitioners must be taught the specifics of their practice area, and they must also be taught how to be good consultants. Much as the education world has too many teachers who understand math, but do not know how to teach, the consulting world has far too many consultants who are talented at mapping a business process, but do not know how to properly engage and contract with a client, and guide a client through the phases of discovery, analysis, implementation and project wrap-up. The result is that the landscape of every industry is littered failed or partially-failed projects. As a practice leader, project leader, trainer and mentor, this consultant has relied multiple times on both Block (2011) and Harrison (2005) to help practitioners learn how to be good consultants. Stepping back and thinking for a moment about the big ideas of both books, the commonality is that they are both primarily intended to enable a connective dialogue between consultant and client. The vast majority of this consultant’s client engagements have been successful. The few that have not been successful have almost always had some common variables – Failure to establish an effective dialogue, failure to collaborate, and failure to trust. When consultant and client are working in a collaborative and trustful partnership, projects rarely fail, and consultants and clients rarely get fired, even when a few things go tactically wrong.



Block, P. (2011). Flawless consulting: A guide to getting your expertise used. New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons.

Cooperrider, D. L., & Whitney, D. K. (2005). Appreciative inquiry: A positive revolution in change. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

Harrison, M. I. (2005) Diagnosing organizations: Methods, models and processes. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Kaplan, R. S., & Norton, D. P. (1996). Using the Balanced Scorecard as a strategic management system. Harvard Business Review, 74(1), 75-85.

Schein, E. H. (1984) Coming to a new awareness of organizational culture. Sloan Management Review, 25(2), 3-16.

Senge, P. M. (1990). The fifth discipline: the art and practice of the learning organization. New York, NY: Doubleday.

Sternin, Jerry. (2002). Positive deviance: A new paradigm for addressing today’s problems today. The Journal of Corporate Citizenship, 57 (1), 57-62.

Organizational Learning is alive and well in the military services . . . And we must keep up the momentum!

Authored by Daniel T. Murphy


Organizational learning was the management flavor of the decade in the early 1990s. Companies in every industry jumped on the bandwagon, especially when, in 1990, Peter Senge published his book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (Senge, 1990). Senge was on the bookshelf of nearly every large company C-level executive in the United States, as well many executives abroad. Hundreds of management consultants were kept busy helping those business leaders build learning organizations. I was one of those consultants, and I met Senge twice during those years. The military services and government agencies were no exception to the fad. Like they had done with Total Quality Management (TQM) and every previous management fad, admirals, generals and civilian government leaders also jumped on the bandwagon. A literature review will show that every military organization and nearly every government agency has claimed, at one time or another, to be a learning organization or a learning organization under development.

Revisiting Senge

To start, let’s review Senge’s perspective on organizational learning. Senge suggested organizational learning occurs when “people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together.” (Senge, 1990, p.1). A learning organization is built on the five disciplines of systems thinking, team learning, shared vision, mental models, and personal mastery. Here is how I recently described Senge’s five principles to Navy leadership:

Systems Thinking: Systems thinking means, in part, shifting away from having a primarily vertical/functional (e.g., accounting department, marketing department, etc.) view of an organization, and transitioning towards a more horizontal/process-focused view. The Navy practices systems thinking on a daily basis. Aircraft carrier flight operations are a good example. As soon as a carrier at sea announces flight quarters, officers and sailors in every functional workgroup suddenly begin to focus less on their vertical functional area, and more on the horizontal process of launching, operating and recovering aircraft. Organizations large and small could actually learn quite a bit about customer-supplier relationships, process mapping, process measurement, and continuous improvement by watching how an aircraft carrier practices Senge’s principle of systems thinking.

Shared Vision: One could argue that there is no large organization in the world that executes the concept of shared vision as well as a U.S. military organization. Vision starts at the top of the national command authority with The United States National Security Strategy (2010), which lays out broad direction. The U.S. National Defense Strategy (2008) cascades that broad direction in greater detail to the Department of Defense. The National Military Strategy (2011) cascades that direction with even greater detail specifically to the military services. With specific reference to the Navy, the Chief of Naval Operations’ (CNO’s) Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Sea Power (2007) cascades it yet further. Fleet commanders then use that document to develop their own regional strategies. A destroyer squadron staff then uses the fleet command strategy to do the same at the squadron level. The commanding officer of a ship uses that strategy to develop her/his standing orders. Each division and workgroup on the ship then does the same. As described in his 2002 book, It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy, Captain Michael Abrashoff describes how modern military leaders solicit and incorporate ideas from the most junior crewmembers. Does the cascading of vision and strategy sometimes break down? Yes. Do ideas and feedback sometimes fail to flow up the chain of command, rather than downward? Yes, of course. However, no other industry has mechanized the process of a cascaded vision and strategy like the military services.

Personal Mastery, Team Learning and Mental Models: Organizational theorists such as Edgar Schein (1984) and others have suggested that an organization’s ingrained beliefs and norms can be at least partially purposefully created through the development of a common language, rituals and other cultural artifacts. Again, aircraft carrier operations are a perfect example of that. And, since all western air force and naval air squadrons tend to work in similar ways, I will turn for a moment to the French Air Force as an example, and specifically to the “ritual” of the aviators’ debriefing session.

A study by Gode and Barbaroux (2012) demonstrated that military aviators’ focus on error detection and correction is based on a highly internalized and ritualized mode of organizational learning. Aviators observe the errors of others, and use that information to help correct their own performance. Aircrews then have reflexive conversation to find appropriate remedies, and to voice accountability for their own mistakes. Every participant is involved in a deep and constructive post-flight review. The post-flight review is highly data-based, and relies on flight data recording and analysis technologies. The aviators intertwine the objective of becoming personally masterful with team learning in a collaborative/reflexive mental model that is manifested in the flight debrief.

Argyris’s Double-Loop Learning: Another organizational learning thought leader, Chris Argyris (1977) would suggest that the reflection or reflexivity is the key. And there is no better example of Argyris’s ideas at play than in the way the Naval War College has conducted war games for more than a century. War gamers assign blue players (U.S. and allies), green players (neutrals), red players (adversaries) and black players (referees) to play out a fictional scenario of a conflict or humanitarian response in a particular region of the world. More important than the moves of the game is the “hotwash” that happens after the game. In the hotwash, the players work collaboratively to understand “what did we learn” in the game. Argyris calls this single loop learning. The players also reflect ask “what did we learn about how we learn?” which is Argyris’s second learning loop. Senge, Argyris and multiple organizational learning theorists argue that it is that second learning loop that drives an organization’s competitive advantage through innovation ability. They might also argue that the second loop is what enables U.S. military forces, not only to reflexively ask what are we learning about how we are learning on the battle field, but also what are we learning about our strategic objectives in the world.

But the Learning Organization was a 1990s fad, correct? And, like most companies in the private sector, the military services have gone on to the next management technique du jour, right? Wrong. If there is one trendy thing in the military services that is absolutely not just a trendy thing, it is organizational learning. First of all, consider the Navy examples described above – All examples of organizational learning at play in today’s 2017 Navy. The Navy is absolutely a tried-and-true learning organization.

Organizational Learning in the Army

Let’s continue the discussion by turning for a moment to the U.S. Army. Perhaps the most often cited (Baird et al., 1997, 1999; Darling and Parry 2001; and Brock et al., 2009) example of organizational learning in a military service is the Army’s after-action review (AAR) process. AAR is a four-step process that is completed at the end of an operation or exercise: (a) Review operational intentions, (b) Analyze actions and consequences, (c) Capture lessons learned and implications for future actions, and (d) Apply the lessons learned. AAR was developed by the Army’s Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL). CALL was created in 1985 and expanded through the 1990s and beyond to collect operational lessons learned that could be incorporated into Army training programs. CALL is also charged to explore the impacts of virtual reality, simulation technologies and other technology innovations, and to observe and learn from actual combat operations. CALL’s impact on Army organizational learning has been documented by multiple scholars, including Margaret and Wheatley (1994), Gerras (2002), Williams (2007), and DiBella (2010).

In fact, the Army’s brand of organizational learning has been emulated by other military organizations. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) created a CALL during the 2006 conflict with Lebanon. The IDF CALL was specifically created to capture lessons learned by IDF troops during combat operations, and share those learnings with units preparing to deploy. The IDF CALL sought specifically to enhance individual and team reflection and learning from mistakes made in the field in a non-punitive spirit of innovation (Marcus, 2014).

Another U.S. Army example is the development of the Rhino Convoy Protection Device. Throughout 2003, U.S. casualties from improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Iraq and Afghanistan were significantly increasing. While pressure certainly mounted on the White House and the Pentagon to do something, it was the soldiers on the ground who were most impacted by the problem. When leadership failed to respond fast enough, the ground troops developed their own makeshift solutions. Specifically, they began constructing homemade electronic devices from kitchen toasters and other household electronic appliances, and mounting those devices on extension poles attached to the front of their Humvees. The devices caused IEDs to blow up in front of the Humvee, rather than under the Humvee, and they helped to significantly reduce casualties. The Pentagon used those makeshift devices as inspiration to develop the Rhino device, which could be factory-produced in quantity and distributed across the brigades and battalions.

So, why is the Rhino device a big deal from an organizational learning perspective? For an answer, let’s turn for a moment to another organizational theorist named James March. March (1991) studied the difficulties that organizations face when trying to strike a balance between exploitative organizational learning and explorative organizational learning. Simply said, some organizations compete in the marketplace by being effective at incremental change. Financial services companies are a good example. They rarely make breakthrough changes in products and services. Rather, they become successful at learning what the market wants and needs, learning their own product and service delivery capabilities, and closing capability gaps faster than their competitors. Other companies compete through exploration. Pandora, Spotify, and Uber are good examples. These companies focused their energy on learning about unmet cultural-societal needs, and developed products to meet those needs. And some companies are especially good at balancing their exploitative and exploratory learning capabilities. 3M is an oft-cited example as evidenced in their balanced portfolio of breakthrough and annuity products. March might argue that the Army achieves its exploitative versus exploratory learning balance in a unique way. In the case of the Rhino device, ground-level exploratory learning was the creator of a breakthrough product that ultimately saved hundreds, and possibly thousands of lives. However, that breakthrough product developed by the ground troops would never have been able to be mass produced and distributed organization-wide if not for the exploitative capability of the Pentagon.

SIDEBAR STUDY: Organization Structural Fluidity as an Element of Organizational Learning

Manigart (2003) studied organizational structural fluidity as an example of organizational learning and as an operational advantage in the U.S. military. When U.S. military services need to act, whether that action is a combat operation or humanitarian relief operation, or something in-between, organizational structures flex to meet the requirement. Those structures continue to flex as the needs of the operation become better known. For example, when the Air Force needed to align and synchronize air operations between multiple military services and multiple countries to support concurrent operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan, they created the 379th Air Wing, which has evolved in structure as the requirements for the two conflicts have also evolved. Similarly, to respond to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the president directed U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) to create a Joint Task Force (JTF) with a dedicated command structure and forces reassigned from multiple military services and government agencies from multiple countries. The JTF concept was developed specifically to be able to flex to a situation in the world based on lessons learned from previous similar experiences, and from standing operational plans (OPLANS) developed based on those lessons learned.

Organizational Learning in World War I

Not only is organizational learning alive and well in the U.S. military services, we see it every day in our western military allies as well. We have already looked at the French Air Force. Let’s stick with both Senge and March for another moment, and look back to the First World War. March’s exploitative versus exploratory learning can be seen in action in the German and British armies. According to Foley (2014), the British army relied on innovative technology-based solutions to solve battle problems (March’s exploration-based organization learning). The German army relied on incremental and tactical battlefield solutions (March’s exploitation-based organizational learning). So, why is that?

Prior to the war, the British Army had 11,000 officers on active duty, and 13,000 on the reserve lists. Most were lightly trained amateurs who served for a period of years when conflicts arose. What’s worse is that the original British Expeditionary Force (BEF) that deployed to the Western Front in 1914 lost 3,627 officers and more than 86,000 soldiers during its first year of combat operations. The result was a significant knowledge drain. On the positive side, because British officers were mostly part-timers, they regularly brought knowledge from the outside into the organization. That was especially true regarding the replacement officers who came to the organization after the losses in 1914.

In contrast, the German army had 120,000 officers, plus Reserves. German officers were professional career officers, with a highly structured and extensive reporting system allowed trends in adaptation to be discerned, combined, improved and exploited.

Looking at the opposing armies’ tactics through March’s lens, the highly sophisticated German trench warfare system is an example of exploitation-based organizational learning. In contrast, the BEF, lacking the same internal infrastructure of the German army, relied on a more fluid exchange of ideas with the external private-sector, enabling the development of technological breakthroughs for battlefield advantage. The BEF’s exploration-based organizational learning advantage resulted in the development of the Stokes mortar, aircraft radios, microphones for sound ranging of enemy artillery, and most importantly the battlefield tank.

Concluding Thoughts: Organizational Learning by Our Adversaries

Evan Ellis (1999) suggested that organizational learning is a new and only form of competitive advantage between military adversaries. According to Ellis, in a military conflict, whichever side can more quickly understand, revise, or reverse expectations regarding what works versus what does not work will gain some degree of competitive advantage over their adversary. Every U.S. adversary seems to have figured this out over the years, and some with a high level of sophistication. Somalian pirates operating along the Horn of Africa and in the Gulf of Aden are a good example. Piracy incidents were increasing exponentially through the early 2000s. Western coalition forces and shipping companies tried new tactics such as increasing speed through high risk shipping lanes. The pirates quickly adjusted their tactics by adding a second engine to their attack craft. As shipping companies shifted their transit routes far offshore, the pirates began operating mother ships to extend their own range offshore – all the way to India, in fact (Efforts to Combat Piracy, 2013).

The Somalian pirates, Al Qaeda, ISIS, Al Shabaab, Al Nusra, the drug cartels, the FARC, etc., have all figured out that their ability to fight against the U.S. and other western countries is dependent on their ability to innovate faster than their adversary. When western forces learned how to defend themselves against IEDs, our adversaries adapted new tactics. When U.S. forces killed the leader of Al Qaeda and learned how to interrupt the organization’s highly centralized command and control system, Al Qaeda practiced its own form of structural fluidity (see sidebar), and began operating with a more decentralized command structure. As coalition forces disrupted a large percentage of narcotics trafficked through the Caribbean in the 1990s, the cartels shifted their tactics to rely more on land-based trafficking. And notably, a good number of cartel leaders have attended top U.S. and European business schools, and likely have been exposed to Senge and other organizational learning thought leaders.

Organizational learning is alive and well in the U.S. military services, and in the services of many of our allies. Yet, in today’s complex and uncertain worldwide security environment, there has never been a more important time for a renewed emphasis on organizational learning. The reason is rather simple. Our adversaries know that they cannot defeat us via conventional means. As a result, they have opted to fight unconventionally and asymmetrically. In other words, organizational learning is very much alive and well amongst our adversaries. We will do well to remember that.



Argyris, C. (1977). Double loop learning in organizations. Harvard Business Review, 55(1), 115–125.

Baird, L., Henderson, J.C., & Watts, S. (1997). Learning from action: An analysis of the Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL). Human Resource Management, 36(4), 385-395. doi: 10.1002/(SICI)1099-050X(199724)36:4<385::AID-HRM3>3.0.CO;2-R

Baird, L., Holland, P., & Deacon, S. (1999). Learning from action: Embedding more learning into the performance fast enough to make a difference. Organizational Dynamics, 27(4), 19-22. doi: 10.1177/1046878114549426

Brock, G.W., McManus, D.J., & Hale, J. (2009). Reflections today prevent failures tomorrow. Communication of the ACM, 52(5), 140-144. doi: 10.1145/1506409.1506443

Chief of Naval Operations. (2007). A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Department of Defense. (2008). National Defense Strategy. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

DiBella, A. J. (2010). Can the army become a learning organization? A question reexamined. Joint Force Quarterly, 56(1), 117-122.

Efforts to combat piracy: Statement of Rear Admiral Joseph W. Kuzmick, Director Operations Plans, United States Navy, before the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, U.S. House of Representatives (2013).

Ellis, R. E. (2007). Organizational learning dominance: The emerging key to success in the new era of warfare. Comparative Strategy, 18(2), 191-202. doi: 10.1080/01495939908403173

Foley, R. T. (2014). Dumb donkeys or cunning foxes? Learning in the British and German armies during the Great War. International Affairs, 90(2), 279–298. doi: 10.1111/1468-2346.12109

Gerras, S. J. (2002). The army as a learning organization. (Unpublished master’s thesis). Army War College, Carlisle, PA.

Godé, C., & Barbaroux, P. (2012). Towards an architecture of organizational learning: Insights from French military aircrews. VINE, 42(3), 321-334. doi: 10.1108/03055721211267468

Margaret, J., & Wheatley, G. (1994). Can the U.S. Army become a learning organization? The Journal of Quality and Participation, 17(2), 50–56.

March, J. G. (1991). Exploration and exploitation in organizational learning. Organizational Science, 2(1), 71-87.

Marcus, R. D. (2014). Military innovation and tactical adaptation in the Israel–Hizballah conflict: The institutionalization of lesson-learning in the IDF. Journal of Strategic Studies, 38(4), 500-528.

Manigart, P. (2003). Trends in the military: Conversation and restructuring. In C. Giuseppe (Ed.), Handbook of the Sociology of the Military, (pp. 323-344), New York, NY: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.

Schein, E. H. (1984) Coming to a new awareness of organizational culture. Sloan Management Review, 25(2), 3-16.

Senge, P. M. (1990). The fifth discipline: the art and practice of the learning organization. New York, NY: Doubleday.

Williams, J. D. (2007). Is the U.S. Army a learning organization? (Unpublished master’s thesis). Army War College, Carlisle, PA.

Understanding the 2014 Market Basket Crisis through Symbolic Organization Theory

Authored by Daniel T. Murphy

A Pre-Symbolic View

The drama that played out at Market Basket in 2014 left business leaders, management consultants and educators around New England scratching their heads. In its initial days, the crisis resembled many previous situations in other organizations. By the time that the crisis came to a close at the end of August, it was clear that, from an organizational theory perspective, something unusual had taken place, and some significant organizational “givens” warranted reconsideration. For example: (1) That a for-profit organization exists to maximize shareholder value; (2) That power resides at the top of an organization; and (3) That power is contested between the organization and the external market.

Trying to understand what transpired at Market Basket by looking through a modernist lens is a difficult task. From an epistemological standpoint, a modernist would have expected the crisis to play out based on an established set of norms. According to Hatch and Cunliffe (2013), those norms are based on an accumulation of knowledge and experiences by many organizations through many years. For example, one norm is that a for-profit organization exists to maximize shareholder value, and all business decisions are made toward that end. A second norm is that leadership and power resides at the top of an organization. A third norm, especially in a non-union environment, suggests that when the CEO demands that managers return to work, managers return to work. Managers do what they are told, because managers do not have the power to do otherwise. A fourth norm is that Market Basket customers would continue to make shopping decisions based on the same cost and convenience-based criteria that all grocery customers in society always make decisions. If we try to understand the crisis through the modernist lens, we might seek to find the flaw or flaws in our original constructions of those norms. Positivists seek to find the reasons that the situation deviated from what a modernist would call universal principles and laws that govern organizations. In other words, why did the norms of shareholder value, power and distribution, and market forces not prevail at Market Basket during the summer of 2014. In the words of Weber (Hatch and Cunliffe, 2013), why did Market Basket not react like a rational-legal industrialized “iron cage” organization?

The one pre-symbolic theorist whose perspective might be useful in this case is Karl Marx. Marx (Hatch and Cunliffe, 2013) argued that economic efficiency creates a surplus of wealth. In a capitalist society that wealth is contested by those who own the means of production and those who do the work for the organization. Conflict between the two parties is always inherent. As the demand for profitability increases, conflict between the two parties also increases. Marx would argue that Market Basket was historically a relatively peaceful organization because the demand for profitability was low. In other words, the organizational was communal. According to Mackin (Boston Review, 2014c), with the firing of Arthur T. Demoulas, employees saw the writing on the wall that the company was likely to be sold to the Delhaize Group, and that the high-wage business model was likely going to disappear. Marx would argue that the level of conflict was increased simply by the rumblings of a demand for greater profitability. Yet, Marx’s perspective only partially explains the dynamics that unfolded.

Given: That a for-profit organization exists to maximize shareholder value

The Market Basket crisis makes significantly more sense when viewed through a symbolic (Hatch and Cunliffe, 2013) perspective. The symbolic perspective is subjective. The organization does not have any objective reality apart from the awareness of those who are members of it, or who interact with it in some way – In other words, the employees and customers of the organization. Thomas (Hatch and Cunliffe, 2013) suggested that if men define situations as real, then those situations are real in their consequences. Berger and Luckmann (Hatch and Cunliffe, 2013) argued that organizations are products of a collective search for meaning by which experience is ordered, which is a process they called sensemaking. Geertz (Hatch and Cunliffe, 2013) and Giddens (1979, 1984) might explain that the Produce Department is the Produce Department, because we buy produce in the Produce Department. Every time we buy produce in the Produce Department, and every time an employee or customer calls the Produce Department the Produce Department, it reinforces the norm that the Produce Department is the Produce Department. It is not a universal principle to be discovered, but rather a context that is defined and redefined by perception.

Geertz would argue that a similar construction and reconstruction is always at play regarding an organization’s purpose, the roles of leadership roles, and the distribution of power. For example, somewhere in Market Basket’s organizational history, the purpose of the organization must have been reinterpreted from something other than what is the norm in the greater world, which is that a for-profit organization exists to maximize shareholder value. Somewhere in the organization’s history, the organization’s stakeholders redefined organizational purpose as something other than that. Geertz (Hatch and Cunliffe, 2013) would agree that that redefinition was less likely a purposeful renaming of shareholder value (e.g., Attention shoppers, shareholder value will now be redefined as . . .), and more likely an evolution of norms through rewarded behaviors. Schein (1984) would identify the event as a cultural artifact, perhaps purposefully enacted to create a culture, perhaps a byproduct of underlying values, or perhaps both. For example, Nickish (Boston Review, 2014b) told a company story about a customer who forgot to take home his groceries. When he returned to the store, he was told by a manager to just “go inside and grab whatever you need.” Nickish tells this as a typical and celebrated story at Market Basket. And, if it is a typical and celebrated story, it is likely that that employee emulated the behaviors he had seen in upper management, and that such behaviors are rewarded. Every time a behavior is rewarded, either through an actual or tangible award, or through a nostalgic account, that behavior becomes more ingrained as a truth – Again, not because it is a fundamental truth, but rather because it has been interpreted by the actors in and around the organization as true.

Given: That power resides at the top of an organization

Also, somewhere in Market Basket’s history, the norm that employees recognize that power resides at the top of the organization was redefined as well. Macklin (Boston Review, 2014a) hinted at that symbolic or heuristic redefinition when he talked about the “language of ownership” at Market Basket. Employees consistently used such terms as “our stores” and “our CEO.” I can personally contrast that to the many client organizations where I have consulted, and only occasionally heard clients say such things as “our stores” or “our bank branches” or “our pharmacies”. According to Mackin (Boston Review, 2014a) Market Basket is a company where “managers and employees are the natural owners of the firm.” Ancona (Boston Review, 2014a) made the argument that Market Basket had traded the traditional notion of leadership in favor of a distributed leadership (DL) model where power is distributed throughout the organization. According to Ancona, for the model to be successful, it must be combined with a compelling and well-understood strategic business model, and with managers and employees who are freed to become adept at “sensing” the situation and “seizing” and opportunity. The customer who was told to “go inside and grab whatever you need” is a good example of sensing what is the right thing to do, according to the organizational norms, and seizing on an opportunity to act, and in turn, reinforcing those norms. The fact that nearly all store managers joined the cause, but did so in ways that were appropriate to their particular locations is another good example. Through the symbolic/interpretivist lens, we can understand how the managers were able to interpret their role as something different than the role that would be considered the “norm” at another company. Thus, when employees revolted, managers did not respond with the “normal” response of supporting the CEOs. They responded by doing what was best for the company, because they believed that power resided, not with the CEOs, but with they themselves. On a side note, the company likely inadvertently reinforced the normalness of distributed or, at least shared leadership by appointing two CEOs rather than one.

Given: That power is contested between the organization and the external market

The Market Basket crisis also raises debate about whether a for-profit organization and the external market are, by nature, Marxian adversaries. How much power is wielded by customers and other stakeholders such as community leaders and the press, and how much control does the organization have regarding how much power it allocates to the outside? This too is difficult to understand through a modernist perspective. A modernist/positivist might see that the universal principles and laws that govern the company-customer relationship were established decades ago. In the modernist/positive paradigm, Market Basket allowed the shelves to go bare. Customers would therefore need to start shopping elsewhere. And, even if the crisis was resolved, a percentage of customers would likely never return. The company would be permanently damaged, both from a financial position, and from a brand standpoint.   A modernist/positivist would likely wonder why the employees and managers had committed organizational suicide, and destroyed their own livelihood.

However, the symobolic/interpretivist would understand that the managers, employees and customers of Market Basket had re-interpreted the company-customer relationship in a totally different way. Whereas most CEOs, and most business people in the world think and talk in terms of “company and customers” (internal and external), Arthur T. Demoulas, his managers, employees and customers of Market Basket see the situation more akin to a partnership or cooperative. When employees hung signs saying, “Thank you for shopping Market Basket. Boycott Market Basket,” they were reinforcing a norm that was already present. That norm was that the company and the customers were partners in the world, that the employees trusted the customers to come back when things returned to normal – Not society’s normal, but the company’s and customers’ collaboratively perceived normal. That collaboratively perceived normal where the company happily shared power with customers was firmly in place before the crisis. Hence, Michael Devaney said “We don’t need emails to tell us what our customers think.” (Boston Review, 2014b).

Market Basket employees and customers also use the term “family”. Morgan (2006) would call this a constructive falsehood, false because employees and customers are not really together in a family, but constructive in that family members take care of one another. This would make sense to Giddens as well. Every time Market Basket employees and customers use the word family, it reinforces that they take care of one another. Equally important is that it proposes power is not to be competed for, nor wielded by one constituency over another, but instead is agreed to be shared between constituencies. Compare, for example, most marketing models that emphasize customers’ power of the purse over the organization. Similarly, consider the typical government organization mindset that the agency (e.g., IRS, EPA, RMV, etc.) wields the power over the customer. While the modernist scratches their head and ponders why Arthur T. Demoulis would bet money that the customers would come back after the employees had purposely emptied the shelves, the symbolic/interpretivist would say, “Of course they will come back, family always comes home.”

Personal Perspective

I have spent more than twenty years as a management consultant, consulting to managers and executives across multiple industries and countries, in the largest companies in the world. This week was quite a moment for me when I realized how much of my own perspective is based on a modernist paradigm. If we were not studying these very concepts while reading this case study, my modernist brain would have glossed over some of the most important things that were happening in this situation, especially Market Basket’s reinterpretations of organizational purpose, organizational leadership, and the relationship of an organization to its external constituencies. For me, this case study made real many of the readings that until this week were simply conceptual to me. I especially had an “aha” moment thinking about what Geertz would say about the Market Basket crisis. The powerful in an organization are the powerful, not because they have power, but because they are interpreted as having power. Freire (1970) would say they are named as having power. The more they are named powerful, the more they are considered powerful. The more they successfully USE power, the more they are acknowledged to have power. I believe that that is the key to understanding the phenomenon of the “hero leader” in American society. However, what if the leader tries to use power, but is ignored. Geertz would say that power at Market Basket is no longer power as one would traditionally understand it, because it no longer resides where it has traditionally resided. Power is now something else. That is what happened at Market Basket. The crisis arguably permanently disassociated power with the CEO role. Geertz might analogize that the dining room is no longer definitively the dining room anymore, because it’s now being used as an extra bedroom. That is likely what Arthur S. Demoulas recognized. That is why he likely saw no option other than to sell the company – Because no appointed CEO would be able to wield the top-level power that had been either stripped away from the top level by the crisis, or more likely, had never resided at the top level at all.


Boston Review (Producer). (2014a). Lessons from Market Basket: Corporate governance and leadership. Available from

Boston Review (Producer). (2014b). Lessons from Market Basket: Introduction by Curt Nickisch. Available from

Boston Review (2014c, October 8). Lessons from Market Basket: An MIT Sloan and Boston Review roundtable. Retrieved from

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