Beginners Guide: Competent Strategic Initiatives

Do you want to become more competent in the arts of strategic initiative leadership?

I distinguish competency as a concept that holds a middle ground between being a novice and being an expert. Novices are still trying to learn basic concepts and are typically preoccupied with discovering best practices. A competent person can perform in a way that requires no “hand holding” by a senior person; they can structure and energize the strategic initiative with a sense of grounded confidence. Competent people understand the importance of the context, and pay little attention to best practices (because best practices typically only exist in the eyes of novices or people who want to see you something). Experts are those who push the boundaries of the filed (for example, write books or invent new ways of doing things).

The “conscious competency” model of learning says that we are first unconsciously incompetent: we don’t know what we don’t know. Then, we become consciously incompetent: we know that we don’t know. Then we are consciously competent: we know that we know something. (Confidence is an important element of the strategist’s perspective.) The ultimate stage is unconscious competence: we know so well that we don’t have to think about it.

That model is lacking for strategy work. The below model from Will Taylor is a better model, because it sets up a “learning journey.”

Will Taylor’s Five Stage Model

Taylor points out that

“one is inevitably ignorant of many things one does not know (i.e., we revisit ‘unconscious incompetence’ repeatedly or continually; i.e., ‘consciousness of unconscious incompetence’). Repeatedly, we are continuously rediscovering ‘beginner’s mind’.

Leaders of strategic initiatives always start out with some kind of useful knowledge. It might be in the industry, with project management techniques, or with strategy. They need to replace erroneous knowledge and add new knowledge as the move the strategic initiative forward. Many people are unconsciously incompetent. They don’t know strategy, they don’t know that a strategic initiative is a distinctive kind of program, they don’t know how benefits differ from deliverables, and they don’t know the tools of program management.

Here’s the applied part for leaders of strategic initiatives. Taylor writes,

“We revisit conscious incompetence, making discoveries in the holes in our knowledge and skills, becoming discouraged, which fuels incentive to proceed (when it does not defeat). We perpetually learn, inviting ongoing tutelage, mentoring and self-study (ongoing conscious competence). We continually challenge our ‘unconscious competence’ in the face of complacency, areas of ignorance, unconscious errors, and the changing world and knowledge base.”

Notice on the far right side the presence of “discouragement.” Most learning models don’t admit that people do get discouraged and revert to their old ways.  It’s a predictable milestone on the learning journey. And it’s an important leadership idea: the leader will occasionally feel discouraged, but so will the team members.

Will Taylor Learning Model(Courtesy of Will Taylor, Chair, Department of Homeopathic Medicine, National College of Natural Medicine, Portland, Oregon, USA, March 2007. Please reference the diagram accordingly if you use it.) The source of the graphic and Will Taylor quotation is here.

The amount of things you need to know, and master, might seem a little overwhelming. This blog (in addition to my seminars) provides some excellent starting points for you. If you think you are missing some of the basics, here are a few articles and links:

The definition of a strategic initiative

  • Launching a Strategic Initiative? Here are Three Good Practices (follow this link)
  • The Purpose of a Strategic Initiative (follow this link)
  • Four Things Strategic Initiative Leaders Need to Know About Requirements (follow this link)

I encourage you to explore the many articles on this site. They will help you better understand strategic initiatives, program management and leadership. You’ll tools for turning vision into action.

Reflective Competence

The eye-catching part of the Will Taylor model is the large colored circle, titled reflective competence. As contrasted with formal, text-book oriented learning, reflection involves the learner mentally reviewing his or her experiences. Your reflection should be on these three areas:

  • Knowledge-in-action. How well did you apply knowledge? Perhaps, you failed to retain the knowledge to begin with, so you floundered.
  • Reflection-in-action. Were you aware of your own thinking?
  • Reflection-on-action. Did you apply the knowledge optimally? How might you do it differently the next time?

You can’t know everything there is to know, nor can your team members or sponsors. Yet, you’ve got to start with what you know: do you have “right knowing?” Examine your actions: are practicing “right doing,” with a conscious regard for harmonizing your actions with competent knowledge?

This article gives you a way to look at your own learning journey. How will you use it as an improvement tool?


About Greg Githens

Author, How to Think Strategically (2019) Executive and leadership coach. Experience in driving change in Fortune 500 and mid-size companies through strategic initiatives and business transformation. Seminar leader and facilitator - high-impact results in crafting and delivering strategy, strategic initiatives, program management, innovation, project management, risk, and capturing customer requirements.
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