Challenging Assumptions and Aligning Learning Programs to Firm Strategy

This blog is the first of a series of seven blogs focused on improving the effectiveness and efficiency of learning teams. I hope you find them helpful.

When I talk to firms about aligning their learning programs with the firm strategy, I’m often met with moans, groans, and a lot of resistance. Here comes this guy who spent time in corporate again. And yes, I’m that guy. But I spent time in legal as well. And I know how different it is. I get the feeling, though, that everyone I talk to agrees that alignment should be the goal. I also get the feeling that most learning teams aren’t aligned with the strategy. So what gives? People want to be aligned, but aren’t aligned. This apparent contradiction may be based on the way we’ve always done things.

For most of my career, I’ve been a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s court. Let me explain:

  • I was an English major in the US Cavalry.

  • I was a former Army officer working in a boutique wine facility.

  • I was a small winery guy working in heavy manufacturing.

  • I was a Lean Six Sigma Greenbelt working in Learning and Development.

  • I was a manufacturing change manager working in IT…in Legal.

And the list goes on… But you get the point. I’m often the new guy in a new environment trying to learn the ropes, but the newness and objectivity allows me see things differently. It means that I question the status quo and people tell me often that what I want to do “will not work here.” I think one of the big reasons I tried to focus so much on aligning with strategy was simply because I thought I could. We make decisions based on some underlying assumptions about the world and our environment. These assumptions make up our way of thinking – our mental framework. Since I joined legal, my assumptions about alignment have been pretty simple: I can get it, I need it, and once I have it I know how to use it. 

I’ve been struggling with the contradiction for a while. If we know we want the strategy to align, why don’t we go get it? When I have conversations with firms, I get the sense that some people may be governed by a different set of assumptions:

  • I can’t get it – Firms are led differently than corporations and, in many cases, the leadership does not have a business strategy. And even if they have it, they don’t articulate it to my level in the firm. I’m in the dark and it’s too hard to get access to strategic information. They might not even tell me because they don’t share financial information.

  • I can live without it – I can build my learning programs based on my experience and the input from a relatively small number of people that seem to know what they want. I can take their direction and do a pretty good job without needing to understand what’s going on in the firm at the highest levels.

  • I might not know how to use it and I might have to change – Even if I do get my hands on the strategy, I don’t speak the language of business and I don’t know what to do with the strategy. And if I can figure out what it all means, my existing programs might not align at all and that would look pretty bad. I might have to change everything.

If we really want to align with the firm strategy, I think we need to work on challenging the basic assumptions that we hold about firm strategy. I’m hoping this blog may start a conversation about what assumptions we hold. And this, in turn, may lead to more energy working towards alignment. 

Here is my perspective on these assumptions:

  • You have to get out and discover it – It’s true that firm strategy is formulated differently than in the corporate world and that some of the systems for objective and goal development are less mature. But the lawyers and senior firm leaders I meet are sharp and they understand the business of law. They may not always have the plan finalized on paper, but they know where the focus should be. Rather than passively waiting for the strategy to come to you – you’ve got to go get your pith helmet and start exploring. Get out and talk to the people leading the practices. Talk to HR and find out what the hiring predictions are. Which areas are growing and where do you need to build capabilities? Read the website and any internal communications you can get your hands on. Discovery is an active process. You’re going to have to search, and seek, and find the pieces of the puzzle. Once you put them together, you’ll have a clearer sense of strategy. The direction and a clear picture of where you are headed give you an understanding of what you should prioritize. Without it, you end up feeling a bit like Alice – where it doesn’t really matter what you do.

  • You can’t live without it - strategy and value are linked – It’s kind of the like the chicken and the egg. It’s hard to deliver value if you don’t know what the strategy is. And it’s hard to have a strategy if you don’t know what your value is. One approach is to find out what is valuable and what is not. Michelle Spencer wrote a great LinkedIn post a couple weeks back titled “Learning & Development's New Strategy.” In it she says, “We need to take a step back and consider what the value of our function is and what it will be going forward.” I couldn’t agree more. I would add that we have to include our customer when considering our value. Because value is defined by the customer. You’ll have to find out what people need and what they care about. You need to use your powers of inquiry on this journey. This is a bit of a two pronged-approach that tends to happen in parallel. Discover the strategy and identify the value.

  • You can learn to use it and you will have to change – The best thing learning leaders can do for their career is learn how the business of law works and get up to speed on strategy. This makes conversations with senior leaders easier. It’s not just about learning the language. It’s about gaining the confidence to operate as a strategic partner. Can you understand the challenges and pressures the business side of the firm is facing? And can you help them solve problems? Do you understand what’s happening with Value Billing and Process Improvement efforts? As you learn, you will likely need to change. But that’s OK. Better to make a purposeful change than to react to people telling you to change. Go get your learn on – learn about strategy. This doesn’t mean you need to go get an MBA (although that can be helpful for your business credibility). Take a peek at Built to Last (the chapter on Building the Vision), read the 5th Discipline (the chapter on Shared Vision), check out The Balanced Scorecard by Kaplan, or watch this summary about creating alignment through shared vision by Ken Blanchard and Jesse Stoner. In my experiences, these are some of the books and topics executives are familiar with. And look what’s on their desk. Read that – or watch a video summary. You can learn to use strategy and you will have to change.

When you challenge your assumptions, you open up the possibility that there might be a better way. If you can live with that creative tension between where you are (current reality) and where you want to be (vision), you can move mountains.



Some questions: What are your assumptions? Do you think you can get it (firm strategy)?  Do you think you need it (to deliver value)? And do you know what to do with it once you have it?

In the next blog, I’ll discuss the strength of your internal and external network. How strong is your web of connections? 

Traveling Coaches is here to help! We have programs that can help you reimagine your learning programsimprove your communications and help your lawyers and staff embrace change.