To combat falling membership and scattered leadership, the Girl Scouts launched a new strategy in 2005. Five years later, the plan to increase participation appears to be working — at least in New York City where the New York Times recently reported a boom in troops.

The case of the Girl Scouts provides key lessons for strategy, says management professor Willie Pietersen. His new book, Strategic Learning (Wiley, March 2010), examines how organizations can turn market insights into strategic actions. In it, he uses the example of the Girl Scouts, with whom he has worked as a strategic adviser since 2004.

“The Girl Scouts are a movement rather than a legally aligned organization. It’s similar to a franchise operation,” Pietersen says.

The movement’s new strategy entailed redefining its customers and its winning proposition clearly, restating its mission and setting new priorities. Additionally, each of the organization’s 312 independent councils was required to set its own priorities, based on local markets, in alignment with the movement’s.

“After a total strategy was defined as a central idea, a local strategy was created for each independent council,” he continues. “They aligned their own propositions and priorities as a direct translation of what the total organization was trying to do. That gave coherence.”

In order to further streamline the Girl Scouts’ efforts, the number of councils was reduced from 312 to 109. “This was done to improve the implementation effectiveness of the strategy that had already been defined,” Pietersen says. The Girl Scouts made other tactical changes, including shifting the emphasis away from earning merit badges to learning about topics, like health and wellness or financial literacy, and using online tools to foster engagement. A key point in the strategic learning sequence is that structure should always follow strategy, Pietersen says.

Pietersen cautions that independent subsidiaries cannot automatically align with the central mission but should instead develop their own priorities. “They have to do their own situation analysis and learn about their own local markets,” he says. “They can translate that information into an aligned winning proposition.”

Willie Pietersen is teaching the Columbia Business School Executive Education program “Creating and Executing Breakthrough Strategy,” taking place May 16–21, 2010.