Thursday, 29 November 2012

Tacticians and their value

This blog focusses on strategy a lot of the time. Strategy is a fascinating field, it has spawned an incredible number of books, theories, papers, conferences and indeed blog posts. Strategy is the art of creating a generalised framework to achieve a goal. Yet discussions about strategy often miss a fundamental fact, it requires implementation.

The tactician is the one on the ground who services the strategist. They must understand fully the strategic goal, and identify routes which will lead to it's successful conclusion (and set up the next strategic goal). Strategy may be the more exciting field, yet good tactical decision making is in some ways more fundamental.

Tactical implementation in the civilian world is a field which has had entirely too little emphasis placed on it. The military does not suffer from this weakness, because in order to achieve high rank (and thus become a strategy maker) one must first traverse lower ranks and become strong tacticians. This failure amongst civilians leads to a significant problem, people at lower "ranks" are not trained to understand how they operate within a strategic environment, and thus as they rise do not transition naturally from tactics to strategy.

That is not to say that this process is not being performed by many companies to some extent and to some degree of success, however it's lack of articulation means it is not being conducted in a useful fashion. Without an open acknowledgement of the importance of tactics in the work environment there can be little in the way of improvement, or indeed any form of critical thinking. Junior staff in any organisation should be motivated to openly discuss the tactics they will use to achieve a strategic objective.

One of the impediments to this is the exceptionally common practice of micromanagement. Much discussed and reviled it is an almost universal part of most companies, since managers are not trained to distinguish between tactics and strategy, thus when they are placed in a position where they should be making strategy, they focus on what they know, which is tactics (although they would not think of it as such in the main).

I believe that because many managers do not trust their own strategic decision making, they are unable to trust their junior's ability to implement that strategy, and thus they see a need to involve themselves in a level of decision making which should be wholly inappropriate.

So how could this be cured? One way may be a corporate version of the tactical decision game. Supervised, but not influenced by managers, junior staff should be provided with challenges and asked to game out how they would deal with them. It would be critical to stress that there are no right or wrong tactics to achieve the objective, so long as those tactics lead to a successful outcome. Senior staff should involve themselves only to the extent of framing the task, and discussing the solutions when they are fully formed.

In this way managers may begin to trust their juniors to make decisions, since they will have seen their abilities within a simulated environment. They will also have a better instinctive feel for the strengths and weaknesses of their juniors, and be able to help foster positive traits and limit or eliminate weak ones. Junior staff will be able to develop their skills and confidence in decision making, and understand their relationship to the strategic objective, which will make them stronger strategists in the fullness of time.

Strategy might be exciting, but tactics get the job done.
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