Tactical vs. Adaptive: CEOs Need To See Through The Current Issue For The REAL Challenge To Solve

Leaders meet to talk about adaptive vs tactical solutions to problems
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Companies often face tactical issues and adaptive challenges, and leaders are responsible for figuring out how to solve them effectively. The biggest mistakes occur when leaders focus solely on tactical issues instead of taking the time to solve adaptive challenges.

In this article, Work It Daily experts from Vistage discuss and offer insights into how CEOs can identify the root cause of a problem while providing actionable strategies to become more adaptive in their decision-making, cultivate a culture of innovation and continuous improvement, and drive sustainable growth and success. Read on to discover the key differences between tactical and adaptive solutions.

Kirsten Yurich

The single biggest error I see in leadership today is leaders solving tactical issues instead of taking the time to identify and address adaptive challenges. Tactical issues are solved for "faster, cheaper, better." The questions consultants and experts help us solve. Whereas adaptive challenges are the underlying systemic root causes that often have us looking at ourselves. And this doesn't come easy. We need time, space, and different perspectives to identify and address adaptive challenges.

How do you know if you have an adaptive challenge? Adaptive challenges are complex, last over time, and often present as ambiguous in nature. Frequently, they will surprise you—and once uncovered, produce the “oh…yeah… that is what’s happening” response. Implementing solutions to adaptive challenges will force leaders and others to learn new ways of doing things; often we will have to look inward at our own ways of being in order to bring about adaptive solutions.

Let’s look at some examples. A leader has several direct reports. Most are performing well. One is an outlier. We could quickly scan that this outlier does not have the same training or experience as the others. Ah! There it is. He/she needs more training or experience to perform better. Problem solved. Um…not so fast. After some deeper investigation and (painful reflection) we come to find out that this outlier is often kept out of the leader’s "inner circle" of thinking and planning. He/she is treated differently by the leader. The result? With less knowledge about what the leader is thinking and expecting this leader cannot perform. And what presents as a tactical performance issue is a more adaptive challenge of bias on the part of the leader.

Adaptive challenges require adaptive leadership. Adaptive leadership is based on the principles of shared responsibility, self-reflection, and continuous learning.

Kirsten Yurich is a former CEO and current Vistage Chair. As a clinician, professor, author, and executive, she leverages this unique blend and creates learning environments for executives to become better leaders, spouses, and parents.

Mike Thorne

Business leader is adaptive instead of tactical during a work meeting

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Learning to ask the extra question as owner/CEO matters. You will expand or shrink the business by being adaptable vs. transactional/tactical. What is that question? I believe it starts with: "What problem are we actually trying to solve?"

Actual experienced example - A sales leader gets a request from a large customer to change the case pack of product X and shares that with operations. Operations pushes back and says, “That isn’t how we do things.” The customer continues to pressure sales and threatens to stop buying product X, and sales and operations go round and round and nothing gets resolved. Given the hybrid/Zoom world we are in, this can become an explosive issue because it is hard to read the body language, nuances, and actual understanding of this situation.

Not asking the extra question goes like this:

Tactical answer - business shrink - loss of volume, customer, stress through the system, management time wasted, and potentially business layoffs as the customer goes elsewhere because not only is this opportunity lost, the customer sees you less as a solution partner and more as a “got to have” only vendor.

Adaptive answer - business expansion - team (customer, sales for client, operations experts, and key decision-makers) meet “live” or get on a call to discuss, "What is the problem we are trying to actually solve?” It gets explained that the customer is trying to manage inventory so they want a smaller case pack (say three vs. six) and the company says we are automated and it is in rows of two so we need even multiples to make it work. The company produces short videos of how the manufacturing process works and then lays out the complexities, adding costs to manually get to three. The customer says, "I get it and I don’t want to spend more and add issues on your end. Can you do a four-pack instead?" Answer: yes.

Benefit - It is a value-added complexity decision by the company to increase revenue/profit exponentially, increase relationships with customers, and present future growth ideas through collaboration. Customers feel heard and appreciated, employees in the “trenches” see the value of adaptive thinking, and, over time, decisions flow to the keys to relationships vs. those with the titles. Employee empowerment.

An adaptive mindset allows you as a leader and your organization to rapidly take advantage of or mitigate risk in an ever-changing landscape. It will transform your strategies, processes, and culture and keep you competitive. Reality matters, always. Ask: "What is the actual problem we are solving for?"

Mike Thorne is a former CEO and current Vistage Chair. He leads and facilitates a group of trusted advisor entrepreneurs and a CEO peer group in New Hampshire and Maine.

Mark Fackler

Leader talks to his team members

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Tactical vs. adaptive; symptom vs. disease; surface vs. core; fixing problems vs. changing systems. I don’t care what you call it, the problem with many CEOs is they solve too many problems and often the wrong problems.

It is sort of funny to think that as your company grows, the number of problems increases, and yet the CEO needs to learn how not to solve the majority of problems. The CEO needs to learn how to focus on root causes—the disease, not the symptoms.

There were two concepts that I was taught as I ran my company: 1) getting problems off your desk, and 2) always work toward the root cause.

Getting problems off your desk is a mandatory skill to learn. I am not talking about critical problems or emergencies. It’s the day-to-day problems that CEOs are so good at solving. These problems have to be pushed down to the staff. Make them think. Make them work. Tell them how much faith you have in their abilities. Tell them that you want them to grow. By doing this you are not only training your staff but giving them pride. And as we all know prideful employees are long-term employees.

Finding root causes is the second mandatory skill to learn. I use the “5 Why Technique,” very simple and very effective. When someone presents a problem or even a solution, ask them, “Why, tell me more?” Let the question hang, don’t save them. Make them think. Make them work. Keep repeating the question until you feel you have gotten to the core.

For example, your head of customer service asks to hire an additional customer service rep:

Why, tell me more.
Calls are taking longer to answer.
Why, tell me more.
The pumps are failing more often.
Why, tell me more.
Seems that two gaskets are leaking more.
Why, tell me more.
We have a new supplier.
Why, tell me more.
The buyer wanted to save money.

Now we are getting closer to the core problem. It could be process or siloed communication. It could be training. It could be the wrong buyer. It could be the wrong hiring manager. By asking “why,” you peel the onion, you go from the symptom to the disease.

Mark Fackler is a retired CEO and currently leads the Vistage CEO group that he was a member of from 1991 to 2002. He is passionate about creating great ROI for his member CEOs.

What's your experience being tactical vs. adaptive as a leader? Join the conversation inside Work It Daily's Executive Program.

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