Sunday, 9 February 2014

Strategy vs tactics

I remember some time ago when I was quite new to the role of head of department I was asked in a meeting about my response to some disappointing mock results that we'd just received. I responded at the time that I didn't want to make a knee jerk reaction to the new results, but wanted any response to be part of a strategic plan. At the time I suspect that the person involved thought that this apparent lack of immediate action was a sign of indecision or weakness on my part.  They pushed me to answer there and then... 'but what are we going to do about it?' I refused to be pushed into a quick response, I wanted it to be considered and therefore definitely the right thing to do, rather than rush a decision that could harm a different aspect of our practice.

The vital difference between tactics and strategy.
People confuse tactics with strategy all the time, but they're different, just like "leadership" and "management" are different.

On my MBA course we had a fascinating lecturer on corporate strategy, unfortunately I've forgotten his name. He was a self made millionaire who had at one point lost it all and re-built his business from the start. His view was that strategy is about knowing yourself, your organisation, your competition, and the environment that you're working in. Once you know these things then strategy is about where you want to get to given all of that contextual information. Not knowing aspects of these things would lead to a flawed or vulnerable strategy, subject to disruption by unexpected inputs. Vitally a strategy should be set over a fairly long term, and be based on a detailed knowledge of the current situation.

By contrast tactics are relatively short term measures or actions. If you link enough of the correct actions (employ the right tactics) then you'll deliver on your long term strategy. However tactics can also be employed to resolve or mitigate a short term problem. The presence of tactics themselves does not imply strategic actions. Mitigation of a short term problem may, or may not serve to support a long term strategy, and in fact it may undermine it completely.

Strategy is about more than a vision statement
Often strategies are supported by a long term vision, but you've got to have more than that. If the vision (or mission) statement provides the reason for being, the strategy provides the route towards this.

I've written a bit about sharing a vision/aim, and then breaking it down before in this post.

The importance of time
Tactical responses sometimes have to be quick (e.g. someone is unexpectedly absent, allocating cover and setting appropriate work is a quick tactical response to this need), but they don't always have to be. In fact there is usually more time available than people think there is.

For example if a school goes into a category or is given a poor inspection rating, there is a timeline put in place to demonstrate improvements. In this situation there is often pressure to fix everything immediately, or to demonstrate action by having a clear policy change to cover all points. However, without taking time to really consider the causes of the issues and the environment that they are in this can only be a tactical response. It might work, but as it's not taken account of all the other factors then it might not work, or might not last.

What's most important is that the tactics used are effective and sustainable. Therefore it is worth taking the time available to ensure they are the right ones, that support the long term strategy.

A hypothetical example
Lets say that the quality of marking was criticised during an inspection. The next full inspection will be in 18 months, but the inspection body will return to monitor progress at regular intervals.

Tactical response
An instant tactical response could be to require all work to be marked weekly, using a particular format/terminology. This format/terminology could be drawn from the current best performing department in the school and deployed across all the others. This policy could be checked by regular work scrutiny/book trawls at SLT level, with individual departments and teachers challenged if they don't keep up.

The chances are this would show a step change in marking for the first monitoring visit, but it requires a large amount of energy both at individual teacher and SLT level to ensure it is sustained all the way to the full inspection. With this high level of scrutiny, and inflexible format the teachers involved are likely to feel a high level of stress, which means their morale is likely to suffer, and as a result there may be an increase in staff turnover.

Strategic response
A more strategic response would be to put together a plan. The first step in the plan must be to get a clear picture of where current practice is, and a central agreement of what the ideal practice might look like. It's important to understand what aspects of practice are below standard, and to establish reasons for it. The next step is to identify what options there are to improve practice within each department, perhaps using recent research or best practice from other areas as guidelines. This stage has more inputs from more professionals than the tactical response, which gives more chances of better ideas. Then the changes need to be made, and there needs to be measurement of how effective the changes have been (which could still be SLT level, or it could be done at a departmental level), with further reviews and adjustments as needed. Of course failure to show progress towards improvements or adhere to the plan should still be challenged at a staff or departmental level. However critically this route is not blanket imposed, and it's considered the root causes of the problems in the first place.

The inspection body would initially see little measurable progress on their first monitoring visit, but should see evidence of the plan and progress through it. As time progresses the results should become more tangible, with improvements being demonstrated in future visits as the plan progresses. Since there is much greater opportunity for staff at all levels to influence this kind of approach, they are more likely to buy into it, and that is more likely to make it sustainable.

Overall differences
One is a tactical change - it "fixes" the immediate problem, but doesn't address the cause (in fact isn't remotely interested in the cause - it just applies a one size fits all "solution"). Tactical changes like this usually require extra energy to deliver, because they are additional to normal working practices, not developments of them.

The other one is a strategic change - it looks to move from the current state where there is a problem, to a future state where there isn't one. It takes into account the environment that surrounds the causes of the problem, and the possible impact of other actions on the way. Long term it is more likely that this action can be fully embedded in working practices because it develops from them and isn't added on top.

Leaders need to be brave enough to make time for strategic responses
Basically what I'm trying to say is that while tactical responses may be absolutely necessary in certain circumstances, leaders at all levels should seek to find time for strategic responses wherever possible. Sometimes this might require slower initial progress, and less of a quick fix. It may appear indecisive to those who want it resolved instantly, but the improved robustness and sustainability of the strategic response in the long term is worth this apparent slow start. Often this requires a bit of bravery to say "lets allocate some time to make a plan to improve" rather than "we need to improve so we'll do this".

As ever I'm keen to know your thoughts on this - realise there is relatively little tangible in here, hopefully it's not too preachy!

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