Performance consultants aspire to deliver strategic results and outcomes to organizations. But what is strategic work? And how is it different from tactical? My experience has revealed confusion in the talent development profession regarding these two categories of work.
Consider these three results. In your opinion, which (if any) is an example of a strategic result?
- We have created an organizational structure that supports a more flexible workforce.
- The capability of our sales force has been enhanced to support our new sales process.
- The new strategic planning process has been successfully implemented throughout the enterprise.
The answer is that none of these is a strategic result. Strategic work is work done to directly advantage the business. That means that strategic results are expressed in business terms. Let’s take the first example from the list to illustrate what is meant by business terms: “We have created an organizational structure that supports a more flexible workforce, resulting in a reduction in operational costs.” Or, “The capability of our sales force has been enhanced to support our new sales process, and we have seen top line revenue increase by 6 percent over last year since the launch.”
By indicating the business benefit that has been derived from the implementation of the tactic, we are stating a result in strategic terms.
What Is a Tactic?
A tactic is a solution that is implemented to address one or more business and performance gaps or challenges. The list of possible HR, L&D, and talent development tactics is almost endless. Reorganize the function? A tactic. Develop capability of people? A tactic. Change the incentive system? A tactic. Tactics are solutions designed and implemented to address the needs of groups of people, such as sales representatives, leaders, or technicians. Tactics, or solutions, require substantive resources in terms of time, money, and people. One goal for performance consultants is to steward the resources required to design and implement tactics, so tactics are only implemented when they can make a difference.
Of course tactics are necessary; that is not the issue. The problem is that, with frequency, tactics are implemented with minimal or no linkage to a strategic goal. In these instances, tactics become programs or events. How many times is a developmental initiative, such as leadership training, rolled out with limited or no long-term impact? Solutions implemented as stand-alone tactics, with no direct linkage to a business goal, have minimal probability of long term impact at the strategic level.
Criteria for Strategic Work
While tactical work focuses on solutions implemented to benefit groups of people, strategic work is done to identify and address the needs at the organizational level. This includes needs for business groups, functions, departments, or even the entire enterprise. In addition to this macro focus, strategic work is:
- Long term in scope. The solutions (or tactics) that are implemented will benefit the organization for one to five years.
- Directly linked to one or more business goals.
- Solution-neutral for some period of time. This is when performance consultants add value. They partner with clients to obtain information required to make decisions as to the set of solutions that will be required. Performance consultants influence the decisions made during this solution-neutral period.
- There will be multiple tactics, or solutions, required. Business dials do not move because of single solutions.
Performance consultants must first identify and focus on the strategic business results that are required before determining the tactical solutions to be implemented.
Performance Consultants Working Strategically
It is certainly possible for an organization to have a strategic initiative in which the performance consultant‘s role is a tactical, not strategic, one. For example, say a business has been losing market share for the past two years. The executives have made decisions regarding the causes for the problem and the solutions that are required to address those causes. One of the solutions identified is a training program for sales representatives. The executives contact the performance consultant and ask her to lead the initiative on designing and implementing this learning solution. While the initiative is a strategic one, directly linked to and potentially advantaging the business, the role of the performance consultant is tactical. This is because the performance consultant is only implementing decisions made by others and has not had an opportunity to influence those decisions.
For performance consultants to work strategically, they need to be invited into the initiative during its forming stage when decisions are being made. I have found that the following criteria must be true for performance consultants to have a strategic role within a business initiative:
- There is a business need to be addressed through the work.
- The performance consultant has direct access to the leader who owns that business need (a person I refer to as the client), providing opportunities to influence the thinking and decisions of that client.
- The client will provide the performance consultant with time and access to people for purposes of obtaining information needed so that the appropriate decisions regarding actions to be taken are made.
- The client is seeking performance change for people in one or more employee groups.
- The client is willing to share accountability to produce this change.
To have a strategic role within a strategic initiative is the ultimate goal for performance consultants. We earn that right as we build and deepen partnerships with clients, earning their trust that we make a difference and add value. When this occurs we are truly living the definition of performance consulting: to achieve business results by maximizing performance of people and organizations.