Tactical performance: Too much of a good thing?

When we examine common performance management approaches in companies, there is one prevalent symptom: rigidity. Businesses usually focus on measuring tactical performance as a driver of focus and stability. It allows organizations to concentrate their limited resources on a few goals and strengthen their position in a stable environment.

Rules, checklists and standard operating procedures are essential to this approach. The worldwide uniform preparation of a Starbucks macchiato as well as quality guidelines in pre-clinical research fall within this well-established category of tactical performance. Sticking to a plan is the mantra. No deviations wanted. These tactical performance elements are monitored and, in many cases, serve as the only performance indicators.

Adaptive performance is gaining importance

This focus on tactics tends to disregard the fact that volatile, insecure times and complex framework conditions call for a different approach: adaptive performance, i.e. how effectively an organization can deviate from a plan when required. It is reflected in learning aptitude, creative problem-solving, courage and innovation. On an individual level, it is the ability to quickly adapt your behavior to a changing work environment. 

This includes small changes. In our Starbucks case, a barista has to adapt to various types of customers and greet them differently. In our research example, a lab member spontaneously supports a colleague with urgently required knowledge. In times of massive changes, groundbreaking, highly adaptive performance can ensure that businesses will continue to thrive.

Tight control can backfire

Adaptive performance also facilitates so-called constructive deviation. This is a kind of behavior that focuses on the well-being of a company while deviating from or even breaking certain standards and rules. From a tactical perspective, this is a no-go. In a suddenly changing situation, however, it can prevent damage and spark critical innovations.

In practice, we often see the following: When tactics are measured too tightly, employees strictly adhere to all rules, even if this behavior may no longer be appropriate and may in fact produce inferior results.

Tactical assessment of leadership performance

At a management level, performance is predominantly measured with tactical goals. When managers are assessed based on quarterly forecasted earnings, they will seize to invest in the adaptive performance of the company. This does not add value in the long term. Studies on the economic impact of extensive finance reporting in corporations have provided impressive evidence in this regard.

There is another decisive factor: If performance is linked to pay, adaptive performance drops even more significantly. This creates a dilemma: short-term bonuses vs. medium- and long-term success.

It is therefore time to critically examine and realign performance management. This is particularly true if you hear yourself say: “I wish my employees took on more self-responsibility,” or “I wish we were more like a start-up,” or “We need to become more agile.” The current pandemic context has shown: Adaptability and innovation are more important than ever. They have moved from the realm of “nice to have” to “essential for survival“.

5 peak performance tips for turbulent times

1. Examine your framework conditions

Consistence and scalability require tactical performance. Critically examine with your team whether you are using the right tools, checklists and workflows. Many things can be simplified to make your employees’ lives easier. In the current context of increased remote working, shortcomings in operative excellence quickly become evident. Modern leadership and management are called for. 

Do not measure tactical performance under exceptional conditions when employees are struggling with unclear communication channels, decision competences and complicated approvals. They should be working, not just reporting. Free everyone, including yourself, from unnecessary dead weight. Make time and energy for adaptability. It will be needed. 

If you want to measure tactical performance, go ahead and do it. But do it right.


2. Assess where adaptive performance is needed most

Critically assessing your own business can be challenging. We tend to wear blinders and lack clear vision. In my work with my clients, I often use unconventional approaches to facilitate a distanced, unobstructed outside view. This process immediately reveals which areas have the greatest need for learning and innovation. Presently, as many industries are exposed to strong turbulence, we need to determine how to quickly boost adaptive performance. One effective tool is to simply ask your employees: “If you could change something, what would it be?” You’ll be surprised by the answers you’ll get – without great effort and free of charge.


3. Establish an experimentation and learning mindset

Wherever adaptability is needed, make a point of explicitly encouraging experimenting and learning. Equip your team with the necessary tools. Experimenting should not be done at random. It requires a structured approach aimed at finding results in a step-by-step process. My clients use specific templates that facilitate experimentation in practice.

Install routines like feedback sessions, peer consulting and structured problem-solving. This will unleash consulting potential within your company. You will be surprised by the degree of innovative power and problem-solving competence you will encounter. Many of my customers have tremendously improved the adaptive performance of their leadership teams with such techniques. This has a highly positive effect on the entire company as well as on individual employees.


4. Implement performance indicators wisely

Not measuring performance at all would clearly be wrong. Having information about your performance provides orientation and facilitates self-correction on an individual and team level. However, if you use these metrics as weapons, linking them to bonuses, promotions and job cuts, the adaptability of your teams will crumble. 

Begin to measure the effectiveness of the framework conditions influencing adaptive performance. This includes factors like motivation, organizational structures and planning processes as well as your performance management systems.


5. Establish learning goals

Let’s use sales as an example. If you set ambitious turnover goals, your team can reach them in various ways. Ideally, your sales reps will sit down and analyze how to improve their performance. However, they might prefer to take a shortcut if the pressure is on, resulting in aggressive hard-
selling or even mis-selling.

Defining clear learning goals might be a better solution. For instance: Find five new ways to sell the product or service to a prospective customer. Note that I didn’t say five successful ways. Just five new ways. Taking a certain risk and experimenting to achieve quick results is more sustainable in dynamic, unpredictable times than static sales targets.


Last but not least

It is tempting to exclusively focus on tactical performance and trust that there will be success if everybody follows the protocol. Resist this simplistic approach! Take a closer look before you set the right steps for a high-performance future.

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