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BLOG: A Bird for Your Troubles

F.Y. Teng | April 15, 2011
The importance of distinguishing between the strategic and tactical in meetings with the boss.

While trolling the Web in my usual aimless way a couple days ago, I came across this blog post (Emergent strategy: tactical thinking in strategic context). It's dated September 22, 2009, but speaks to one of those perennial management issues–the importance of distinguishing between the strategic and tactical when making decisions–that ensures it resonates strongly to this day.

The author starts out asking rhetorically, “How often are you in a situation in which you can’t address the big picture because you are stuck in the weeds?” And then goes on to offer up an approach to crafting an “emergent”, which he says “helps us address immediate concerns without losing sight of the big picture.”

It was well put together, so do have a read. But as I read it, my mind wandered someplace dark in the office, and I found myself asking: What if that is the point: to lose sight of the big picture?

What if your management is using the tactical concerns of the day to spirit serious discussions about the systemic troubles you call up to their attention (which they cannot or have no intention of talking through with you, let alone help you solve), away from the strategic and into a miasma of little problems, which they will gladly help you find quick fixes for? (Fixes that often involve you doing all the work, I should add.)

Bear with me and consider this scenario.

You have a team leader who for the most part has been ineffectual since the year he was promoted in a moment of madness or Machiavellian expediency on the part of your CEO. This team leader knows nothing of strategic or tactical planning but issues orders anyway, which spells trouble on all fronts. He issues demands, makes arbitrary changes to processes, and doesn’t keep tabs on workloads, continually piling on unnecessary work on team members without bothering to see how much real work each one is already carrying. He fails to manage any of the team projects, having delegated them away just before delivery date to specific team members.

As if this weren’t bad enough, he cannot quite understand corporate directives and so responds in knee-jerk fashion to instruction from the top down to the letter…that he understands. And each time he misconstrues directions and passes them on down to you and your colleagues, you get confused and have to go about talking to the other teams to piece together what exactly the CEO said.

When you call this team leader on how badly he is doing in his managerial role, he gets defensive and comes back at you with threats to your career, makes more arbitrary changes to processes, cuts back on privileges, and does just about everything else that shows he’s your boss.

This goes on for years—long enough for the entire organisation to know. You realise this is true when after having talked to your team leader repeatedly all that time to no good end, you decide you need help outside your unit and talk to other team leaders and your CEO.

A moment into your conversation with them and it’s obvious they knew it all along. They express their sympathies and offer words of consolation. They seem to care and want to help. Indeed they offer to help and suggest you call for a meeting, under the pretext of some specific project. Make it all about a recurring project that in its full run clearly illustrates the poor management of your team leader in all its glory, they seem to suggest.

So you call for such a meeting as advised. Invitations are sent out to and accepted by your CEO, your colleagues, your team leader and at least one other team leader. On the day of the meeting you go through the list of all the problems that typically crop up in the run of a project that you need to have solved, making sure it is clearly communicated that they are systemic problems and that they stem from your team leader’s ineptitude.

You end your presentation with a call to action: “Here’s our problem. Please help us solve it.”

But what happens is then the other team leader/s and your CEO do not go to the root of the problem, your team leader, but instead start and end a dialogue about the many little problems you’d just brought up, tackling each one for the here and now. You try along the way to steer the discussion back to the root of the problem, but you hear repeatedly, “Let’s not talk about the past, let’s look at the present” and “Let’s focus on the problem”, and by the end of the meeting—all you’re left with is a bunch of tactical fixes, which you have to see to getting done.

You leave the room wondering why you even called for the meeting. Maybe it hits you immediately after; maybe you realise only a week later that: The executives layers above you–your team leaders and his cohorts on up to the CEO–in their minds had just “solved your problems” and told you at the same time to know your place (which is the operational and tactical) and to stay there. It’s even as if they were flipping the bird at you.

Eventually, everything goes back to the way they were, not that they ever changed. Problems unsolved.

Dear reader, is this experience familiar to you? Tell me. You can write anonymously, of course.


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