I work for a tech start-up in the heath care space and within our company (at least in our office which is lead by a couple of former Microsoft ninjas) two key buzz words are tactical and strategic. I was not sure exactly what these words meant and how they were used in business until I had a very specific meeting with our site director who was at one point my manager for roughly 6 months. I was in a one-on-one meeting explaining some challenges that I was facing in my role. Every day I was reacting to problems that bubbled up and needed my immediate attention, and I was not quite doing anything that would get ahead of those individual problems and solve the long term issues that created these acute problems. My boss at that point described the difference of thinking tactically versus strategically.
The daily grind and the individual problems that scream for our attention create the tactical work. The long term planning and insightful problem solving that stops those problems is the strategic work. The tactical is important and takes a certain set of skills, but the strategic is the differentiator — what separates the average companies from the excellent companies, what makes the top employees stand out from those who show up each day and punch a clock. What I was learning in that one-on-one was the difference between the two types of thinking. Now, when I look back at that coaching session, I also see two different coaching styles at work.
In his book The Coaching Habit author Michael Bungay Stanier makes a distinction between two types of coaching: coaching for performance and coaching for development. He describes the two styles and approaches in the following way, “Coaching for performance is about addressing and fixing a specific problem or challenge. It’s putting out the fire, or building up the fire, or banking the fire. It’s everyday stuff, and it’s important and necessary.” In this quick quote he is describing tactical coaching. How can you help an employee, colleague, or friend navigate the individual challenges that are popping up in front of them and how can they get through those obstacles? Bungay Stanier continues, “Coaching for development is about turning the focus from the issue to the person dealing with the issue, the person who’s managing the fire. This conversation is more rare and significantly more powerful.”
The second quote is about coaching strategically, helping the individual see not just how to overcome one challenge, but how to adapt and change what they are doing, the process they work with, and how they are approaching obstacles to make them better in the long run. It is a focus on the individual and their growth as opposed to a focus on a problem and how to address that problem. Thinking strategically requires awareness and understanding of common threads between problems and issues, and that is what you are trying to build in the other person. You are working with them to find the areas of growth for them that will connect the dots in their own life and story, and you are working with them to shift their perspective to solve long term problems and not immediate issues. This is what my boss was doing with me when he explained the difference between thinking tactically in my daily work and angling myself and my operations to be more strategic.