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The Strategic, the Tactical, and the Ability to Pivot

In times of crisis, the mettle of a leader is tested and the disparities between true leaders and leaders in title alone become increasingly glaring.

In an age when Information Technology is critical to the success of virtually every discipline within every organization, the Chief Information Officer is certainly one leader whose mettle will be tested and must be equal to the task in order for the organization to remain successful.

The CIO must be able to adjust during a crisis – must be agile, not fragile.

Obviously the necessity to strategically adjust or pivot is not always driven by a crisis such as the pandemic that we are currently experiencing. The catalyst could be a change in organizational leadership, tactics, or maneuvers by competitors, industry-wide policies or changes fundamentally impacting the way business is conducted or even demands of customers. This is the primary reason why expert strategists do not recommend creating strategies beyond the scope of 36 months. While we do not know which of the several unforeseen factors may drive the need to pivot, what we do know is that the ability to pivot needs to be built into the development of the strategy itself.

A sound IT strategic plan is anchored by the overarching strategy of the organization. Though these overarching strategies differ from organization to organization, it is safe to say that a common goal of all of these strategies, and resultantly the IT strategy, is to maximize the productivity and profitability of the organization. It is then incumbent upon the IT leadership team to ensure that, while the focus of the strategy is to maximize productivity and profitability, the strategy is crafted in a malleable fashion, affording the best opportunity to be proactive as opposed to reactive.

In order to execute an effective plan, there must be a clear delineation between the strategic and the tactical.

For clarity, let’s approach it from the viewpoint of our military leaders since the terms strategic and tactical were most commonly used by the military before being widely adopted by other industries. Strategic refers to the use of engagements to achieve the goals of the war which are not always as simplistic as defeating the enemy. Tactical refers to the specificity such as which branch of service will be deployed and whether the engagement will be on the land, sea, or in the air. Tactical also addresses the execution of these engagements with respect to offense or defense.

From an organizational view, strategic implies long term goals while tactical refers to the specific methods that will be employed to achieve these long term goals. The CIO who has a clear understanding of the distinction between strategic and tactical is better equipped to create a comprehensive IT strategy to support the vision and strategy of the organization as a whole. Equally as important, this CIO will be better prepared to adjust to unforeseen circumstances in order to ensure business continuity.

Visual representations are often used to help distinguish between the strategy and the tactics or between those long term goals and the actionable tasks employed to achieve those goals.

Obviously there are a plethora of options regarding visual representations, but I’ll briefly expound on one that we have adopted. We utilize Visio diagrams to create a roadmap starting with the organizational goals in the leftmost column, followed by a corresponding IT goal in the next column, and the third column, which usurps the most real estate on our diagram, outlines the projects and project tasks.

While this brief description oversimplifies the diagram and does not detail the usage of color-coding, mappings, statuses, and other groupings and the leadership discussions required to develop this graphical representation, it should provide a basic understanding of how we move from organizational strategic goals to IT project tasks. These project tasks will help to accomplish the IT goals in the second column and ultimately support the organizational goals in the first column.

The COVID-19 crisis was certainly an unforeseen circumstance and presented organizations with some unique challenges, but also some unique opportunities.

Our organization was no different and we have several tangible examples of how our IT team adjusted. We’ll share one. For brevity, we will not delve into the entire formulation of organizational goals from their inception. However, one specific strategic goal for our organization that our IT team supports is customer-centric management of day-to-day administration and operation of the Housing Services Department, resulting in the achievement of agreed-upon key performance indicators.

Towards this end, one of the services our IT team implemented was a contact center with features and capabilities including VoIP, email, text chat, fax services, and direct website interface. Features such as Interactive Voice Response (IVR) helped maximize the number of fielded calls while boosting first call resolution and ensuring customer satisfaction. Modularity afforded us the ability to implement tighter security controls and real-time reporting provided management the ability to monitor agent performance and customer satisfaction with respect to specific KPIs. Suffice it to say, the implementation of the contact center was the tactical employed to achieve the strategic.

Enter COVID-19. After performing an assessment of the achievability and applicability of our existing strategy, the determination was made that the aforementioned strategic goal remained not only applicable but equally as significant, it remained achievable. However, due to immediate protocols introduced in response to the COVID-19 crisis, we would have to adjust. The tactical would have to change to accommodate the new protocols. We migrated the on-premise contact center to a remote paradigm – programming the system, training the users, acquiring the necessary equipment (hardware and software), upgrading the phone system, setting up firewalls, virtual desktops, and a host of other tasks. This tactical adjustment was by no means a trivial undertaking and was only successful as a result of the cooperative effort between the various teams within the IT department, our internal customers and third-party vendors and partners. Most importantly, the tactical adjustment ensured that, as an organization, we would continue to achieve our strategic goal.

When the unforeseen circumstances inevitably and invariably arise, a good leader will not immediately seek to abort the existing strategy.

Rather, an assessment to determine the applicability and achievability of the existing strategy should be conducted. The effort to clearly delineate the strategic from the tactical during planning will now prove invaluable and the results of the assessment should determine the path forward. The best leaders understand this dynamic, have an appreciation for the cooperative effort required to pivot, and are confidently capable when these challenges present themselves.

True leaders are measured when pressured not pressured when measured.

Brian Benn, TNCR Contributing CIO
Brian Benn, TNCR Contributing CIO
Brian Benn is Chief Information Officer and Senior Vice President of the Atlanta Housing Authority. He studied Computer Science and Mathematics at the University of Alabama in Huntsville and has a Master of Business Administration degree from Belhaven University. Brian is a technology evangelist and has a passion for bridging the digital divide.
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