February 23, 2024


Companies often face tactical issues and adaptive challenges, and leaders have a responsibility to identify ways to address them effectively. The biggest mistakes are made when leaders focus on tactical issues instead of spending time solving adaptive challenges.


In this article, Vistage’s Work It Daily experts discuss and provide insights on how CEOs can identify the root causes of problems while offering actionable strategies to improve decision-making adaptability and foster a culture of innovation and continuous improvement, and drive sustainable growth and success. Read on to discover the key differences between tactical and adaptive solutions.

Kirsten Ulrich

Vistage Chair Live Event

The biggest mistake I see in leadership today is when leaders solve tactical problems instead of taking the time to identify and solve adaptive challenges. Tactical problem solving is for “faster, cheaper, better”. Consultants and experts help us solve problems. And adaptive challenges are underlying systemic root causes that often make us look within ourselves. It’s not easy. We need time, space and different perspectives to identify and respond to adaptive challenges.

How do you know if you are facing adaptive challenges? Adaptive challenges are complex, persist over time, and are often ambiguous in nature. Often, they’ll surprise you – once spotted, with an “oh… yes… that’s what’s going on” response. Implementing solutions to adaptive challenges will force leaders and others to learn new ways of doing things; often, we must look inward to our own way of being to find adaptive solutions.

Let’s look at some examples. A leader has multiple direct reports. Most are doing well. One is an outlier. We can quickly spot that this outlier doesn’t have the same training or experience as everyone else. Ah! There it is. He/she needs more training or experience to perform better. The problem is solved. Hmm…not so fast. After some deeper investigation and (painful reflection), we found that this outlier is often excluded from the “inner circle” of a leader’s thinking and planning.he/she is Treated Leadership is different. result? Leaders cannot carry out their tasks without knowing what they think and expect. The tactical performance question is a more adaptive bias challenge for leaders.

Adaptive challenges require adaptive leadership. Adaptive leadership is based on the principles of shared responsibility, self-reflection and continuous learning.

Kirsten Ulrich is the former CEO and current Chairman of Vistage. As a clinician, professor, author, and executive, she uses this unique blend to create learning environments for executives to become better leaders, spouses, and parents.

Mike Thorne

Business leaders adopt adaptive rather than tactical strategies during work meeting

Image via Bigstock

As an owner/CEO, it is important to learn to ask additional questions. You will scale your business up or down through adaptability and trade/tactics. What is the problem? I believe it starts with: “What problem do we actually want to solve?”

Examples from actual experience – A sales executive receives a request from a large account to replace the box of product X and shares it with operations. Operations retorts, “That’s not how we do things.” Customers continue to pressure sales and threaten to stop buying product X, and sales and operations go round and round without solving anything. Given the hybrid/zoomed world we live in, this can become an explosive problem as it can be difficult to understand body language, nuance, and practical understanding of the situation.

Do not ask additional questions like this:

Tactical answer – Business shrinkage – loss of volume, clients, system pressure, wasted management time, and possible downsizing of the business when clients move elsewhere because not only is the opportunity lost, but clients no longer see you as a solution partner , and see you more as the “winner owns” the only supplier.

Adaptive Answer – Business Expansion – Teams (customer, customer sales force, operations specialists and key decision makers) meet “on site” or call to discuss “What problem are we really trying to solve?” It is explained that the customer is trying to manage inventory, so they Wanted a smaller box (like three or six) and the company said we were automated and it was two rows so we would even need multiple to make it work. The company makes a short video of how the manufacturing process works, then lays out the complexity, adding the cost of hitting three manually. Customer says, “I see, I don’t want to pay you more for additional questions. Can you do a four-pack?” Answer: Yes.

benefits – This is a value-added complexity decision for the company to exponentially increase revenue/profit, enhance relationship with customers, and present future growth ideas through collaboration. Customers feel heard and valued, employees in the “trenches” see the value of adaptive thinking, and over time, decisions flow to the crux of the relationship rather than those with titles. Employee empowerment.

Adaptive thinking enables you as a leader and your organization to rapidly capitalize on or mitigate risk in a changing environment. It will transform your strategy, processes and culture and keep you competitive. Reality always matters. Ask: “What is the actual problem we are trying to solve?”

Mike Thorne is the former CEO and current Chairman of Vistage. He leads and facilitates a group of trusted advisory entrepreneurs and CEO peer groups in New Hampshire and Maine.

Mark Fackler

Leader talking with his team members

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Tactical vs. Adaptive; Symptoms vs. Disease; Surface vs. Core; Problem Solving vs. Changing Systems. I don’t care what you call it, the problem with many CEOs is that they solve too many problems and often the wrong ones.

Interestingly, as the company grows, the number of problems increases, and the CEO needs to learn how to no to solve most of the problems. CEOs need to learn how to focus on the root cause—the disease, not the symptoms.

While running the company, I have learned two concepts: 1) getting problems off the desk and 2) staying focused on addressing the root cause.

Getting problems off your desk is a must-learn skill. I’m not talking about serious problems or emergencies. CEOs are best at solving day-to-day problems. These issues have to be passed on to the employees. Let them think. make them work. Tell them how confident you are in their abilities. Tell them you want them to grow. By doing this, you not only train your employees, but also make them proud. Proud employees are known to be long-term employees.

Finding the root cause is the second must-learn skill. I use “5 Why Technique”, very simple and very effective. When someone comes up with a problem or even a solution, ask them, “Why, tell me more?” Leave the problem open, don’t save them. Let them think. make them work. Keep repeating this question until you feel you’ve got the core.

For example, your customer service executive requests that an additional customer service representative be hired:

Why, tell me more.
It takes longer and longer to answer the phone.
Why, tell me more.
Pumps fail more frequently.
Why, tell me more.
It appears that the two gaskets are leaking more.
Why, tell me more.
We have a new supplier.
Why, tell me more.
Buyers want to save money.

Now we are getting closer to the core problem. It can be a process or an isolated communication. It could be training. Might have bought it from the wrong person. This could be the wrong hiring manager. By asking “why,” you peel the onion and move from symptom to disease.

Mark Fackler is a retired CEO who currently leads the Vistage CEO Group, of which he was a member from 1991-2002. He is passionate about generating great ROI for his CEO members.

How has your experience as a leader been tactical and adaptable?join the conversation inside Work It Daily’s Execution Plan.

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