Tactical vs Adaptive performance: How to find the sweet spot

by Molly Johnston | Dec 01, 2022

time icon 6 mins

Defining the level of performance we need in today’s dynamic workforce is the first step toward motivating, managing, and rewarding it. Sounds easy, so why do so many get it wrong? 

According to a Harvard Business Review (HBR) article, there are two types of employee performance – tactical and adaptive – and the challenge is that most organisations only focus on one. 

Tactical performance refers to how well your organisation adheres to its plan. The second category, adaptive performance, refers to how well your organisation flexes from its strategy.

In order to achieve high performance, we need both types. So, it’s not so much a duel, face off or showdown at dawn; the two together are necessary for victory. 

In both types of performance, motivation should aim to maximise team and individual autonomy, mastery, and purpose. 

The two types of performance: Tactical and adaptive

chess board showing the black knight and white knight facing off

Tactical performance

Most organisations only focus on this type of performance. Tactical performance is all about hitting targets, achieving a budget, and keeping KPIs green. These are the rocks that keep the lights on, which you need to count on to repeat with consistency whilst maintaining quality.

We wouldn’t blame you for thinking, “Well, isn’t that all that matters?”

A prime example is a great salesperson who regularly hits targets. Their purpose is to sell, they do it well and that’s what you want them to keep doing. You’re able to measure their performance objectively this way, free from prejudice. While this might sound ideal, if you just define performance in this sense, then all you’re likely to get is more of the same. 

Teams who are responsible for repetitive output can often just be left to it when they are the ones at greater risk of feeling like their efforts just don’t count.

That could be fine for some roles, but all organisations need to evolve and transform, and tracking KPIs or hitting targets alone won’t enable that. Instead, you need to allow opportunities to learn from not quite hitting the mark, safely, to generate more meaningful performance and learning experiences.

Tactical performance: Pros and cons

Pros

  • Repeatable and consistent
  • Easy to measure tactical performance 
  • Great for short-term goals and scaling
  • Frees up time to think creatively
  • Allows organisations to direct limited resources appropriately

Cons

  • Strict procedures
  • Doesn’t allow for transformation 
  • Has the potential to slow down progress
  • Can impede innovative employee performance 

Essentially, tactical performance is about how well you deliver against your plan.

Adaptive performance

This is the kind of performance needed to drive transformation in the organisation. Adaptive performance requires learning, experimentation, agility and resilience – traits and practices that KPIs and standard performance metrics alone are not ideal for motivating and rewarding.

An example of this is the launch of a new product. Prior to launch, substantial research, testing, and adaptation are needed, so high performance in this context means being able to innovate, create, change course, and bounce back.

You’re not quite sure where you will finish when you start, but you know the impact you need to have and that’s what you aim for. Achieving adaptive performance requires flexibility and adaptability, while still delivering the desired results.

With many potentially downsizing or taking on fewer clients or jobs, effectively directing limited resources will be a priority across the workforce. Businesses and organisations must be able to deal with turbulence, volatility, and disruption in order to survive and thrive. 

Adaptive performance: Pros and cons

Pros

  • Fosters innovation and experimentation
  • Promotes problem solving
  • Allows you to create value in a world of uncertainty
  • Focused on future goals 

Cons

  • Can be viewed from numerous perspectives if not defined
  • Potential to get lost in change if not implemented correctly

Essentially, adaptive performance is about how you roll with the punches, seize the opportunities and create the future (and results) you want.

Tactical vs adaptive performance: Choosing the right approach

image showing various spices and ingredients on a yellow background next to a pan

Well, there’s no easy recipe for how adaptive and performance go together. It depends entirely on the focus of the role being performed and the team in which it sits. 

Arguably, all roles need an element of both tactical and adaptive performance, but the difference is where the sweet spot is on the spectrum. For one team, like Finance, you might need a sprinkle of adaptive and a splash of tactical, whereas a completely different department, such as Marketing, needs a whole glug of adaptive and just a pinch of tactical to be effective.

Also, you can’t just leave it to simmer. That all-important “sweet spot” should be reviewed regularly as the needs of the business change. It’s not unusual for the balance of a team in one period to need to pivot for the next. 

To achieve that balance, consider which components of an individual’s role must be measured tactically and which may be opened up to adaptive performance.

Here are three tips for building a business where these two types of performance are commonplace, and how you can get started. 

1. Define your objectives

Contrary to popular belief, OKRs have a place within a performance management framework if it takes into account the type of performance that’s required, whether it’s tactical or adaptive. When objectives are clearly defined together, communicated and reinforced, it’s a surefire way to guarantee everybody is aware of your company Northstar and working towards the same goal. 

For teams measured tactically, wise use of OKRs outside of performance can help build a feeling of inclusion and alignment for teams that otherwise might feel disconnected.

They can help employees feel like they’re taking charge of something with which they have deep domain experience, and align themselves within wider company objectives.

For teams with the opportunity to display adaptive performance, they will have more experience and confidence in the outcome-focused thinking that OKRs require. The key consideration is not to cascade OKRs to those teams; let them be creative and devise their own, as long as they align with Company-wide Objectives.

Regardless of team type, OKRs have a powerful role to play to unlock enormous human performance potential.

2. Reward appropriately 

Rewards can have a place within this framework, but there are some stipulations. For anything other than outright KPI achievement, it’s more effective to weight rewards towards attitudes and behaviours as this can cover a whole plenitude of high-performance practices. 

In other words, directly linking OKR achievement to pay and reward is the quickest way to ensure people play safe and resist anything that could risk them falling short, ultimately removing any appetite to think laterally, be ambitious and try innovate and experiment. This is why we highly recommend that you don’t take this approach.

You want to decouple OKRs from compensation and performance evaluation to encourage big audacious goals and drive people to think differently and achieve higher results. 

Motivation and evaluation of performance should be viewed holistically. If you’ve defined what high-performance means in your business, maintaining regular check-in conversations about this is extremely valuable

Essentially, that motivation should come from within the employees themselves, and not from any external rewards.

3. Create a culture that encourages high performance

While we all agree that culture is essential, most of us struggle to manage it – and work even harder to change it. Culture is an organisation’s personality, and just as it’s difficult to overhaul an individual’s personality, it’s certainly a challenge to change an organisation’s culture. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, though!

What’s the definition of high performance?

There’s no consistent definition of high-performance culture. Some experts describe it as a set of shared beliefs and values established by leaders and communicated and reinforced through various methods, ultimately shaping employee performance, perceptions, behaviours, and understanding. 

Others just refer to it as an ideal workplace that increases employee effectiveness.

What is it that fosters a culture of high performance? Not the ping pong table in the breakout room or the bean bags in the meeting pods, but instead:

  • Strong leaders
  • Empowered and engaged employees
  • Continuous development opportunities
  • Agility
  • Purpose
  • Alignment 
  • Defined values 
  • Potential
  • Transparency 

The highest-performing cultures are built upon the psychology of total motivation. The Motive Spectrum, coined by Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor in their book Primed to Perform, includes six performance motives – both direct and indirect. 

This concept describes the powerful, yet predictive, motivators you can tap into to unlock employee motivation, adaptability and tactful innovation. Sounds like witchcraft, right? 

You don’t have to dust off any spellbooks to get started. In fact, Purpose, Play and Potential are the key direct motivators – which can all be ignited by setting challenging, ambitious OKRs.

Finding the sweet spot for your organisational performance 

You can rein your bets in for the tactical vs adaptive performance battle and place your chips on your people instead. Go beyond the non-negotiables to uncover clear areas where employees can act autonomously. Then focus on the impact their adaptive performance has made on the organisation. 

Being adaptive doesn’t happen at the expense of being tactical. Instead being tactical in the right way opens up teams to be more adaptive. 

Overall, we believe there’s a place for both OKRs and performance assessments if designed in a transparent, fair and well-rounded way that includes both impact and behaviour.

For equilibrium, you must evaluate accordingly, define your goals and foster a trusting and supportive culture. Take a look at our guide that takes you through 7 principles you’ll need to master to create a healthy culture, and that sweet spot will be extra rewarding. 

Master the 7 principles of a healthy culture