Sunday, December 8, 2013

Strategy – Tactics Conundrum: A Philosophy of Neuroscience?

The world of strategy is replete with prescriptions for long term planning and strategic management. Over the years business management and leadership became more rooted around growth and profitability at a broad business or corporate level. Management literature also moved in tandem, focusing on the need to craft and execute strategies that deliver long term value to the stakeholders. As a result, there is hardly any focus today on the day to day managerial requirements. In fact, the concept of tactical or short term optimization of value does not seem to exist at all. This is somewhat surprising given that some of the thought leaders in strategic management owe their foundations to microeconomics.

The swing to strategic management has its support in the fact that many of the actions of a business fructify in the long term. Investments, whether on products or facilities, have to be made with a view on the long term. They also take time to fructify and deliver value. That said, every strategic resource has a very strong embedded tactical component in it, even several. For example, when equipment is purchased to upgrade technology, its daily output is the key embedded parameter. In other words, no strategic asset can be divorced from its tactical impact. A key issue for firms is the identification of the tactical delivery that is expected of any strategic action on one hand, and the tactical actions that are required to be taken to achieve strategic delivery. 


Amongst the various resources that constitute or drive an operation or activity, people are the unique resource that can operate at both strategic and technical levels. From an oriental perspective which is based on lifetime employment, people may even outlast equipment and products, thus qualifying as the most strategic resource a firm can have. Even from a western perspective, people even if changing careers are seen to be the strategic assets of a firm. That said, the daily performance of the individuals in an organization determine the course of a firm on its strategic path.  

People in any organization need to have both tactical and strategic perspectives.‎ People are the ones who can make tactics align with strategy on a daily basis, and vice versa as required. For people in a firm to be strategically effective, they need to be tactically effective too. A dichotomy has developed between tactical and strategic aspects of people development and functioning over the years; for example that the leaders need to be more strategic and far less tactical and front line executives need to be more tactical and far less strategic. Such dichotomy sub-optimizes the most critical tactical and strategic resource of the firm, namely the people.

Driven by brain  

It needs no saying that how an individual behaves and acts is driven by his brain. Brain, therefore, holds the key to how people as workers, managers and leaders work in organizations and societies. Memory, communication, coordination, thinking, concentration are five critical brain functions. These functions affect how body and mind work. The five regions of the brain namely cerebrum, cerebellum, brain stem, pituitary gland and hypothalamus together dictate a very broad spectrum of abilities and competencies of a person. The large part of the brain, cerebrum, has six lobes which determine the basic abilities: frontal that determines thought, parietal that enables sensory, occipital that realizes visual, temporal that feels smell and sound, limbic that relates emotion and memory and insular that conveys pain. Cerebellum, the smaller part of the brain, however, influences a more complex set of competencies, which makes cerebellum a target of more intensive research.

In the past, cerebellum was thought to be linked solely to motor functions. Recent research, however, has focused on cerebellum as a learner and adapter of fine movement through learning and performance cycles. Cerebellum adds to the flexibility, plasticity and perfection of the mind and the body. The brain stem is the posterior part of the brain and provides the main motor and sensory nervous control and coordination to a person. The pituitary gland is at the base of the brain and is responsible for the release of a wide range of hormones in a person enabling the biological profile of a person, including certain hormones responsible to manage stress in a person, and stressful situations by a person. The hypothalamus, closely related to and influencing the pituitary gland, is another organ at the base of the brain influencing and coordinating many hormonal and behavioral cicardian rhythms, complex patterns of neuroendocrine mechanisms, complex homeostatic mechanisms, and important behaviors.  

The complex and powerful set of these five parts of the brain are bound together by billions of neurons and trillions of synapses for communicating with themselves and with the rest of the body through its central nervous system. The very simple rendering of the brain neuroscience as above demonstrates how complex, in terms of both brain genetics and brain development, the human brain is and how even more complex would it be to influence working, managerial and leadership behaviors and competencies to reach artificially targeted behaviors and competencies. This brings us the classic debate of whether leaders are borne or made. The neuroscience offers a platform to be blessed with, or acquire, the required competencies, traits and behaviors but it is the philosophy of introspection, which is essentially one becoming aware of oneself, that could offer tangible help in exploring, stretching and reaching the inner capabilities.

Varying needs 

Every organized activity, be it social or organizational, requires three types of responsibilities. The first is working responsibility, the second is managerial responsibility and the third leadership responsibility. In each of the responsibilities, there are certain basic profiles and certain additional nuances to achieve optimal efficiency and effectiveness. At the working level, three types of skills are required: grasping skills, compliance skills and improvement skills. These three skills make the workplace safe and productive with compliance to quality. These simply get honed and enhanced as a worker acquires seniority. At the managerial level, there would be a different type of skill progression. At the beginning management levels, the need is essentially of technical skills. At the middle management level, additional analytical and relational skills are required. At the senior management level, conceptual skills are required even more. The conceptual skills include judgment, foresight, creativity, planning and problem solving.  

The requirements in terms of leadership are significantly different. There are general leaders and there are also transformational leaders. General leaders, while leading, improve the process, inspire a shared vision, enable others, model the path and balance logic, emotion and aggression. Transformational leaders, while leading, challenge status quo (not merely improve the process), charismatically drive towards a focused vision (not merely inspire a shared vision), make change possible (not merely enable change), consistently model leaders and leadership (not merely modeling the path) and uniquely synergize logic, emotion and aggression. Everyone has the capability and entitlement to evolving from an ordinary worker to transformational leader. The core to that journey lies in one’s own brain as the several factors described above represent behaviors, competencies and traits made possible by the way one’s brain functions. The enabler to modify the brain function to suit the needs comes in the form of philosophy of brain neuroscience.  

Brain plasticity, mind flexibility 

Brain is a physical organ that makes a human being what he or she is. Mind is the abstract or intangible consciousness of a human being that is primed by the brain. Mind and brain are related to each other like software and hardware are related in a device. Persons are usually ignorant of the unexplored power and potential of brain and, in addition, are commonly protective of the known thought profiles of the mind. While the largely neglected philosophical foundations of our heritage have enough guidance to achieve flexibility of mind, advances in neuroscience are enabling new knowledge on stretching of brain to enhance the critical functions discussed earlier. Neuroplasticity or brain plasticity is a broad medical term that refers to the ability or tendency of the neural networks, synaptic and non-synaptic, to change based on learning, aging as well as any damage. The concept has relevance in understanding if the brain functions can be better understood by an individual for him or her to better respond to his or her aspirations.   

Philosophy enables one to understand the flow of thoughts in one’s mind. Mind is essentially composed of intellect and consciousness. While brain provides intellect, consciousness is a self-fulfilling aspect of the mind. The more conscious one is one’s competencies, traits and behaviors, and one’s desires and aspirations, the more conscious one would be of one’s ability-aspiration match. Mind flexibility refers to the ability of the mind to adjust thinking or actions to suit changing goals or environmental inputs. Flexible thinking requires attention, inhibition, working memory and goal focus. Interestingly, these overlap with some of the critical functions of the brain. While brain and mind are developed in a specific manner, encouraging one to be trained to be tactical workers or strategic leaders, there is no strict boundary that limits one to only tactics or strategy. A combination of brain plasticity and cognitive flexibility will prepare every individual to be equally good at tactics as well as strategy. Such fluency and flexibility is essential for organizations to realize the full potential of its human resources.

Posted by Dr CB Rao on December 8, 2013              

1 comment:

Unknown said...

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