Strategic vs Tactical Change Management


| Published: November 2018

Recently I attended a Change Management Institute (CMI) event in Toronto. It was a packed house with people eager to dig into the challenges many of us as change management professionals, change agents, executive sponsors and others face in the increasingly complex world of transformative initiatives and dynamic work environments.

The panel was comprised of an impressive list of experts in the field

  • Carmen Klein, Vice President, Organizational Effectiveness and Systems,  Cadillac Fairview
  • Linda Morgan, Program Manager, Organizational Development, Research and Development Operations, Shopify
  • Ilana Segal, Independent Coach and Senior Change Management Practitioner

The intent of the event was to explore the dimensions of strategic vs tactical change management:

  • What are the differences?
  • What is the language of strategic change management vs tactical change management?
  • Difference between a strategic plan and a tactical plan
  • What does working at each level look like?
  • How do you engage the right people in the right type of work?
  • Can you do one without the other?

The discussion was high energy, passionate, and engaging as we all leaned into the panelists’ insights. From the panelists, there was often alignment but with some interesting differences and they played off each other’s experiences and approaches. It was evident that a heightened level of sensitivity to the challenges people, their organization and its culture face cannot be dismissed at either the strategic or tactical levels.

There was an hour-long discussion and then questions from the audience that seemed to pass in the blink of an eye. While it is difficult to capture every nuance, lesson or the depth of conversation, I’d like to share some key takeaways.

  1. There is a continuous need to educate executives and sponsors on the differences between and the need for both strategic and tactical change management approaches.
  2. The language is very different with a strong need to be connected. Strategic language is ambiguous, broad, unclear in its path forward, iterative, and organic. Tactical language is about process, adoption, linear, clarity, direction, and progress.
  3. The north star of strategy has a critical role to maintaining alignment on tactical work. This means a need for understanding culture, its impact, and the critical need of leadership alignment and ‘plain speak’ behaviour.
  4. There are different toolkits required and they are often not just used by change management people. This requires an ability to continually develop, layer in new form experience, and establish fundamental practices that can be standardized. How toolkits are used will depend on whether it is for strategic or tactical application. The key is maintaining a level of consistency for certainty in an uncertain world.
  5. Change management is an art and science – making sure we honour both head and heart elements. And how strategic versus tactical approaches collide with this tenet. This part of the discussion resulted some interesting discussion on agile; which, like change, has no one solution. In any organization there is always a need for structure and agile – it just depends on where you have come from, where you are trying to go, and what is the level of maturity, need, and capacity.

Before I knew it, the session was wrapping up. Many of us lingered to talk directly with the panelists, other change managers, and to bathe in the glow of being with others who are sharing similar experiences.

I look forward to continued conversations through the CMI chapter as this profession and field continues to evolve and grow. For more information on CMI go to their website at