Strategy is pivotal, but tactics are where the rubber meets the road. Utilize this simple structure to transition between the two
A recurring theme in this space is the interplay of strategy and tactics within a business context. Leap-frogging over the platitude that “one man’s strategy is another man’s tactics” let’s agree that success in business demands effective execution of both modes of operation. As Sun Tzu tells us, “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat”
“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat”
But how to bridge the gap?
I’m a born tactician, so the hands-on, git-r-done part of the process comes naturally to me. Strategic thought is more of a challenge, but professional adventures of late are helping me to build up those muscles, as well. The most important facts I’ve learned about strategy are that it represents its own unique mode of thought, and it is delicate. Like blowing bubbles of soap or glass, strategic thought must be approached gently, with a high degree of sensitivity. Weak and noisy input signals must be discerned, understood, and rationalized into the model. Opposing viewpoints must be embraced in search of the common truths that lie beneath. Unpopular realities must be admitted and addressed. In all but the smallest enterprises, strategy is a collaborative process. Mandates of a single senior leader aren’t strategy — they’re commands. And they are limited to the insight of the person barking the orders. Real strategy requires the interplay of observations, agendas, and opinions that lead to truly creative inspiration.
Climbing down the ladder
As discussed above, strategic thought is by its very nature a rarefied activity. Few have the blend of intellect, sensitivity, and gravitas to do this really well. Yet even among the population of those who do, too many feel that their work is done at that point. But strategic thought on its own is nothing more than educated make-believe. Strategy only creates value when it is applied at the ground level, as tactical action.
Strategic thought on its own is nothing more than educated make believe. Strategy only creates value when it is applied at the ground level, as tactical action
Laddering-down from strategy to tactics is a straightforward process. Like so much in life, it isn’t difficult, just a hell of a lot of hard work. Let’s climb down from the clouds together, examining each rung of our metaphorical ladder along the way.
Rung 8: Syntax and Concepts
On some level, your strategy shakes-out to a list of shared concepts. The top rung of the ladder, as you dismount the puffy clouds of strategic thought, consists of clearly defining the nomenclature and meaning around these concepts. We’re not taking action yet, we’re defining the geography of the battlefield.
Beware the traps of contextual framework in this activity! Your context may be different from mine, thus concepts that you consider tacit knowledge may be brand new to me. The more energy you can pour into clearly and completely defining these concepts — preferably in provocative and illustrative ways — the better your chances of keeping the intellectual herd in a tight formation for the journey ahead.
Rung 7: Prioritized Components
As your conceptual list comes together, it must be organized in two ways, simultaneously: subject architecture and business priority.
Subject Architecture describes the logical ways in which the concepts are organized based on the intra-dependencies of the group. “A, B, and C fit together over here, while P, Q, and R are kind of the same and belong over there.” If your enterprise utilizes descriptive taxonomy, you’re already familiar with the power of subject architecture.
Business Priority represents a completely different way to think about the components of your strategy. Based on business opportunities, constraints, or risks, some items will invariably be more important than others regardless of the underlying subject architecture. For example, data security may be grouped with the other functions of governance from a subject perspective but might be at the top of the list in terms of prioritization.
Generally speaking, because of the way that the human brain is wired, our concepts originate and evolve within the realm of subject architecture. That being the case, business prioritization becomes a necessary second step. Having the ability to toggle between these two views of the same conceptual portfolio provides a powerful framework for driving down from strategic thought to tactical action.
If this all sounds like making lists in Excel to be sorted according to a few different criteria, you’re on the right track.
Rung 6: Current State, Viable Assets, and Liabilities
Once the conceptual building blocks of the strategy have been named, defined, organized, and prioritized, its time to have some difficult conversations about our current location within this landscape.
Are we already near the top of the mountain, or thrashing through the jungle at its base? Do stakeholders from different parts of the enterprise [organizationally, geographically, etc.] agree about the current state, or are impressions highly localized? This is a place where that deference and mutual respect that played such a pivotal role up in the clouds during strategic thought adds value yet again. If these conversations devolve into bickering between those with differing viewpoints, or a single viewpoint crushing all dissent, the learning screeches to a halt.
No doubt there is a place in business for strong, forceful leadership, but this exploratory exercise ain’t it. Slaughter the sacred cows and come to a singular, shared understanding about where your company currently lives on the conceptual map. If the strategic plane of your enterprise is peopled by excessively strong personalities, it may be worthwhile to bring in an impartial facilitator just to keep this highly charged dialogue moving apace.
No doubt there is a place in business for strong, forceful leadership, but this exploratory exercise ain’t it
This thought process will invariably include discussion about the assets that the team can bring to bear against each of the components of the strategy, as well as associated liabilities. Often, these are two sides of the same coin. “We have dominant market footprint, but struggle to innovate.” “Our academic relationships generate a strong talent pipeline, but our small-market geographic location leads to brain-drain just a few years down the road.” “Our sales organization is highly optimized, but we struggle to execute upon what has been promised.” Record all of this to be referenced by activities down-ladder.
One more note on current state: This is familiar territory to most of us, because we work here every day. Facilitate diligently during the strategic thought phase to unchain imaginations from the current reality. It’s hard, I know, but if you can’t imagine beyond your current limitations your thinking will never attain the breakout velocity necessary to become truly strategic. Hey, strategic thought is a muscle like any other. To make it strong, you’ve gotta work it hard and keep it limber.
Rung 5: Aspirational Target State
If you’ve applied intensive diligence up to this point, the dialogue has been all about the landscape and our current place in it. Rung 5 is where you finally get the opportunity to drive some aspirational stakes in the ground about your own goals. “We know what we are, but what shall we become?…” As addressed above, try not to let your goals be too limited by current reality. BE BOLD, but try not to waste anyone’s time. If you’re coming out of the eCommerce space you’re probably not going to start building rocketships. [Elon Musk raises an eyebrow and presses the button labeled, LAUNCH”]. Hmmm, then again…
At rung 5, the laddering process stops being so linear. Aspirational targets sometimes lead to a reconsideration of the assets and liabilities on rung 6, perhaps even a recasting of priorities on rung 7 and adjusted organization of the underlying subject architecture on rung 8. Some amount of climbing up and down is perfectly natural as the team gains confidence with the subject matter and architecture of the thought process. Acceptance of this refactoring should help to open-up the creativity and enthusiasm around aspirational target states. As a mentor of mine likes to say, “You gotta look forward to move forward”. Shoot for the stars on this rung — you can always refactor if the path to get there turns out to be too steep for the organization to scale.
“You gotta look forward to move forward”
Rung 4: Define the Gap
It is on rung 4 that things begin to get tactical. Okay, so you are position C today, and you aspire to be at position L. How much of a leap does that 9-space distance represent? What is the nature of the journey? What is the feasibility of such a leap based on your current state and track record? How much investment might be required, and what would be the implications of that allocation on the rest of the organization?
As action-oriented humans, there can be a real temptation to skip this step and drive right to actions. Resist that temptation. There is value in clearly defining the gap beyond simply the act of crossing it. We’ll get to the action soon enough. For now, invest a few cycles to create shared understanding around the distance and nature of the journey, itself.
Rung 3: Action Plan
Getting pretty close to ground level now — you can see the grass below more clearly than those clouds above from whence you came. And good thing, too, because the team is raring to go. On this rung, for each conceptual area, define the next best action to propel the enterprise across the gap. Those diligent project managers among us may be drawn to map-out all of the tasks necessary to complete the journey between current and aspirational states. That’s okay, but don’t spend more than a few minutes on this exercise.
The focus isn’t on the designing the bridge, but on beginning the crossing. If, on the other hand, you feel yourself becoming paralyzed by a lack of insight about exactly what steps are necessary to make the crossing, don’t sweat it. As humans, our brains are optimized to learn as we go. Just focus on the next best action, imagine a few potential paths beyond that move, and get busy.
“The way we get started is to stop talking and start doing”
Those more project managemently minded resources can go-deep on mechanisms to organize, orchestrate, and track progress on all these separate and inter-dependent paths of work.
Rung 2: Rallying the Troops
Look at the work you have completed to date: strategic thought, kneaded and pounded to a hard tactical set of best next steps to begin moving the right direction. That’s a huge accomplishment! Now its time to share.
The optimal group size for this laddering exercise is between three and 12, and typically takes the form of a leader and a set of departmental heads. But the hard work of execution will have to occur across the enterprise, with inputs and actions from resources up and down the chain of command. All of these resources will be more highly motivated in their individual contributions, as well as better equipped to add additional optimizations along the way, if they understand the big picture. It bears reminding that all human brains displace almost exactly the same mass, and the gap between the most elite performers and the average Joe is — while often astoundingly impressive to watch — usually just a handful of degrees. Do not underestimate the value that individual contributors can add to your strategic campaign during execution. We’re all knowledge workers, and hunger to engage intellectually with our efforts.
Clear, concise communications about the motivations, approach, timeframes, and targets of the strategic campaign help to maximize the value brought by all the human assets in the enterprise.
Rung 1: Block & Tackle to Maintain Focus
Last rung, and the ground is right there. So easy to step off into the soft, dewy grass… But you’re going nowhere, mister. The final rung on the ladder from strategy to tactics is critical, and you’re going to be hanging there for a while.
At the moment the new strategy is rolled out, it’s the shiniest object in the enterprise. Everybody wants in, we’re all high-fiving in the hallways, and the path ahead is clear. Enter entropy. Within days, the universe will conspire to drag attentions off in unrelated directions. Production issues, customer requests, new technologies, revenue opportunities… If left unchecked, resource bandwidth will be quietly siphoned away to these other activities, leaving your strategic campaign parched of the energy and focus it requires to be successful. The most nefarious offender is simple boredom. Humans are excited by novelty, and once that wears-off its easy to be diverted by new and interesting inputs. Like raccoons, we are busy hands with short attention spans.
The twelve or fourteen inches of altitude provided by the perch of rung 1 should provide visibility across the enterprise, in order to effectively police against entropy’s impact on your strategic campaign. The comms defined up on rung 2 aren’t a one-shot deal, but instead, become critical reinforcement to help keep resource attention focused on the tasks required to cross the chasm.
Ultimately, rung 1 shakes-out to the CEO, in many ways across the necessary duration, saying, “These are the things that matter to me. If at any point you find yourself working on something without a direct vector to one of these specifically defined strategic components, please stop immediately and come to me to be re-tasked.” Without diligent policing, backed by senior-level authority and hire/fire implications, this strategic campaign will become just another ‘flash in the pan’ corporate crusade doomed to be subsumed by the endless firefighting of daily operations. Let’s be better than that this time around.
“These are the things that matter to me. If at any point you find yourself working on something without a direct vector to one of these specifically defined strategic components, please stop immediately and come to me to be re-tasked.”
I’m not poking strategic thought in the eye with this piece, just trying to put it into context. Doing strategic thought well is difficult, but it only represents the first step in a process intended to result in tactical action. After the deep thinking is complete, it’s time to climb down from the clouds on a ladder that — one rung at a time — converts those concepts into actionable steps to carry the enterprise forward at the ground level. Strategy without execution is an interesting intellectual exercise, but never earned anybody a dime of revenue.
Special thanks to Lisa Wentworth [ https://www.linkedin.com/in/lisawentworth/ ] and Rahman Auhasan [ https://www.linkedin.com/in/rahmanabuhasan/ ] for helping me to work through and concretize these concepts. You guys’re rockstars.