Are you Tactically Strategic or Strategically Tactical?

After spending countless hours (maybe it even adds up to years now) in business meeting that talk about being strategic and being tactical and interchanging those terms and correlating them it seems that for many they have lost their true meaning and purpose. And then last night I was in a meeting that pointed out the true difference in these terms as never before. In the meeting was Director of Manufacturing, a Director of Supply Chain, a Sales Marketing Director and, interestingly enough, a rather recently retired military commander with a lot of practical and field experience who also happens to be a Six Sigma Black Belt. All of these folks have had and continue to have stellar careers and are well respected and recognized in their field. It was great to be able to get them all in one room for a planning meeting.

As we progressed through the planning for what we needed to accomplish something became very clear. Some of us were focused on Strategy and some of us were drawn to being more tactical. As the meeting progressed a pattern emerged that was quite remarkable. We’d lean towards strategy as we planned, but in each phase we’d give in to tactics. This seems fairly obvious and actually quite unremarkable as I write this, but sometimes the simplest most obvious view of something is what we overlook more than anything else. At the start of the meeting our most tactical team member was somewhat frustrated by the fact that his ideas were not taking, were getting no traction or approval, but eventually, as we got into our groove (it took a couple hours to get into that groove) we’d move from phase to phase and turn to him for leadership through the each phase. So here is what was really happening, or perhaps I should say here is what it comes down to.

- Tactics get you out of the situation you are in. You need to be tactical to move forward.

- Strategy is how you either deliberately get into or avoid the situation in the first place, the plan to move from one place to another.

So when a plan is being established (i.e. we need to build these and move them to market) each phase of that plan will need some tactical planning (we need to increase headcount by 12% to meet the demands of the customer demand for the product). Totally not rocket science. What are we gonna do? = strategy, how are we gonna do it? = tactics. As our former military commander repeated throughout the meeting, “too easy”.

But we often fail to see it that way. Many organizations these days want everyone to be strategic in their thinking. Tactical thinking is not so much the focus lately because it is often viewed as reactive rather than pro-active. Anyone in any business can tell you that success rests more on your ability to be reactive than pro-active, such is the nature of the universe. There is more chaos than order; you will always have to be reactive to something no matter how pro-active you are.

Example; even with many lows preventing such behavior there may come a time when a person snaps and goes on a rampage and hurts people or takes hostages. How to the police react to this? They call out the SWAT team. That’s Special Weapons and Tactics. There is a TV show on these days called Flashpoint all about a team like this. They are called in because when it comes to reacting to that sort of situation, they are the best, they are the epitome of tactical thinking. That’s the “getting out of the situation you are in”. In this example, despite all the strategy to prevent the situation (parents, teachers, laws, mental health professionals), the situation still happens from time to time. We need those tactical guys. And after those guys have handled the situation what do we do more than anything else? We try to see where the strategy went wrong. Why did we not catch it before it happened? Why? Because all the strategy in the world can’t prevent the need for tactical thinking. Bottom line: You need tactical people. They may not appear to do much more than waiting around for something to go wrong, but when it does they are the ones who hit the ground running like no one else can.

I recently discovered Wikipedia’s younger sibling Wiktionary. When looking up the two terms Strategy and Tactics I discovered that you can find strategy in the definition for tactics, but tactics does not appear in the definition for strategy. Furthering the point that they are closely related but not interchangeable.

My advice? Help the people in your organizations or teams or among your clients or peers understand the difference between strategy and tactics and drive them to identify where their best thinking lies. Are they more strategic or tactical? Are they both? Which do they enjoy more? You will always need experts in both areas to be successful. Learn to utilize those strengths and then apply them to plan and execute more effectively.

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