As Chocolate Is To Peanut Butter, Strategy Is To Tactics

Like chocolate and peanut butter, strategy and tactics go better together. Unlike chocolate and peanut butter, having only one might kill your business.

I watched as Brad stared into his cup of coffee, frustrated and a little hurt. His performance review had not gone the way he had hoped it would. In fact, it felt like a disaster.

After four years of working his way up the chain of command in the purchasing department at a mid-level office supply company, he felt sure he’d be promoted to the next level of management. His numbers were good, his small team had no complaints, and he knew he performed his responsibilities effectively.

But today, when he was ready to tell his girlfriend that they could trade up to a nicer apartment on Boston's Beacon Hill, he had been blindsided by his boss's refusal to consider promotion.

The reason? His boss said that judging by his team’s performance, Brad lacked the skills for the next level.

In spite of his management efforts--ranging from an open door policy to remembering a cake on everyone's birthdays--Brad's team was mired in minor bureaucracies and completely adequate production.

To look at them on paper, they seemed well-qualified; plus they bought into the company mission. But in an industry where online competitors and big box stores chip away at already low profit margins, they just weren't keeping up.

The problem? A failure to link the chocolate of strategy to the peanut butter of tactics.

Thinking strategically is the development of an overarching plan, the big picture vision: what is the goal, why is it a goal, and what's the plan of attack for implementing the goal? Sweet or bold, strategy can be as elaborate as formulating a vision for competitive differentiation or as basic as getting the company website up and running.

Acting tactically is the identification and implementation of the specific, measurable, individual steps you take to move toward the accomplishment of the overarching plan or goal. Tactics can be anything from completing a market analysis to finalizing a logo.

Like a , the proper balance of thinking strategically while acting tactically is vital: it helps team members connect and improve their day-to-day activities with the larger goals and vision for the project, department, or company.

You could call it the art of being both a thinker (in developing strategy) and a doer (by acting tactically).

In business days gone by, companies and teams were defined by the separation of these two skill sets: the thinkers sat in leadership positions, while the doers took on support functions. One doing something in the realm of the other was thought odd, if not counterproductive. Consider the traditional ascent to management: you work hard as a doer and eventually move to thinking, and then if you were caught doing you get chastised for not delegating enough to allow for more thinking time.

But the Great Recession called us to do more with less, letting go of the doer/thinker dichotomy and replace it with something else entirely: teams that embody both.

While researching for my book The Finch Effect, I saw this hybrid skillset present in the most adaptive professionals.

Yet most teams are made up of variations of the thinker/doer archetypes. Consider my own world, professional development, where so much money is spent trying to train doers how to think and thinkers how to do.

Brad and his team are such a painfully perfect example. They were excellent doers: they had no issue implementing the tactics needed to fulfill their job responsibilities and thought their efficiency was a mark of excellence. But none of the team members, including Brad, connected their piece of the operating puzzle to the department strategy or company vision. Hence the wholly adequate performance.

Luckily, the balance of strategy and can be learned. Each member of a team can--and should--build their ability to link their activities with larger goals.

What management can do

Team leaders can train their teams in the synergy between strategic thinking and tactical action using these four techniques:

Differentiate between strategy and tactics

Managers often don't differentiate between the two, causing confusion among their constituents. The result? Teams don't realize that their brilliant strategic plan is actually nothing more than a set of tactics unlinked to a larger vision.

You can help your team increase their balance of strategy and tactics by being conscious to not only verbally differentiate between the two but also foster a team dialogue on the difference. Try holding a team meeting to describe the difference as concepts and then discuss specific industry/department examples to make it feel “real.”

Practice comprehensive problem solving

Problem solving is usually reserved for the management--and even then layers within management. Everyone else is left to prove their tactical worth without stretching their strategic thinking muscles. Yet each level of an organization faces challenges where there is an opportunity for managers to ask even the newest intern to consider the problem and think beyond the immediate to the wider implications--even if those solutions aren't seriously considered.

If the nature of your business or industry prevents an all hands on deck approach to simple challenges, try including a case study exercise as part of your team's weekly staff meeting where everyone is asked to discuss on the challenge. Just 10-15 minutes of comprehensive problem solving can train your team to the consider the companywide impact of small problems.

Accelerate the feedback loop

When people start increasing their strategic and tactical balance, they may mis-step by taking too much authority or responsibilities. As a manager, increasing the feedback loop to an immediate response time whenever possible can help team members not only understand when to step up (or down) but also help them understand when it's appropriate to do either.

Here are a few good rules of thumb when providing feedback:

  • When providing constructive feedback, pull the person aside. When taking on strategic authority, people tend to feel outside of their comfort zone and are thus more susceptible to embarrassment.
  • Conversely, provide encouraging feedback in front of others when possible--this will help set the standard for the team.
  • When providing constructive feedback, be sure to explain your insights as comprehensively as possible. Instead of “I need you to stop being so rigid in your opinions,” try “I know you're working to take more leadership here and commit to your vision, but it is hard for the team to work with you when you are too committed to your own vision. Other team members are sharing important considerations that we need to listen to.”

Create strategic team partnerships

Most people tend toward strategy or tactics. To leverage this, partner tactics-strong and strategy-strong team members on projects.

When pairing complementary members of your team, be sure to note each of their strengths and ask each to explain their thought process as they work. This will lead not only to a self-training team, but also to greater support and trust among team members in the quest to increase the tactic/strategy balance.

But back to Brad

I am happy to report that Brad is on his way to rectifying the imbalance of strategy and tactics within his team. He has a long way to go--like any skill, practice, practice, and more practice is required to get the hang of it. He has told me the biggest challenge has been taking the time to implement some of these strategies within their already busy days.

But he is looking forward to the next performance review, hopeful that progress will be apparent and maybe--just maybe--he will be one step closer to that swank apartment.

Nacie Carson is the author of The Finch Effect. Follow her @NacieCarson.

Add New Comment

26 Comments

  • Stewart Farr

    Wow what a lot of information to simply say : "Tactics win the battles, Strategy wins the war"

  • Jim Schwarz

    I agree with Clikit comment that upper management, the leaders of this
    organization, failed in its execution of the strategy, not the doers handling
    the tactics. The article is very good and on point. I will add a few comments
    from my own experience. Many strategies fail because there are too many unclear
    and undefined strategies. This also applies to tactics when there are too many,
    both create too much a burden on the staff performing low priority tasks. Strategies
    should only address the highest priorities, preferable once a year if not more.
    Part of the problem is that the leader does not understand and cannot differentiate
    between strategy and tactics. They think quantity is more important (busy work)
    not quality.  Another problem is when the
    strategy is developed in a vacuum by a few managers not allowing a broader
    range of talent and experiences to participate. Leaders also must seek
    sufficient and timely feedback. The example given seems to indicate that the
    leaders, upper management, either did not engage others in what the strategy
    was or made a one-time announcement to be followed up once a year. Management
    failed in its responsible to execute its strategy.   

  • Nacie Carson

    Hi Jim - good points about the load of strategy/tactics - more is less quite often.  The impression of the company is spot on, and I am afraid that in my observation and experience many larger companies still operate this way, not just Brad's...once a year feedback, especially when people's financial futures are tied to it, is just outdated. 

  • Don Osvog

    We encounter many businesses where the issue is much deeper (and more basic).  It's amazing how many leadership teams haven't clearly articulated where their business is headed (vision and strategy) or how it intends to get "there" (objectives and tactics).  When this is the case, how can management link (or more appropriately, align) strategies and tactics?  Every business is perfectly aligned...to get the results it gets.  Not only is this the reason why there is such poor doer/thinker development, it's the root cause of why so many businesses don't get the results they deserve.

  • Nacie Carson

    Hi Don - I love your use of the word alignment, I think it perfectly captures the relationship.  Very glad you shared!

  • Rick Maurer

    Nacie -

    I agree with others. I found your article thoughtful and offered sound advice. If I might, I'd like to add something: the boss and the culture. 

    While I agree that if a boss provides timely and frequent feedback, this can have a huge impact on performance. But I believe that feedback needs to be two-way. Often performance issues are a result of a culture (or a boss) that rewards the wrong things and punishes the right things. Also, most of us believe we are great communicators. Therefore we just assume that our pronouncements, suggestions, and feedback are all clear and compelling. Not so.

    The boss could add one question to his or her feedback conversations, "How am I contributing to the problem?" And then (here's the hard part) shut up and listen.

    Rick Maurer
    author, the Feedback Toolkit

  • Nacie Carson

    Hi Rick - great piece of advice, and I'll look forward to checking out your book.  I agree with your points completely, but would love to hear your thoughts on how best a direct report can share feedback with a boss in the right way? I would image that many people in this economy are more sensitive to losing their jobs or opportunities, so this might feel a bit daunting without guidance on how to do it.  How would you coach them?

  • Rick Maurer

     

    Nacie - I’d start by offering my thoughts on feedback.
    Behavior in organizations is seldom the work of just one person, therefore
    performance discussions that focus entirely on a single individual miss important
    reasons why this person may have done well or failed. For instance, I have seen
    project leaders fail, in part, because their bosses second-guessed their
    decisions or were late in reviewing work so that the project fell way behind.
    And I have seen people succeed, in part, because people around them – and the
    culture – was set up to help these people succeed. So, if I said that to a
    leader and she showed me the door. That would be the end of it. But if she
    said, “How can I make sure our performance conversations look at the range of
    things that contribute to good and bad work?” Then I would say that feedback
    needs to be based in dialogue. And dialogue rests on curiosity. For instance,
    Jim’s numbers are way off. That is a fact. But why those numbers are way off
    could be a result of a number of things. Only curiosity will allow the boss to get
    a fuller picture. (And, not to worry,  if
    Jim routinely blames others for his mistakes, that pattern will come through
    pretty quickly.) So the boss and Jim could look at the numbers, and then the
    boss could simply ask, “How come?” And if Jim struggled with that question. The
    boss could ask some follow-up questions: “So, Jim, what’s your responsibility
    in those lower numbers?” “What other factors might have contributed to those
    numbers? And we can start with me? Are there things that I did – or didn’t do –
    that contributed to those numbers? How about the team? Etc. etc.”

    Nacie, I agree this is difficult, but I believe these types
    of conversations can help the people in organizations do better work. Thanks
    for asking. - Rick

  • Nina Rayburn

    Your article really hit home personally -- My capstone class just finished creating our strategy for a national advertising campaign and now are in the midst of tactics. It can often be hard as a team (especially with many creative minds) to keep tactics on strategy. Our group has found ourselves creating many brilliant tactics...but they don't align with our strategic goals. In cases like these, it's important to ask yourself: is this tactic really relevant OR is my strategy, in fact, in need of a different focus? Thanks for the tips.

    Nina Rayburn
    Researcher, Mojo Ad
    www.mojo-ad.com

  • Clifkit

    This is a topic that always creates a passionate response from me. As a long time student of strategy, tactics, plan creation, and leadership in general, I beleive corporate America is failing in both teaching and understanding these concepts.

    There is definitely a place for both strategy and tactics in business. Without them, how is a company to compete in their chosen market.? So, strategy and tactics are not limited to the military and war. In fact, one of the most seminal writings on this subject is "Sun Tzu, The Art of War" which is about winning through strategy without physical conflict. Isn't that what business is about?

    Strategy and tactics are key componenst of any plan. Without a plan you can't determine what you need to do (tactics) and how to act on what you need to do (strategy) in order to achieve your goal (plan).

    In the case of Brad's boss, he failed in the most basic element of leadership. A leader's first reponsibility is to serve those he leads. In that light, he was responsible for bringing out the best in Brad by mentoring and teaching him with regards to strategy and tactics. If the first time Bard heard about this expectation regarding strategy and tactics was at a review, it was the leader who failed miserably. 

    The primary charter of anyleader is to equip those he leads, develop the skills they possess, and prepare them for greater responsibility.

  • Nacie Carson

    Hi Clifkit - thanks for commenting, and agree on all counts.  You're right, it was Brad's boss who failed.  But how many of us are or have been in a professional situation where the person above us was wrong or didn't do what they should have done or didn't communicate clearly, but we were still held accountable?  Likely everyone, at one point or another. Sure, that isn't fair or how it should be, but it happens every day.  Brad's boss is a whole different story, but what I love about Brad's transformation is that he is doing what he can to advance the story for himself.  He can't control his boss, but he can control how he responds.  All professionals need to feel that sense of agency, even when the failure is not ours alone to bear.

  • Pasquale

    Thanks for the great article.  It pushes my thinking wonderfully, and possibly in some interesting directions I'll share.  There is a connection I'd like to offer that I feel we miss in business more than we hit. Yes, there is a huge "mastery" or "mastery-path" literature that can be found. But, the vast majority of it seems so removed fromt he nitty-gritty world of our real business lives. More though, there remain, I feel, far too little that cuts to the art of actual practice itself and more deeply yet to the spiritual/philosophical foundations mastery requires.

    Mastery, you ask? For me, the flow from strrategy to tactics and back is absolutely that, a mastery path. And, just as in any art from martial to music to any work skill you might select, the individual performer's journey is - forgive me - absolutely a hero's adventure. I apologize for how grandiose that sounds. But honestly, each performer is truly the hero of his or her own life.

    Thus, when I read about the fine line separating but connecting strategy to tactics it instantly puts me in mind of the person, and his or her life and learning and path.

    Thanks again for the stiumlating read!

  • Nacie Carson

    Hi Pasquale - I don't think it is grandiose at all! The reason I write about these topics is because I believe that our working life and "real life" are one and the same, so all facets are part of our unique "hero's journey."  By growing professionally, we move our whole hero experience forward.  Excellent point!  

  • Alex Muselius

    Thank you for the timely discussion Nacie. The enterprises that I work with cannot afford the luxury of staffing up with Thinkers and with Doers. They can thrive only to the extent that they can work with a significantly reduced head-count of Thinker/Doers. The Thinking (strategic) part Understands the real world as it impacts the enterprise. The Doing (tactical) part exercises Initiative that that gets stuff done that the real world will reward. Thinking without acting and Acting without thinking is probably what lead Einstein to his famous definition of insanity. 

  • Nacie Carson

    Agreed about Einstein!  I like your shaping of the thinking/doing archetypes - it is hard to encompass what they truly mean in an article, but your inclusion of working in the confines of real world obstacles is an excellent addition to the definitions!

  • Michael Bonner

    This is the trigger that even ends many CEO careers. Brilliant strategies are useless without competent, consistent execution across the organization. Thanks so much for writing this! It's a gospel that my company has been preaching for years because we take the strategies and leverage CRM to execute one or more coordinated tactical processes. 
    As you explore the feedback loop, I hope you can follow up to explore how this is a killer point of frustration. Without a means to capture the feedback and make sure the feedback 'takes' it becomes a series of one-offs (sometimes contradictory over time). Remember that you need a means to capture feedback, evaluate the impact and then scale the best feedback across the org. This is how you do more than motivate (this feeds directly to Dan Pink's work on Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose. Once you do that, you can manage the biggest game in the jungle: Culture (Drucker: "Culture eats strategy for breakfast").

  • Nacie Carson

    I love that Drucker article!  I agree with you about documenting the feedback loop. But I do think there is a delicate balance between providing some in the moment, quick feedback and more formal feedback reporting mechanisms.  Both are valuable, and neither replace the other.  What do you think?

  • Johnbobmeister

    And this is why people do not understand Strategy or Tactics today. Neither have anything to do with business. These are purely military concepts with highly specific definitions and purposes - all based on 3,000 years of warfare history. This is not to take away from a business having or devising a good 'plan' using 'methods'. As one of the great strategic theorist has noted, all strategies are plans but not all plans warrant the title of strategy.