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Leadership

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.

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