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Do Tactics Generate Strategy?

2010/01/07

 

Do  Tactics Generate Strategy? by Tom Bigda-Peyton, Senior Fellow, Center for Adaptive Solutions and President, Action Learning Systems.

A colleague of mine said today that “Tactics will never give you Strategy, but Strategy will give you Tactics.”  This sounds true, but is it right?  Are there situations where the reverse is true- that is, where Tactics give you strategy?  And what difference does it make anyway, or is it just semantics?

Two people can use a term like “strategy,” think they mean the same thing, and talk past each other until they provide each other examples (otherwise known as “observable data”) to react to.  Any clearly defined step-by-step process is the data which enables the two parties to have a more grounded conversation about what constitutes a “strategy” (and what is something else, such as a “process”).  In other sense, this already clarifies (or confuses) the problem of whether Strategy generates tactics, or tactics generate Strategy.

Here’s another way to think about it: suppose we distinguish between “Strategy” and “strategy.”  We might say that Strategy is the formal, explicit statement of the organization’s direction, possibly including a destination statement and key approaches for implementing the Strategy.  George Steiner, a professor of management and one of the founders of The California Management Review, is generally considered a key figure in the origins and development of strategic planning.  He offers the following definitions of Strategy:

  • Strategy is that which top management does that is of great importance to the organization.
  • Strategy refers to basic directional decisions, that is, to purposes and missions.
  • Strategy consists of the important actions necessary to realize these directions.
  • Strategy answers the question: What should the organization be doing?
  • Strategy answers the question: What are the ends we seek and how should we achieve them?

Organizations routinely engage in Strategic Planning; this is usually an exercise involving the Board, the CEO, and the top management team.  The Strategic Plan is cited is the key document in the organization for determining direction, resource allocation, and other significant decisions.  It is supposed to generate tactics, and thus (in my colleague’s formulation) it must come prior to tactics.  Yet in most organizations, the Strategic Plan serves the same function as the Mission and Vision statement: often-cited, rarely used to influence day-to-day practice.

At the front lines of organizations, “small s” strategy is made very day, informally and implicitly, through interactions between customers, clients, outside stakeholders, and the first line of contact.  If I have a customer service problem and feel I have been treated badly, my impression of the company as a whole (and of its Strategy) is indelibly linked to that interaction and I am negatively branded.  If I am a front-line provider in a hospital trying to solve a patient’s problem, I follow my best judgment and instincts without referring to the organization’s stated Strategy.  By doing so, and by making decisions on-the-spot that I believe are in the best interests of my clients and customers, I form the Strategy of the organization in ways that are rarely visible from the executive suite.

Let’s take an example, a well-known case from the field of organizational learning and knowledge translation.  In the early 1990’s, Xerox was exploring what the transition might look like from the leading U.S. “document company” to a leading U.S. company in knowledge transfer and creation.  They formed the Palo Alto Research Center and hired a team of ethnographers to study the work practices of the technicians who repaired broken Xerox machines at customer sites.  The team was especially interested in how policies formed at the Board and executive team level were carried out in day-to-day customer interactions, and on the impact of policy on those interactions.  They found some surprising results:

  • Policies made at the Board and Executive level were often overlooked, ignored, or bypassed.  These policies often had unintended consequences for the front lines which were invisible to senior management.  Technicians responded with workarounds and adaptations that enabled them to do their jobs in spite of counterproductive policies.
  • Technicians learned their craft primarily through on-the-job learning, observing their peers, and finding mentors among more senior technicians.  These methods were far more influential than formal training programs, company procedures, or manuals.
  • The gap between local conditions and corporate circumstances was largely invisible to both the technicians and corporate.  It was taken for granted and only became available for examination and discussion through the work of the researchers.

Does this research suggest that “small s” strategy is equivalent to Tactics?  Let’s examine some definitions:

  •  “Tactics is the military science that deals with achieving the objectives set by strategy.” Joint Publication 1-02 U.S. Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms; 12 April 2001 (As Amended Through 14 April 2006).
  • “Tactics are near term actions taken to solve specific problems or accomplish specific goals. (www.Investorwords.com)”
  • tac·tics: Any methods used to gain an end; esp., skillful methods or procedure.” Webster’s New World College Dictionary Copyright © 2009 by Wiley Publishing, Inc., Cleveland, Ohio.

The first definition, taken from military usage, reflects my colleague’s notion that tactics follow from strategy.  The third definition is generic, involving any methods (especially skillful ones) used to “gain an end;” this usage can apply to both “small s” strategy and “large S” Strategy.  The second occupies a middle ground, focusing on near-term actions and specific goals. 

Given this range of meanings, I suggest that:

  • Tactics (or “small s” strategy) can generate “large S” Strategy, just as “large S” Strategy can generate tactics;
  • An important challenge for today’s organizations is to create linkages and feedback loops between Strategy and tactics, and between tactics and Strategy; and
  • A variety of novel solutions for accomplishing this task have emerged over the last 5-10 years.

In a subsequent post, we will examine these solutions and examine how they might be adapted to your circumstances and conditions.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. David Morf permalink
    2010/01/18 6:38 pm

    Tom, I enjoyed your post. Thank you for it. I’m wondering if the discussion of strategy and tactics might benefit from asking how they respond to whatever individual or institutional context is at hand. For example, does the amount of time for situational analysis affect the degree to which tactics or strategy come first? A related aspect may be the need to internalize any externalities that may be created either immediately or later by the impact of tactics or strategies on the situation at hand. Ultimately, is it possible that strategy and tactics alike are subject to the context, goals, and time scale at play in a scenario, such that the wisdom in looking first at tactics or strategy (and the primacy of either) will flow from the scenario?

  2. Rick Lent, Ph.D permalink
    2010/01/29 4:32 pm

    Tom and David,

    Your comments leave me thinking about the time element in the distinction between strategy and tactics. For example, as a customer service representative in a fast food restaurant, I may have both a strategy and tactics for managing customer satisfaction. My strategy might be to make sure the wait times are kept to a minimum, or at least the customer’s perceptions of wait times. So my tactic is to take the orders and process payment while really moving the customer along from one kind of waiting (ordering) to another. Different fast food establishments handle this differently.

    Ultimately these front line strategy and tactics have to align with the overall customer service strategy, sometimes codified in a “Brand Promise.” If the two are mis-aligned, then perhaps the strategy and tactics of front line employees will (with some delay) impact the overall strategy of the organization as it responds to customer feedback.

    Is this what you meant by tactics driving strategy? In effect it is the loop of cause and effect relationships between goals and actions at different levels?

  3. Jen permalink
    2010/02/18 10:36 am

    I find that the concept of strategy and tactics trip me up on a regular basis. Likewise goals/visions/missions/objectives – are these all strategies? When someone says to me, “you are being too tactical” or ” you are not being strategic enough” (and I don’t make them explain themselves) I interpret this to mean that I need to be more high-level/ less detailed. On the other hand, I have spoken to people who interpret strategic thinking more like applying or building a one-size-fits-most model. Frankly, I avoid using any of these terms because they are so fraught with misconception!

    Anyway, my point is (or my strategy in posting this comment is?) that I enjoyed reading this and found it through Joseph’s link. I am hopeful that there will indeed be a Part 2.

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