Strategy vs. tactics

One-way raccoon valve

Strategy generates better, cheaper, more permanent solutions. But it does require thinking a bit . . .

I had a problem. There were raccoons in my ceiling. Next to my basement there is an unheated, unfinished space with a dirt floor. They burrowed into this space, squeezed into the ceiling above it, and then migrated into the ceiling above my wife’s basement workspace. We could hear the little housebreakers scrabbling around up there; it was infuriating.

I’d seen them at night sometimes in that dirt-floor space, but there’s no way I was going to go after them, and I really don’t want to hurt them — I just wanted them to leave.

I started to think about solutions. The direct approach would have required me to tear down the ceilings in both spaces and try to trap (and likely kill) and dispose of them . . . or to lure them into a trap with food and get rid of them. And the law says you’re not allowed to just trap them and leave them somewhere else; once you’ve trapped them, you need to kill them. It sounded nasty and unpleasant and expensive.

My wife, who is smarter than I am, called an outfit called “Critter Control.”

They explained that raccoons will always go out at night for food. So they have devised a simple solution.

They dug a small trench around the dirt-floor space and installed a tough wire screen that prevents animals from going in or out. But they don’t screen the whole space. They leave an opening and install what is, basically, a one-way critter valve. Raccoons can leave, but they can’t return.

Faced with no way back in, the raccoons leave and go somewhere else. And you don’t need to tear up your house or trap or kill anything. The problem just goes elsewhere. After that, the Critter Control folks seal up the opening and send you a bill.

I was quite happy to pay them for this.

What is strategy?

When I joined Forrester Research, I learned that we were supposed to give strategy advice. I was told to think of advice that was “strategic.” I tried not to let on that I had no idea what “strategic” was supposed to mean. (Do you? Right now, off the top of your head, could you define it?)

Eventually, I figured out what it meant. Tactics are things you do right now to solve a problem you have right now (for example, running a marketing campaign or fixing a bug). Strategy meant figuring out what was likely to happen in the future and taking action now to prepare for that future. A strategic action is one that anticipates your own and others’ actions and their consequences — and the movement of whole markets — and best positions you for that future.

At my house, my initial plan to tear up the ceiling was tactical. Critter Control’s plan with the screen and the one-way raccoon valve was strategic. They knew the raccoons would leave, so they took action now that would take advantage of that and position me for the future — with a raccoon-proof house.

Tactical thinking is common and rampant. People see a problem, so they attack the problem. Often, this is the best plan, but sometimes, like my plan to tear up the ceiling, it’s expensive, disruptive, not very effective, and impermanent.

Instead, take a moment to ask, “What is going on here? What will my adversaries and competitors and and customers be doing? Is the future going to be different from the present? And how can I take advantage of that?”

People who think strategically appear, in retrospect, to be smart. How did Amazon know that cloud services was going to be a great business? How did Netflix know that the future was streams and not sending CDs in the mail? Their leaders must have been brilliant!

Well, yeah. But the first step is just to stop and try to think strategically. I don’t think Critter Control is brilliant. But they certainly do know how raccoons behave, so they created a plan that gets you to the desired solution — not quite as quickly, but more permanently.

So before you start tearing up whatever the analog of the ceiling is in your next problem, stop a minute and think strategically. What’s your real goal? What can you do to position yourself to accomplish that? And will that solve your problem more effectively and more permanently?

Let me know how it worked out.

4 responses to “Strategy vs. tactics

  1. My go to strategy is don’t do it yourself. Call somebody with specialist tactical expertise.

    Here’s a quote from strategicacience.org that addresses the difference nicely:

    “Strategy: a high level plan to achieve one or more goals under conditions of uncertainty. (one could debate that strategy not just a synonym for plan, we’ll save that for another time).

    A tactic is a conceptual action implemented as one or more specific tasks (fair enough).

    So formally speaking the text book definitions from military science and business books goes like this, a strategy is a plan that is executed via a variety of tactics. The military goes on to say that grand tactics are large scale tactics, and grand strategy is the political strategy that provides overall direction to military strategy.”

  2. I do internal communications for a living, usually in complex organizations. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen issues where one group within the larger organization needs to improve communications, and in response, Corporate Communications offers the tactical solution of “a newsletter.” In the last organizations I worked in — a health system — the nurses wanted better communications, so they gave the nurses a newsletter. And then the HR department wanted to communicate with managers, so they gave HR a manager newsletter. And then the Periop (surgery) department wanted better communications, so they gave Periop a newsletter. And on, and on. The strategic solution would have been to devise a platform where all the communicators could upload content, and where all the readers could come to get content — not creating silos, but creating community.

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