Think less about strategy and more about tactics
I wrote recently about The strategy of saying no. In that post I suggested there were a number of reasons why strategic execution so often fails, including a lack of clarity and a lack of well defined incentives. But here, I want to explore another reason for poor execution.
We spend too much time thinking about strategy and not enough thinking about tactics.
We should contrast the two terms. Both are military in traditional use. Strategy comes from the Greek strategos, a general of the army. Tactics also derives from Greek; taktikos means something like suitable for ordering or arranging. Think of the arrangement of an army on the field.
Very contemporary military usage can give us good - or bad - examples. In the current tragic, unforgivable war in Ukraine, we may talk about the Russian strategy if we can make sense of it: to subdue Ukraine, seize territory, and establish a new Russian dominion. In contrast we can see how disastrous their tactics have been.
Crossing a gap, and a chasm
Military leaders study strategy, but military units practice the tactics that will enable them to deliver their generals’ strategic goals. Over countless years of human cruelty and conflict many of these tactics are well understood and defined.
One problem which frequently arises is crossing a gap, such as a river. Indeed the US army has a handbook for just this circumstance. And, as I suggested, it’s a historically well-understood problem. The Russian army failed this tactical challenge.
So what has this to do with business strategy? Clearly, no matter what your strategy, if you cannot execute tactically you cannot succeed.
In Geoffrey Moore’s influential book, Crossing the Chasm he describes a strategy of marketing to increasingly larger groups of customers, building on previous results. The chasm is the difficult gap between visionary early adopters and the pragmatic early majority customers who will prove critical to mainstream success.
To build your marketing program in this way is a strategy. Choosing your pricing, your messaging, your channels and so on, are tactics which enable the strategy.
Just as with the military, many of these tactics will be understood from experience. You could use them to execute a well-known strategy like Moore’s. But they could support a unique strategy, which nevertheless involved well-known tactics deployed in new combinations.
It’s important that your tactics really do support your strategy. In my earlier post I said that incentives are often not aligned well with strategic goals.
For example, a software vendor may have a strategy of selling to large enterprise customers, perhaps those with over 1 billion USD in revenue. it’s common to see vendors then reporting (and rewarding) average deal size as a marker of progress against this goal.
Smart sales team frequently discover that they can move the average by focussing on one or two huge deals which outweighs all their other sales. They may even hire in enterprise sales specialists who have practiced the appropriate tactics. Overall they may hit their average goal. But in these circumstances the vendor now has to support two radically different markets. One the one hand, enterprise customers who demand the best of support, the highest performance, the strongest security, the maximum scale. One or two of these enterprises customers can overwhelm the vendor, with support and product requests. Medium or commercial scale customers who in turn may be loudly dissatisfied if they don’t get what they want.
Measuring and reporting the median deal size would be better. However, even though the strategic goal - increasing enterprise sales - would be the same, the tactics could be very different.
Again, this contrast between strategy and tactics is what I call a Creative Difference. You don’t need to agree with my definitions, but reflecting on the distinctions and what they mean in your work can be very valuable.
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