Richard Hart

Head of Something @ Somewhere
Kent, UK

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If Everyone is Thinking Strategically, Why Are We Only Doing Tactical Work?

I was once asked why everything our team was asked to do seemed so focused on delivering short-term results. Weren’t any senior leaders interested in work that would help achieve long-term objectives? Why was everything we did tactical and not strategic? The question made me pause to think.

Being a middle manager meant I floated between senior leadership and those building things. Everything that I witnessed and heard from senior leaders showed they were thinking strategically, so why did there seem to be a disconnect, which meant work always seemed to be tactical?

A few factors create that disconnect. Having a bad strategy, or even no strategy, because problems have not been thought through. A good strategy gives you focus, which means you’re not constantly reacting to outside factors. Then, there is not having an understanding of how work aligns with the bigger picture.

Bad/No Strategy

The book “Good Strategy/Bad Strategy” defines a good strategy as containing a diagnosis, a guiding policy and a set of coherent actions. Essentially, what’s the problem, a method to tackling it, and the steps we’re going to take. How many strategies have been vague platitudes such as “Make more money”, “Get more customers”, or “Build innovative features”?

Without a strategy to guide the way, any work will feel tactical because it doesn’t align with long-term goals.

Shallow Thinking

When there is a lack of in-depth thinking about the work that needs to be done, we end up looking directly at our feet, only thinking about the next step ahead of us, regardless of whether it takes us in the right direction or not.

More than anything, what that ideal state looks like needs to be thought through. The mistake is thinking the ideal state should be the ultimate end goal, rather than the first step in an evolution to get there. This is how organisations end up cargo culting behaviours from bigger and more successful ones, thinking it’ll bring them the same success. This is how an MVP ends up being filled with all the same features that bigger and more successful products have, even though it probably took them years to iterate to that.

Without a clear idea of that next ideal state, how can we build the next step towards it without just shooting in the dark?

Always Reacting

Who doesn’t like shiny new things? Whether that’s new technology or new opportunities. The world is filled with so many distractions that finding the time to work on what’s important will get squeezed out. How many organisations have abandoned their long-term plans to jump on the AI bandwagon? Being in constant reactiveness almost feels like the definition of only doing tactical work. I hope you’re ready for an AI-powered toaster.

The Lost Why

In the parable of the blind men and the elephant, a group of blind men who have never come across an elephant try to imagine what it is truly like by feeling a single part of it. They then describe the elephant based on their limited experience, and their descriptions of the elephant differ.

Teams may only know the part they have been tasked with, lacking the context of the “bigger picture” into which it fits, especially when a team isn’t building a full end-to-end solution. The work may only be a piece in a much larger puzzle, making it feel tactical.

Explaining why a piece of work is important and how it fits into a longer-term strategy may go a long way to remedying that. And that may be down to managers not bridging the gap between the work and the long term vision, but ultimately if the strategy is sound and has been widely shared, then that shouldn’t be an issue.

Beyond the Tactical

A state where senior leaders think they’re being strategic, and yet everyone else sees their work as being tactical, is a red flag. It is a problem that will only grow as an organisation grows.

For all its faults, that is one thing I like about the OKR framework. The idea is that everything ladders up to a small number of outcomes. Being able to draw a line from the top down to each team creates huge alignment and permits people to challenge work that doesn’t directly impact an organisation’s goals.

There will always be tactical work. The danger is when that is all there is.