When it comes to strategic vs. tactical planning, it’s easy to fall into either/or thinking – that is, either strategic thinking is better, or tactical thinking is better. This is especially true when you realize which type of thinker you are. We tend to believe that our type of thinking must be superior. But regardless of whether you are a strategic or a tactical thinker, you must come to realize that both types are critical to success; and you must learn to appreciate your business partner and/or your employees’ way of thinking and value the contribution they can make towards accomplishing your goals.
So when I use the term strategic vs. tactical thinking, it’s not to imply that they are at odds with one another; rather it’s to contrast the difference between the two, so you can begin to distinguish and appreciate those differences. It’s also critical to recognize when you are not applying both types of thinking to the situation.
Difficulties arise when one or the other, rather than both, is used to tackle a problem. Strategic thinkers tend to analyze the situation but often fail to take action. “Paralysis by analysis” is their downfall. Tactical thinkers are all about “doing something,” but they often don’t think before springing into action; so oftentimes, their action is ineffective, and perhaps unnecessary. If only they’d taken the time to step back and analyze the situation beforehand.
Think of strategic and tactical thinking like the strings of a violin. In order for the instrument to create beautiful music, each string must have tension applied to both ends. If tension is released from either side, then the music it was intended to create cannot be produced.
The apparent tension between strategic and tactical thinking is seen in the statement, “Doing Things Right vs. Doing the Right Things.” Tactical thinkers tend to focus on “doing things right,” and strategic thinkers are concerned with “doing the right things.” But let’s consider that statement for just a moment. If you do something “right,” but it’s the wrong thing to do, your efforts will be futile. Conversely, if you do the “right thing,” but you do it wrong, you’ll also fail miserably.
Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before the defeat – Sun Tzu
Let me give you a couple of examples.
Doing the Right Thing, but Doing it Wrong
When my partners and I began our web development business, one of the “things” we did to find clients was cold calling. Today, I run a telemarketing department, so I know something about it, but eight years ago, I was completely ignorant on the topic. Without a script or much of plan, we opened the phone book and started calling.
As you can imagine, we were less than successful. We landed two very small jobs (one of which we ended up refunding the money), so we decided that cold calling wasn’t the way to find clients in our market. It wasn’t until a few years later that I met some colleagues who were having great success with cold calling. One even told me that it was the primary way he gained new business. Our failure caused us to conclude that we were “doing the wrong thing,” when in reality, we were “doing the thing wrong.”
Doing the Wrong Thing, but Doing it Right
A few years later, I met a business woman whose product was coffee gift baskets. Previous to this, she’d been a freelance computer programmer and IT consultant. Now, the primary way that such a person gets business is through networking: belonging to groups such as chamber of commerce, establishing relationships with people that could become clients or who know others who could become clients. Much of this type of work is gained by “word of mouth.” Jackie knew this and was good at it. And since that was all she knew, she was using it for her coffee gift basket business.
The problem was that, unlike computer programming, where she only needed maybe one or two new clients every few months to make a living, Jackie needed to sell several dozen baskets each week to make a profit. What Jackie needed was a website and a retail outlet to expose her product to the public. Networking meetings were getting her one or two sales, at best, a month. If Jackie had been a different type of person, she might have concluded that she was “doing the thing wrong” and tried harder – more networking meetings, talk to more people, and so on. Fortunately, she realized that, although she was “doing the thing right,” it was “the wrong thing” to do for her new business.
So let’s get away from either/or thinking, and engage in both/and thinking: both strategic thinking and tactical thinking are critical for success.