Strategy and Tactics: A Mutual Exclusion Fallacy

Going about the work of digital marketing, I frequently hear a common theme from clients and colleagues; “I/we don’t want to be stuck doing tactical work. I/we want to do more strategic stuff”.

Being the “strategic partner” or the “strategy guru” setting direction and vision at 10,000 feet is what everyone seems to define as more important work, while the “in the weeds” business around tactics and execution seems to be considered far less sexy.

There are many things wrong with letting this veneration of “strategy” and false distancing of strategy from “tactics” take over your personal or organizational thinking.

The simple fact is that sound strategy depends on having good information, and information or data gathering is a tactical endeavor. Even more importantly, strategy that provides a unique competitive advantage only comes from having information that your competitors don’t have. Finally, even the best strategy means nothing without capabilities and effective execution. Thus strategy that doesn’t also consider tactics and logistics is useless in practical terms.

The Mythical “Strategy Guru”
What I typically see manifesting as the result of the common notion of “strategic work” is a diminishment of the value of unique data, and the enlargement of the individual interpretive capability. “Strategy” deliverables tend to be, at their best, a synthesis of ideas from commonly available sources; Forrester, eMarketer, the latest NYT best-seller on Mobile, Social, etc. What makes this synthesis “strategic” is the addition of an opinion or interpretation or “future-cast” by the compiler. For three strategies developed from the same data, this approach differentiates the quality of each “strategy” entirely on the intelligence of the author.

This can work if you have a really brilliant and predictive thinker working for you. The first problem with this approach is that in reality, these people are rare (though I do know some). The second problem with this approach for organizations is that even if you have them around, basing your organization’s strategic capability on the “special insights” of one or two brilliant thinkers means risking the loss of your strategic capabilities if they defect (or rather “when they defect” in the Marketing and Advertising field).

However, from its origins in military thinking, “strategy” is not about unique interpretations of common data points (that is more properly considered “insight”, “discovery” or “invention”, and again, it is rare, despite very persistent effort), but is rather a structured approach used to create advantage over adversaries. It is a method that should allow almost anyone to combine data and systematic thinking to create ideas for advantage. (Choosing the right strategy is another problem, best left to Generals with long experience in the field).

Coming Down from the Tower
In standard terms, the strategy development process is predicated on setting clear and achievable objectives. However, in my work though, thinking in terms of “objectives” seems to be seen as “executional” and somehow beneath “strategy”, which is instead perceived (desired) as “blue sky” thinking without constraints. However, in standard terms, strategy is understood as the art/science of achieving positive outcomes in consideration of or in spite of constraints.

From there, the strategy development process involves considering data in the context of those objectives. How are opponents moving? Where do we have the opportunity to move? When is the right time to move? Will we surprise our adversary? What resources should we move at that time? What can we give-up in exchange? Who should have final say about this move? Can this move be explained to everyone who needs to understand it to carry it out? Answering all of these questions requires having data. The more accurate, complete and unique your data, the more effective your answers, and resultantly your strategy.

Bridging the Divide
The idea of strategy as something distinct from tactics or execution must be corrected before truly effective strategy can be delivered. The true strategist will not recommend action based on opinion or subjective interpretation, but will only recommend what they have evidence to support. For that evidence, they will discount data available to all competitors, and will desire as much unique information as they can gather, understanding that the more context and situation specific the data, the better the strategy will be. They will understand objectives before they suggest action. And they will suggest action that realistically considers what is possible.

In summary, if you’re looking for effective strategy, look for a process that has diverse and unique data at its core, that understands resource capabilities and constraints, and that has a feedback loop with what’s happening in tactical execution which can be applied to continuously adjust and optimize further strategic recommendations.

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