Strategy and Tactics are not synonmous

Over the weekend I had 2 encounters with Dwight D Eisenhower. One was a quote at a SCORE workshop “Plans are worthless but planning is everything.” The second was a post written by one of the Dudes, Chip Lutz. Here is a link to his post.

Those encounters reminded me of my first project management class at Hewitt Associates a few years or so ago. In that class the WWII vet who taught us project management used General George Patton (tactician) and General Omar Bradley (strategist) to teach us the importance of strategy and tactics. I remember watching the movie Patton and thinking boy did the movie makers ever miss that point. The teacher’s point was that Gen. Patton was able to make his troops do super human things, while Gen. Bradley was able to see a vision of victory and translate that vision into something everyone could understand.

Since I wanted to write about what a profound piece of learning that was for me, I did a search on definitions to get my juices flowing and I found that in the current dictionary strategy and tactics are synonyms. I thought wow, that project management instructor would have a hard time accepting the words as synonyms. So what did I learn that made strategy so unique from tactics.

Let’s start by defining what each word means. According to Strategy is a plan of action or policy designed to achieve a major or overall aim. Tactics are an action or strategy carefully planned to achieve a specific end. I was taught something completely different for the definition of tactics. Tactics are the actions needed to achieve a shared goal. In those definitions tactics can exist without strategy and strategy can exist without tactics. Let’s discuss why that is an important distinction by using examples of what it looks like when one or the other is missing.

First off strategy without tactics is like saying we will go on family vacation to Europe. Without the tactics to implement that strategy we will get no where. Next tactics with no strategy is like saying we will use my airline miles to get airfare and a hotel for our vacation. We now have a way to get somewhere but no plan on where to go. So the next thing one might ask is why do these things need to be separate. Why wouldn’t I just say let’s take a family vacation to Europe and use the airline miles to get airfare and hotel. The reason would be the initial quote by Eisenhower, “Plans are worthless but planning is everything.” This was based on the fact that in battle once the first bullet was in the air the plan was most likely going to need to be changed. That is where having a skilled tactician (doer) becomes very valuable. When that tactician can draw on the skills of an excellent strategist (thinker) that is when massive efforts can be accomplished.

So this is all very interesting but how does it relate to IT, especially in a small to mid-sized business. First of all there are very few people in any walk of life who are great at both strategy and tactics. This is also very true with IT professionals. People who can set up your phone network, install the wireless in your new facility, set up the computer for new people, manage the applications you need, build out a 5 year plan for IT spending, build out an IT organization that maximizes business value, build out an IT succession plan and manage the other 3 IT people in the department are very rare indeed.

The problem here is the “largification” of IT staff. Large organizations understand the concept of having strategists and tacticians and they build them in separate silos. People are chosen based on their skills to move towards these different parts of the organization. In a small to mid-sized business that luxury does not exist. So those businesses end up settling for a person with too much strategy that won’t get the daily work done or a person who gets the daily work done but spends no time on strategy.

This is the sweet spot of a Virtual IT Executive. Since a Virtual IT executive is not a full time employee. A strategist can be hired on a need basis and tacticians can be hired as well. A good Virtual IT Executive will look into the pool of tacticians and build out a strategist that can then become a leader once the business becomes large enough to support a full time IT Executive.

About the author:

Greg Stellflue is a remarkable Information Technology leader with rich experience in multiple IT disciplines.


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