Have you been seduced by tactics?

Written by Paul Matthews on 17 October 2013

Tactics are seductive, but to explain this we need to start in a different place - with strategy.

I'm sure you have been encouraged to think strategically. It's happened to me on many occasions through my business career, but I was never really sure what it meant; or even if the person saying it knew what it meant.

It's the sort of thing that many senior people said to me to, dare I say; make themselves sound senior and important. 

Recently I have been hearing about strategy a lot within L&D circles, especially in relation to informal learning. 'We simply must have a strategy for informal learning'.

When I ask them what that means in practice, I often get a reply which references the now familiar 70:20:10 model, and how this thinking will underpin their strategy. If I am feeling particularly devilish, I ask them again what this means and what their strategy is looking like.

Occasionally I get an answer that is purely strategic and on those occasions it is wonderful to have a conversation about L&D strategy with someone who knows what that really means, and how the L&D strategy needs to dovetail with the wider organisational strategy to ensure that the right capability is enabled at the right time and in the right places.

The rest of the time, what typically happens is that I get an answer which is purely tactical. They talk about some specific initiative that has been delivered or is in the pipeline. It is clear that they are using the word strategy and confusing it with tactics.

I have a simple way I use to look at how strategy and tactics fit together into a larger hierarchy - although this may make many a business school professor shudder.

At the highest level there is the organisational vision/mission/purpose. Although these are different things we can lump them together here for this discussion. 

The next level down is the strategy which is concerned with how to achieve the upper level with finite resources. Your strategy is how, in general terms; you intend to shape the future to make it as much like your vision as possible.

The next level down is tactics. These are the actions you plan to do to allow the strategy to come to life. Tactics are what you do to deliver on the strategy, to make it real.

Once you have your tactics sorted out, you can delve into project plans and budgets and detailed timescales. Almost certainly you will find gaps in terms of what is possible with your finite resources, which means you may need to revisit the tactics and try again. If this doesn't work you may need to revisit the strategy, and try again, or even change the vision if it seems impossible to do given your resources. It is an iterative process.

Vision > Strategy > Tactics > Plans > Budgets

As people rise through the ranks they are expected to make a shift from tactical to strategic thinking and this is a shift that many find difficult. Why do people usually find tactics so easy to conceptualise and yet find it difficult to think strategically?

One way to keep your thinking strategic is to focus on longer time horizons. Tactics are always short term things. A strategy 'sees' further into the future. I spoke about this with a senior L&D manager the other day and we bounced around the idea that we are actually hardwired for tactics as a species. The longer time horizons required for strategic thinking are 'unnatural'. When we were hunter gatherers, which is not that long ago in evolutionally terms, we thought tactically about food and shelter, and how to survive from one day to the next. We had little need for much in the way of strategic thinking.

This is why tactics are seductive. They are a more natural way for us to think.

So what about you? 

Have you been seduced?

About the author
Paul Matthews is the founder of People Alchemy. He can be contacted via www.peoplealchemy.co.uk
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