Despite how often the words Strategy, Strategic, Tactics and Tactical are used in planning meetings, it would seem that many who use them don’t actually understand the difference between the terms, often using them interchangeably. The purpose of the post is actually to discuss the merits of Tactical Excellence, but before elaborating on that topic I think I should disambiguate the two aforementioned terms.
The best way to illustrate the meanings of these terms is with a military example, which is most apropos, since these terms both have martial origins.
A group of generals and their staff decide that during an upcoming offensive, taking and holding a particular hill, which is currently held by the enemy, will be pivotal to the success of the offensive. Since it is the highest ground for hundreds of miles in every direction, it gives whomever holds that ground the ability to visually monitor all activity in the area, of friends and foes alike. Additionally, it has the advantage of forcing the enemy to fight uphill, and is generally a more defensible position. During a major assault one would not want to leave an enemy at ones back holding such ground. The generals order a company of paratroopers to drop in behind enemy lines and take this hill ahead of the main offensive. Taking and holding this high ground, and denying it to the adversary, is an example of a strategy.
A strategy is typically a course-grained plan to achieve a large-scale goal. In the example above, the strategy itself does not describe how the hill should be taken, just that it should be taken and then held. Though the generals may have more specific instructions for their field commanders, typically, given the fluidity of combat, they are not overly prescriptive and leave the details up to those field commanders. It is tactics that will be used by the field commanders and their teams to deal with any circumstances that arise while taking the hill.
Tactics are repeatable patterns or behaviors that can be used to address specific challenges that might arise in achieving the strategy. Some military examples of circumstances requiring tactical responses are, encountering a machine gun nest or a fortified position, crossing a stream or ravine (while under fire perhaps), dealing with a wounded solider, dealing with a chemical weapons assault, surviving a firefight with a larger enemy force, or for the purposes of my example, dealing with a sniper.
During the attempt to take the hill, a stick (a small team of paratroopers) gets pinned down by a sniper, who has secreted himself in a grove of trees higher up the hill, making further progress up the hill all but impossible without the squad taking heavy casualties. The lieutenant commanding the stick does not have the time to strategize a response to this threat; and he doesn’t have to, because he and his team have trained in a number of tactics for just this situation.
Assuming that the squad has found suitable cover (always a good tactic) and released smoke to obscure their position and movements (another good tactic), the squad needs to locate the sniper’s position. Historically this was done by drawing the sniper’s fire by raising a helmet or similar decoy, and using muzzle flash, the sound of the shot and its delay, and reflections off the scope, to manually triangulate the position of the shooter. Though they may still need to draw fire, modern special forces (and perhaps even conventional forces) carry electronic devices that detect body heat, the heat of the bullet in flight, shockwaves, muzzle flash, sound delay, and a number of other measureable indicators to electronically locate the shooter, making finding a sniper much less tedious.
Once the shooter’s position has been identified the sniper can then be dealt with, by laying down enthusiastic machine gun or mortar fire on that position, deploying a weaponized mini-drone (such exotic ordinance must exist!), or calling in air or artillery support (though in our example that might not be such a good idea; an entire grove of trees on fire, or torn to large irregular shreds, might be as much an obstacle to forward progress as the sniper was).
The tactics described above are not explicitly part of the strategy, but the successful execution of those tactics are critical to the successful execution of the strategy. For tactics to be optimally effective, the team needs to be highly efficient at their execution, having practiced them over and over, until they are second nature. They also have to trust their leadership and team mates, that they will all do their parts in the execution of the tactic, since most tactics require more than a single person to execute.
Soldiers have a toolbox of offensive, defensive and supportive tactics that they take to war, or any other theater they operate in; natural disasters, police actions, peace keeping, etc. It is the depth and breadth of their tactical toolbox, and the soldiers’ expertise in executing these tactics, that distinguishes adequate soldiers from elite ones. There is a reason elite operators spend so much time training. Every tactic in their repertoire has to be practiced, tested and perfected, and new techniques continually added to address new threats or circumstances.
The need for such a tactical repertoire is not limited to the military though; and now to the actual topic of this post. In the example above, which is more important to the team on the ground’s ability to do their job - having a good strategy or having a wide and deep tactical repertoire? I would assert the latter. For operational teams, of any discipline, becoming and being Tactically Excellent is probably the most important strategy they could adopt. It is so important a strategy that I would consider it The Strategy to Rule Them All. Perhaps it even deserves Meta-strategy status.
Though I was in the military a long time ago, I have spent most of my career in Software Development. There are many highly-effective Software Development tactics that teams can bring to bear to maximize the likelihood of success. These include practices like code reviews, retrospectives, planning poker, daily stand-up meetings, unit testing, short iterations, paired-programming, refactoring etc. Also, developing strategies for executing various types of pivots are also vital, given the rates of change modern software engineers need to be anti-fragile to. If an engineering team becomes expert at these tactics, then it really doesn’t matter what strategy they are executing on, they will be effective. The weakest part of a strategy should never be the tactics used in the attempt to achieve it.
Strategies in general are rather ephemeral; they, by necessity have to change to deal with environmental or competitive changes, but tactics are more durable, and even timeless in some cases. As CEOs (“Generals of Commerce”) strive for strategic excellence, attempting to predict the course-grained direction of the markets, their competitors and their customers, operational teams should focus on attaining and maintaining tactical excellence. This may sometimes mean spending time foreseeing events that never come to pass, and time practicing techniques that are never needed, but these are not wasted efforts, since they improve the team’s foresight, improve the team’s ability to work together as a cohesive squad, and generally make the team more agile.
As I like to say, Tactics will get you through times of no Strategy, better than Strategy will get you through times of no Tactics.