Strategic vs. tactical projects

If only there weren’t so many words.

I have this working theory that there are only about eight genuinely different ideas in the world. Just as – if memory serves – there are basically eight jokes, thus:

  1. Malfortune befalling self
  2. Malfortune befalling other
  3. Unrequited love
  4. Misunderstanding
  5. etc

…you get the idea. I seem to think there are also, in essence, eight stories, and that they’re uncannily similar to the jokes (discuss, 20 marks). But hey, I’m a physicist, I don’t know about this sort of thing. Just roll with it, and we’ll move on.

So, right, my theory is: there are vastly fewer ideas in the world than anyone expects, and all that happens is we find new ways of expressing them. See, it’s all about language. We’re continuously inventing new descriptions, for most of which there are, of course, already perfectly workable forms. Several of them. Lots of them.

So when, for example, I find myself sitting in a conference session about project management (because I’m chairing it, say), and one of the panelists starts talking about project planning in a way I simply didn’t follow, my assumption isn’t that I don’t understand the concept. No, it’s that I don’t understand the language. The individual words make sense, but the particular conjunction is new, alien, and plain weird. Until I can map this new terminology into some familiar linguistic framework, I’m lost. What’s interesting is that those mappings sometimes throw up new insights.

In this case, one of the things that was going on is that I think there are two different sorts of planning and even budgeting – which I’m going to call ‘strategic’ and ‘tactical’, in a deliberate nod to the military uses of those terms.

Tactical weapons are things like tanks, strike aircraft, and missiles: things that you use routinely to blow shit up. Strategic weapons, on the other hand, come in two forms: firstly, stuff that turns hunks of steel into tactical weapons, like heavy-lift cargo aircraft which can move armoured vehicles from, say, storage in Arizona to the Gulf. Calling this use ‘strategic’ always struck me as a rare example of the military not inventing additional jargon where it would actually be appropriate, because the other use of ‘strategic’ is somewhat different: weapons that you plan explicitly never to use.

We’re talking ‘ruddy great nuclear missiles,’ of course. Which in this context are things that position your entire organisation, clarify and direct its purpose, but are never intended for use.

Hence: strategic vs. tactical projects.

A tactical project is one that’s actually going to work, where you’re involved in the nitty-gritty of writing and running a budget that’s useful day-to-day. A strategic project involves a whole lot more arm-waving, where simply floating the concept says much about your organisation and aspirations.

You run into problems when a strategic project gets deployed directly – the Millennium Dome springs to mind as an excellent example. One could also portray the ongoing thrashing-around of TV as a result of commissioners becoming increasingly obsessed with the strategic aspects of programme ideas (‘what does this show say about my channel?’) at the expense of the tactical (‘you can’t seriously make this, can you?’). In this model, salesmanship is fundamentally a strategic skill, while engineering is broadly tactical. Spot the problem there.

There are people – and I think the above-mentioned panelist was one – who are good at implementing strategic projects; that is, of turning the strategic into the tactical. Or, perhaps, they’re good at coating a tactical project in enough strategic gloss to make it fundable.

However, I fear that I myself am resolutely tactical. There’s too much working-class Yorkshireman in me, and I care less about the flouncy stuff than I do about what happens next Tuesday. Even when there’s a strong strategic component to my projects, I find it hard to enthuse – for example, I feel faintly embarrassed describing SciCast as ‘an attempt to revolutionise children’s media,’ even though [cough] it more-or-less is.

So, I’m finding this terminology surprisingly useful. One of the organisations with which I’m working, for example, is almost entirely strategic in outlook and approach… which is difficult, because we’re actually doing a project, and they’re not always thinking in the sorts of ways I want and need them to. But at least now I have a way of understanding where they’re coming from, and why they behave as they do.

Anyway, there’s doubtless other/more accepted/better terminology for this concept, and I’d love to hear it. Certainly, it’s not a new idea. That would undermine my entire argument, no?

9 Comments

  1. I always thought tactics were the small-scale, day-to-day implementational, often rule-of-thumb supported, don’t-know-exactly-where-we’re-going-but-know-this-is-how-we’re-getting-there type of planning; whereas strategy was the big plan, longer timescale, do-know-where-we’re-wanting-to-head-and-some-detail-of-how-we’re-going-to-get-there-though-chances-are-its-going-to-change-before-we-get-there. IMHO, making this up as I go along, there are three components to a successful project, strategic capability (people who understand where things should be going), tactical capability (people who understand how to get things moving) and ‘do-ers’ (people who actually get stuff done). Many roles in teams are linked to one of these. Some people have aspects of each but most personalities often don’t have enough room for all three to be present in bucket-loads; people fascinated by possibilities may not be that interested in actually doing stuff.. people experienced and capable of doing stuff may not have so much interest in trailblazing.. etc.

  2. I’m a management consultant. I understand the strategic and the tactical, and how to wield an metaphor to make a point.
    Strategic plan: Let’s drive from London to Manchester. We’ll start on the M1 and take a left at M6. We’ll work out the rest when we get to Knutsford (in the trade, this is called the “planning horizon”).
    Tactical plan: I’m hungry. Let’s stop at the next services for a Burger King.
    I’ll leave the reader to contemplate what happens if too much energy is focussed on one or other form of planning.

  3. I’m a management consultant. I understand the strategic and the tactical, and how to wield an metaphor to make a point.
    Strategic plan: Let’s drive from London to Manchester. We’ll start on the M1 and take a left at M6. We’ll work out the rest when we get to Knutsford (in the trade, this is called the “planning horizon”).
    Tactical plan: I’m hungry. Let’s stop at the next services for a Burger King.
    I’ll leave the reader to contemplate what happens if too much energy is focussed on one or other form of planning.

  4. “I’ll leave the reader to contemplate what happens if too much energy is focussed on one or other form of planning”
    You end up double posting?

  5. While reading WW2 Military History I Googled up Strategic Vs Tactical just now and ended up here…
    In my reading they described it this way…When the 1st army finally pushed through the Germans out of the hedgerows..it then became A “strategic” war for the Allied Forces, figuring out how to move the army and where… vS the “tactical” day to day ground fighting of pushing the germans back and wondering where and how many there were.
    perhaps picking your battles vs battling? would that be a way to put it?

  6. In my line of work, ‘strategy’ and ‘strategic’ are the most wantonly overused words in the lexicon. For some reason, bloody everything gets described as ‘strategic’ when is is self-evidently a tactical item. You know that people have lost the plot then they use ‘strategic resource planning’ to describe a fucking holiday calendar.

  7. Well Nigel, that depends – are you a strategic resource or a tactical one?

  8. I’m both … sort of. I do strategy stuff for my clients, but that’s technically a vendor deliverable, so from our perspective it’s tactical. For the internal machinations of our company, I’m most definitely tactical. I have no real impact on the strategy of the company I work for.
    So, that holiday calendar, with every man and his dog on it, is certainly tactical as it is a tactic in a plan within the strategy to improve resources usage in pursuit of better margins.
    Nige.

  9. I am researching for a paper on strategic versus tatical management. I would be interested to see how each of you define strategic management and tactical management, and how you apply them. I am not sure the Christmas calendar is either strategic or tactical. I think it is just practical. Can’t businesses have functions that are neither strategic or tactical?

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