Tactical is the new strategic

I was talking to a friend recently who works in a large Silicon Valley company about the expectations of managers within large companies and we discussed how big company managers routinely describe themselves as either “tactical” or “strategic.” Typically, those who say they are “strategic” talk down to those considered more “tactical,” directly or indirectly. This is wrong-headed. Marc Hedlund’s post about Web 2.0 development practices over at O’Reilly Radar firmed up my existing feelings on the matter:

More often, though, the developers and the CEO respond to the majority of the support email. One CEO told me he responds to about 80% of all the mail they receive. How better to know what people are saying about your product? he asked.

These days (especially in the web world), being conversant in “big picture” issues means knowing the details, as the anecdote above illustrates. I would bet that the fact that it cost a hundred dollars to FedEx a 30-pound bag of dog food was dismissed as a “tactical” concern by Pets.com board members back in the dot-com craziness as they pursued the larger “strategy” of selling pet food online. We know how that ended up.

“Strategies” are big and sweeping and inherently pass the task of implementation to someone else. Tactics are inherently about executing. The distance between “strategic” and “tactical” is measured in meetings, PowerPoints, conference calls, and, well, “not writing code.” Limiting (or even mostly eliminating) that distance is the key to making things happen.

I’m not saying that strategy isn’t important, just that strategy directly combined with tactical skill is the real killer combo. “Strategy” in the absense of tactical engagement is a loser’s game. If you’re a manager who gets down in the muck to make things happen (not to be confused with “micromanagement”), take heart: tactical is the new strategic.