Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.- Sun Tzu
I was talking with a coworker last week about a new project that we’re working on. I had a few ideas about it and started tossing them out. He entertained some of them, but then he stopped me and pointed out something I wasn’t considering. I had a lot of individual tactics, I did not have a strategy.
I’ve talked about how I understand tactics vs. strategy before, but I didn’t elaborate very much on how I think they’re applicable. I didn’t elaborate at the time, mainly because I hadn’t really thought about it.
What makes a good strategy?
A good strategy takes a holistic view. That’s the essential component. A strategy is successful, not because of individual successful tactics, but because those tactics work synergisticly to cause success.
Let’s use the example of someone trying to get in shape to illustrate the point.
John decides he’s going to get in shape. He does some searching around on the internet and finds a workout plan that he likes. He starts going to the gym everyday for an hour. He works out and does everything the workout plan prescribes. He is diligent and committed and sees some initial results, but after a while it trails off a little and he isn’t making much progress. Why not?
To reward himself after each workout, John was going by the McDonald’s down the road and pounding down a Big Mac and and a few apple pies. His body was getting all the stress of working out and then trying to recover using the junk food, he was feeding it. Not a recipe for success.
John later realizes the error of his ways and starts eating better. He focuses on meats, fruits, and vegetables (Yes, I’m evangelizing Paleo a little.) This time, he starts seeing results. He had two tactics (working out and eating better) and he combined them into a successful strategy (becoming healthier).
In this context, becoming healthy is the overall goal of his strategy and working out and eating better are the tactics.
But, let’s take a step back. Why does John wants to get healthy? John has a family and two kids. He wants to be able to play with his kids after coming home from work instead of being exhausted. He wants to go on a hiking trip with some old friends. He wants to have more energy at work to be able to work on the projects he’s interested in. Doing all of these things would make his life more meaningful.
Seen from this point of view, becoming healthy is no longer the strategy, but the tactic. The strategy is living a more meaningful and fulfilling life. Being healthy is just one synergistic portion of that. It facilitates John’s ability to do other things in his life that are rewarding and meaningful like spend more quality time with his family and work on more interesting projects at work. In turn spending quality time with his family makes him more motivated to work hard so that he can gain the experience he needs to start his own company. Starting his own company gives him more flexibility to spend time with his family and work out whenever he wants.
In this more zoomed out context, being healthy, working hard (and smart), and being a good father/husband are all tactics that work synergistically to create an effective, holistic strategy for living a fulfilling and meaningful life.
Example Flow Chart of how Tactics can be Strategy at a different level:
(poor handwriting, but I think the visual makes it more clear)
I think there are two key reasons why tactics have to work synergistically in order to create an effective strategy.
When the tactics are linked synergistically, improving in one actually improves you’re ability to perform in all the other related tactics. For John, being healthier means being a better father and a better professional. Any gains he makes tactically in one area compound into all the other areas.
Because all his tactics work synergystically and he sees returns in every other area of his life by working on any individual area, John has created a positive feedback loop. Improving in anyone area lets him see benefits in the other areas so he’s motivated to keep reinvesting.
We could break this down again at a more micro level and see which tactics are important for letting John be successful at working out. Maybe it’s writing it on a calendar or starting small and making a habit. We could also look at how improving on a micro aspect in one area could create returns in another. Maybe he creates the habit of working out and gets better and creating new habits so he makes a habit to more closely watch his finances and saves his family money. The point is that synergy between tactics and strategies at different levels is essential to long term success. It takes advantage of the effect of compound interest and creates a positive feedback loop that pushes you (or John) to keep improving.
All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved.-Sun Tzu