Being Strategic vs. Being Tactical

A road sign showing a very curved road

We all want to be strategic, right? Being strategic is much more sexy than being tactical.

Being strategic means we’re playing the long term game, sacrificing immediate small wins for a much bigger later down the road.

From my experience, ‘being tactical’ is considered inferior to ‘being strategic’ by the industry as you always want to show that you’re thinking long term. Ironically though, most companies I know are much more tactical in how they manage the day-2-day than strategic, even though they publicly declare that they embrace strategic thinking (but I’ll touch on this more below).

I do relate and understand the rationale behind the desire to be more strategic, and I generally agree. However, sometimes… yeah… sometimes you need to be more… tactical.

 

And this brings us to the topic of this post – 

Today I’d like to briefly discuss when to embrace a strategic approach and when to embrace a tactical one. So let’s dive in.

 

Strategy and Tactics do not contradict

First – let’s clear out some basic terminology. Strategy & tactics are terms that co-exist and are actually complementary to each other.

While strategy describes the long term plan, tactics means the actual steps that will get you there eventually.

That being said – when we say that someone is being tactical what we usually want to say is that person is very focused on short term wins, and usually ignores/neglects the long term plan.

And that’s why it’s considered a flaw in that person to some extent.

 

On being strategic

When you are truly strategic in your actions, it means you keep the long term game in your mind all the time. You never lose sight of the end game and what you’re trying to achieve with your product at least a year and a half from now.

If you are doing it right – it means you have a well defined and agreed upon north star, and a product strategy that was signed on by the executive team (you can read about it more here).

As I noted above – I truly believe that most of the time – that’s the right approach for managing your priorities and the day-2-day.

 

On being tactical

When you are being tactical it usually means you are after short term wins – winning a specific customer, focusing on pushing up a specific KPI (which is not necessarily the north star), bumping revenues, etc..

When you are being too tactical it often means your immediate actions won’t necessarily serve the long term plan, but instead will provide an immediate benefit to your product or company.

You can probably understand by now that when you’re being too tactical you’re risking drifting away from the main road too much, to the point where the main road doesn’t mean much anymore. And this is why I’d usually stir away from a too tactical approach.

What’s the right mixture?

There is no definitive answer to that. It depends much on the status of your company and/or your product. However, I believe I can provide a simplified approach which is based solely on two rules:

  1. By default – adopt the strategic thinking. Think long term and prefer long term bigger wins over immediate and smaller wins. You should definitely be tactical as well (as we already stated that they don’t contradict). You just need to make sure that the great majority of the tactical decisions you make are crucial steps for promoting the long term plan. For example – be tactical in getting 3 key customers to try your product in the next month, because it will provide you with the feedback you need to grow your product and make it ready to the next 100 customers.
  2. In dire straits – switch to ‘tactical mainly’ mode. There is a trend of churning customers with your product? Put the long term plans aside and focus on what needs to be done to fix this even if it totally contradicts the long term strategy. Another example – your company has a short runway before it’s running out of money and it needs your support in getting new paying customers? Drop all your plans, wear your ‘tactical only’ suit and work on whatever features that will get these customers to sign up.

When people get it wrong

The approach I’ve outlined above is following a quite simple logic, which is usually easy to identify.

However, from what I’m observing in the industry, these rules are usually not being followed by many companies, as most of them are being too tactical in their routine.

Why is that?

  1. Being tactical is easier. Really – you see a cookie on the table while you know there is a cake in the fridge. Getting both is too much sugar, so many will just eat the cookie, because all you need to do is to grab it from the table in front of you. Real life works the same, where the easier, and more immediate opportunities are being chased since there is no need to ‘plan’ or ‘analyze & think’. It will also happen now and not within 3 months.
  2. Being tactical makes you feel more productive. You signed a new customer. Yay! Who cares that this customer is not the persona you’ve outlined for your product, and probably there is no real product market fit here? I’m being cynical of course. Getting the wrong customers will backfire at you a bit later down the road, when they actually use the product and see they are not getting the value they need from it. Alternatively, it’s your company who may lose money on this customer. Another example – you tweak your product to add a feature which is only relevant to one (very loud) customer. Your CSM loves you now. The customer too. Bravo. Don’t worry – you’ll pay the full price later down the road, when your plans are constantly being postponed because the code written in haste is totally non extendable.
  3. Being tactical is more rewarding when you want to build yourself a name. That’s what politicians are doing. Constantly sacrificing long term plans (that will bear the fruits only after they are no longer in their role) for immediate wins that will be leveraged for self-promotion. Now, I don’t object to some self promotion here and there. It’s certainly important for building your career and reputation. However, don’t do it at the expense of the long term strategy, because then you’re just being a politician.
  4. Ignorance. Believe it or not – but many executives and product managers simply don’t know how to design a product strategy and what it actually means. After all – not many places teach that. With the lack of knowledge – they’ll revert to being tactical.
  5. Lack of discipline. Everyone in your company talks about the importance of having a strategy, and you even took the time to plan such a strategy. And yet – life happens, and shiny & sexy business opportunities pop-up every day. And each time it happens – the strategy is pushed aside for ‘tomorrow’, and the shiny opportunity is being chased instead.

 

For the reasons above (usually a mixture of them) there are only a few companies and product managers I’ve seen who are actually working according to a well established strategy.

The dangers of that are clear – you won’t end up where you wanted to be a couple of years from now. Not with your product, nor with your market share or the other OKRs that you have established.

There are other risks that you are exposed to when being too tactical:

  1. The people on your team will stop believing in what you’re doing, because they don’t understand what the big plan is (because there is none).
  2. Development of each feature will take longer, because the zig-zag your engineering team was put into when building all the tactical hacks will take its toll, I assure you.
  3. The go to market strategy, and your overall positioning of your product will become more challenging, because it will become harder and harder to explain what its exact value proposition is. 

When people get it right

If you switch to ‘tactical mode’ for the right reasons – then you are much less likely to risk the above. Why? Because as I noted above, the real reason to switch to tactical mode is when your company or product is entering some sort of distress.

When getting into such a ‘survival mode’ then it focuses you and everyone around you as well. You are all working together to get out of the mud and back on the main road again.

If done right – you can leverage this dire situation into an opportunity to build a strong team. Nothing like fighting together in the trenches to build a strong sense of brotherhood. It might even light the fire and release the creativity of each team member.

The only caveat here is that you need to remember that it can’t be sustained forever. Ideally, not even more than a month or two, and certainly not more than 3.

Doing it longer than that and you’ll start drifting too much away from your path, and the team around you will start to feel a bit deceived or just stop believing in you or in your product.

 

With that in mind – I’ll wrap up the post for today as I want to keep it short and sharp.

If you found this post/series useful – please let me know in the comments. If you think others can benefit from it – feel free to share it with them.

 

Thank you, and until next time 🙂

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