Strategic vs. Tactical

July 17th, 2012

You often hear terms such as “It’s a strategic initiative.” or “We made a tactical choice to implement feature X.” and almost invariably they can be reverse-translated into “Its expensive and/or slow” and “We had a deadline imposed on us” or similar phrases. In some environments there is very little patience for anything that doesn’t deliver immediate ROI and at the other end you find masses of architects pontificating on the technical merits of one framework vs another for weeks on end.

I don’t believe there are many situations in which the extremes are actually the best path overall. Extreme tactical focus will leave loads of technical debt in its wake, eventually making further development costly and time consuming. Complete strategic focus sees business opportunity go flying by and often leads to a series of never-completed initiatives that eventually get axed because they cant show business value.

Personally, I seem to have found a decent balance between the two using an approach that can be summed up by a phrase I coined:

“Achieving strategic objectives through superior tactical execution.”

The concept isn’t new but its easily overlooked in the oft divisive battles over getting it done right vs. getting it done right now.

To take advantage of the approach, you need to establish a vision of end state, or at least the next level of maturity for whatever it is you are working on. Then you implement one piece at a time. The first project/request that needs something that can be solved by doing it in a way that aligns with strategy simply absorbs the cost of doing that small piece. Then each other ask that comes along also takes another step in the right direction, again fueled and driven by the more immediate need.

Example time:

You know you need to replace an aging system because its original design does not easily support the current business needs, but you can’t ask for 2 years and $4M to go do it all at once. Its usually easier to get the go-ahead on things that just establish scope and conceptual approach, so you spend some time putting together a vision and justification for the entire strategic initiative. During this time you lay the foundation for what should be done and perhaps even conduct a proof of concept. Then you report your findings and total timeline/cost and keep smiling as the effort is cut…because you now have the blueprints for the jigsaw puzzle you must now create. Take a look at the existing initiatives in the pipeline and see where their needs can be met with minimal additional cost or time simply by doing that effort in the new way or with the new tools/framework/whatever you have laid out in your blueprint. Each effort takes a piece of the blueprint with it and over time you will achieve, during the normal course of business, a significant amount of headway towards the end state. Now you do a delta between the end state and your current state and you find that 50-75% of the work has already been done. Blow the dust off the presentation, update the numbers and timeline and now you have something more in line with the attention span and financial expectations of the organization.

Does this work for huge transformational initiatives? Yes, it does. There are very few things that can’t be done this way and most of those use cases involve switching vendor platforms for a particular business function that can’t be subdivided. That’s pretty rare in reality.

Is it underhanded or dishonest to do this? Not at all. In my opinion, its ITs job to ensure things are moving forward and make sure things are getting done the right way. The business is almost guaranteed to be happier finding out that you’ve made progress on your strategic road map without special funding and delays than they are to experience the slow crawling death of legacy and outdated product inertia or face off against IT in a war over “Why do we need to do this?”

For many people, I imagine this will seem like a “duh” post, but I am always surprised to find so many cases of broken relationships between the strategic thinkers and the “Get ‘er Done” crowd. Success overall needs both opinions and the best way to achieve it is with iterative implementation of strategic objectives riding on the backs of tactical delivery.

The Wizard

Life’s Rule #247

February 11th, 2008

If someone offers you a mint…take it.


February 10th, 2008

   Welcome to the Wizard of IT Blog! My intent is to create a place to discuss practices, procedures and share wisdom in the sphere of IT. Far from professing to have ultimate answers or sublime insight, I adopt the realist view that we seldom find perfect applications of best practice and many of the ideals are frequently unachievable in the real world. I hope that just perhaps, some of the “it worked for me” things find more than one home and benefit more than one place. I also hope to attract contributions from others, creating an even better benefit to the IT community as a whole.