Years ago, I set a goal of running the Boston Marathon. To do that, I had to run a qualifying time in a different marathon. So I developed my strategy: I selected an ideal marathon, worked up a training regimen, and planned my pace. I shared my strategy with more accomplished runners, and they affirmed it as sound.
The outcome on marathon day? I failed, finishing more than 10 minutes slower than a Boston qualifying time. Why? I focused so much on strategy that I neglected to heed the tactics of the plan.
I competed in a long-distance race just two weeks before the marathon, when I should have been tapering. I ran the first half of the marathon 30 seconds per mile faster than planned, leaving me trashed in the second half. And I didn’t consume the calories I should have during the run, which left me depleted in the final miles.
This wasn’t a failure of strategy. This was a failure of tactical execution.
I think this happens all the time, and not just in PR, communications and marketing. It happens at every level in countless organizations. Leaders embrace the call to “be strategic,” creating thoughtful plans that others can implement. Yes, that makes sense—except when the organization expects everyone to “be a leader” and to “be strategic.” Without careful guidance on this point, you wind up with an organization full of great ideas with no one making them work.
Symptoms of this too-narrow approach: Ideas that never go anywhere. Needs that don’t get addressed. People eager to create strategies but not execute at the tactical level. Missed details and dropped balls. Individuals who feel less valued because their strategic skillset isn’t as strong as their tactical prowess—in other words, they’re left believing they “aren’t strategic enough.”
We’ve diminished the word “strategy.” We’ve allowed it to become a buzzword, a self-professed status, a solitary defense, instead of what it should be: a driving force for an organization’s direction and success. (Notice I said “a driving force,” not “the driving force.)
When I create a strategic communication plan, I spend a lot of time considering the tactics needed to make that strategy successful. What are the right tactics to drive the measurable outcome? Which tactics fit with the audience? How are those tactics best executed? Who will do that work, and when, and what is the cost? And crucially: Are all of these tactics doable with the resources—people, finances, time—available?
Am I failing to be strategic when I give such attention to tactics? I would argue not. So long as my starting point is with a sound and meaningful strategy, the tactical detail is critical to delivering what the strategy promises.
Don’t misunderstand my point. Strategy is essential. Tactics absent a strategy is a recipe for doom. But we need to quash the idea that it’s an either/or proposition. It’s both. Strategy must always be inextricably linked with tactics.
The Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu, author of The Art of War, said it best: “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”