Strategy, Tactics, and Execution

I have been thinking a lot lately about strategic, tactical, and executionary. Strategic being the destination and the values that accompany you on the journey. Tactical being the map that leads you t that destination. And executionary being the actual steps you take on the journey.

This is coming up for me in several ways. At work, we are looking at how we can distill these different aspects down and use them more purposefully. It’s common, when people are starting new projects, that they make a decision (we should bake a cake) and then dive into the executionary (grab the ingredients and start mixing). As they get about half way through, they realize that they don’t have the right pans or should have gone shopping earlier, which leads to a discussion about what kind of cake they’re making. Then they have to go back and start over, or hold numerous discussions about flavors, layers, and icing options, and whether they can even get the cake built in time for the party tonight.

It is helpful, when embarking on new journeys, to build in time to answer the strategic questions at the start of the journey: What kind of cake are we making? Who is it for? When do you need it? Are there any food allergies or flavors that we need to avoid?

The tactical follows next: what tools and ingredients do we need in order to prepare this cake? If any are missing from our pantry, who will go buy them and when (often the challenge in my kitchen)? Who is responsible for mixing, vs. listening for the kitchen timer while I do laundry, vs. icing the cake? Is there even someone in the apartment who has the icing skills for the cake my strategist mind envisioned? When should we bake the cake – a problem I often faced growing up, when I baked it, then didn’t have time to let it cool before frosting it, with predictably runny results. Putting the order into place and then checking in – did you remember to stop and buy more cream cheese on the way home? – is the tactical side of things.

Strategy and tactics set the execution up for success. Once you know what you’re doing and you’ve got a plan to follow, you can dive in and get things done. You may still run into issues and need the strategist or the tactician to step in and help you figure out how to overcome roadblocks, but you generally stay at the craftsman level. But without the few minutes it takes to define the strategy and plan your approach, baking the cake takes much longer, as anyone who has forgotten to preheat the oven can tell you.

So instilling a staged project development is one aspect of these three levels. Another aspect is effective meeting management: if you have a meeting where you need to correct your plan, bringing the strategists in can be counterproductive. One of my favorite bosses used to say, “Don’t worry so much about process, just get it done.” That’s a strategist’s way of thinking; their eye is on the target and they don’t know why you’re fussing about how to pull the bowstring back. And that’s fine – you need people who choose the target, but when you bring them to a tactical meeting, they get restless: you have the target why are you wasting all this time talking; they start seeing new targets; they jump in and try to make strategic decisions to help you, which just makes things muddier. (“Ok, then, let’s not have cake, we’ll just have pie,” they say, as you stand there an hour before the party with a bowl of batter in front of you.) Nope, better to leave them out of a tactical meeting.

Bringing an executor to a strategic meeting can also be counterproductive. The strategists are decision-making around the big picture, why it’s important, how it will save the world – and the executors are imagining themselves doing the work, feeling overwhelmed because there aren’t any tactics yet, thinking of everything that could go wrong. Either loop them in after the strategists have chosen the strategy; or have a conversation ahead of time with them about what the meeting is going to feel like, and help them manage the anxiety that the discussion could bring.

So that’s on the business level. On the personal level, my sisters are fighting about what to do with mom. She’s gotten so apathetic that I don’t even like to talk to her anymore – because I find it challenging not to try to change her, to wake her up. But she’s depressed, she doesn’t want to wake up, all she sees is the trough of despair she’s fallen into, and it feels like there’s no way out and it will never get better. “I’m lazy,” she tells me. Lazy is a depressive’s way of saying that they don’t want to try. It’s the lotus eater’s excuse. “I don’t want to pay my assistant to sit and watch me exercise at the respiratory therapy gym,” she says. “I’m not thinking about paying her to sit,” I reply, “I’m thinking of the importance of you getting exercise, getting stronger, being able to do the things you enjoy doing. Don’t you think that’s more important?” “Six of one / half dozen of the other,” she says in total apathy. Anhedonia – she can’t even imagine feeling joy, enjoying things any more. It’s a symptom of SAD – which she is prone to – and depression – and Parkinson’s, which her father had.

But I digress. Mom has gotten so weak and unbalanced that my sister who is the caretaker would like Mom to have 24-hour assistance at her home. My other sister, the favorite, calls Mom to sweet-talk her into things. She talks to Mom when the caretaker isn’t there, comes up with a plan, and texts my sister: have the current assistant stay longer hours, and hire the assistant’s daughter for the days the assistant isn’t available. Where did this plan come from? The assistant can’t work more hours – she goes straight from Mom to another job. The caretaker gets frustrated – she doesn’t need strategic advice, she doesn’t need tactical advice, she needs an executor, boots on the ground, to interview caretakers and persuade Mom not to fire them. To figure out how to persuade Mom to eat and feed the dog — while also living a life filled with two teenagers, a mortgage, jobs, and a life that is so overfull that she can’t sleep at night, while the two of us text advice from thousands of miles away.

Strategy, tactics, and execution.

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