Strategists and Tacticians

Posted: Wed, 5 December 2007 | permalink | No comments

Like most things, the scale of decisions that have to be made by a person or organisation fall across a wide spectrum. At one end, you've got the fine-detail work: lines of code, individual config settings, IP addresses, that sort of thing. This is crucial work, because it's this detail that ultimately produces saleable results. Travelling all the way to the other end, there's the "big picture" decisions: the "visionary" stuff. What market segment will we target? What will we do (in large-scale terms) to get there?

I am convinced that individuals naturally gravitate towards one end of this spectrum or the other, depending on their psychology. While people usually can work at all scales, they have a "most comfortable" point where they work the most naturally. The further away from this point they are pushed, the less comfortable and effective they are.

No level of thinking is better or worse than the other; they're just different. While "large scale thinker" and "small scale thinker" could be taken as being insulting, I certainly don't mean it that way.

I should point out that "Strategy" isn't (just) about setting goals. A strategist isn't someone who comes out with grand pronouncements like "By the end of next year this company should be providing telecommunications services to 20% of the Fortune 500" without knowing how to get there. That's not a strategist, that's a poor-quality management consultant. People whose only skill is making vague pronouncements should just be taken out and shot. They're not doing anything useful for anyone.

A strategist is someone who is good at planning the goal of "20% of the Fortune 500". They're thinking about the big picture issues, without getting bogged down in the minutiae. A tactician, given the job of planning something at the macro scale, will chase some good idea down an intricately detailed rabbit hole, and miss the other dozen or so large issues that need to be considered. The strategist's planning needs to stop at a certain level and let other people take on the detail work.

Conversely, a good tactician can focus on the individual details without getting distracted by the big picture. A strategist put into a tactical role will miss all the important minutiae because they're working out how their little part fits into the big picture, instead of working out how to make their little part work, in and of itself.

It's important, for individual happiness, to try and work out what level you're most comfortable thinking at, and then trying to find a job that puts you there. It's almost as important to make sure that the people who are working at the more and less detail levels around you are equally comfortable.

Take, for example, the micromanager. We've all either been there ourselves or have heard multiple stories on the subject. I think the micromanager is nothing more than a person who wants to work at a smaller scale than they're being forced to by their organisational rank. Since they can't do the detail work any more, their only outlet is working vicariously through their subordinates. Voila! Instant micromanagement.

An even more painful case of micromanagement would be when the subordinate wants to think at a larger scale than the superior. In that case, the subordinate will naturally be thinking large scale, and will miss the details. To the small scale thinking superior, that is incompetence, and will naturally be dealt with by more micromanagement. In reality, both parties are incompetent at their jobs, and they should really swap roles, so that everyone is in their element.

It would be nice if companies stopped thinking hierarchically in this way -- that a more "senior" person has to think at larger levels. Just because you've been somewhere longer (or have been working in an industry longer, or got higher marks, or whatever), it doesn't mean that you're more of a strategist. This is probably the Peter Principle restated: people get promoted to a level where they just can't comfortably think at the necessary scale any more. If instead people were put into a planning hierarchy based on their natural scale of thinking, we'd all be a lot better off. There'd be a lot less power games, though, which makes me think it's not going to happen any time soon.

A business, at whatever size it might be, needs an appropriate mix of strategists and tacticians. A really small business (1-10 people) can get away without needing large scale thinkers, in the same way that a really small boat can get away without needing a rudder or pilot. If a really small boat gets itself into trouble, everyone on board can grab an oar or bucket and help get the boat out it's predicament -- it's small and nimble enough to be able to do that.

As the company expands, though, it's important to make sure you've got some strategists around. If you don't have anyone to keep an eye out for problems and plan around them, your small-to-medium sized boat is likely to have a hole punched in it by a submerged rock. Even if somebody on board happens to notice the rock before you actually hit it, once you get to a certain size you can't physically stop or turn the boat in time. If you don't understand the growth issues in the company, you might not even realise that you're no longer the nimble and low-inertia dinghy until you're up to your knees in sea water.

Although an obvious solution to this problem might be to say that all businesses should be small and nimble ones, it's as impractical as saying that all boats should be dinghies. A fleet of dinghies isn't going to be able to support the worldwide sea freight market, and a fleet of small companies doesn't have the necessary resources on hand to take on the big projects that are so often needed. Also, a dinghy is at risk of being swamped by one freak wave, while a larger ship can weather significant storms without going under.

Regardless of the size of the business, there always needs to be a good supply of tacticians. A boat (of whatever size) full of people who are all looking out for rocks isn't going to go anywhere, because nobody's making the thing move. Similarly, a company full of strategists isn't going to be doing any of the day-to-day work that actually earns money, and no money means no company.

The single most important thing, though, is be self-aware enough to know what sort of person you are, and try to find something that lets you work at the level you're most comfortable at. Otherwise you're just setting yourself up for unhappiness.

(I'm not really sure why I'm suddenly writing management blog posts; this idea of "levels of thinking" just came to me and I figured I'd put it out there. If it makes you feel more comfortable, there's a fairly transparent mapping of these ideas to the practice of software development, although I'll leave the execution of that mapping to the reader. Comments are welcome.)

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