Strategic Plan vs. Aggregate Tactical Plan

"Matt, we need your input into the 3-year strategic plan." I was a network security engineer. I configured firewalls and tried to stop intruders. The question didn't make any sense to me. "Could you please tell me what you mean by that?"

"The CIO is putting his 3-year strategic plan together. We need to know what projects you think we'll need to do over the next 3 years."

"What will you do with that?"

"We'll roll it up with everyone else's input and turn it into a strategic plan."

"So let me make sure I understand: you're going to take my ideas about security projects that we might need, add in other peoples ideas about projects for their teams, and then the CIO will use that to make the strategic plan?"

"Yeah. We need it today."

If you aren't laughing yet, you shouldn't be reading this post. Unless you're wincing. That counts.

Well, I began using the term "Aggregate Tactical Plan" on that day. For the rest of the time I worked there, whenever someone mentioned the "Strategic Plan" I would say, "You mean our Aggregate Tactical Plan?" They never liked my name for the plan.

When tactical thinkers get into leadership positions, they don't suddenly start thinking strategically. They start using words associated with strategic thinking, like "3-year Strategic Plan." They say things like, "What's our strategy for getting the phone system upgraded by November?" But they never actually think in terms of, or portray, strategy.

Strategy is the result of deep consideration and pondering. For a tactical person to arrive at strategy is possible, but it involves asking "why" a lot. "Why should we do this or that" can lead to a somewhat bigger view of what needs to be done. Continually pushing one's thoughts up that hierarchy of actions eventually leads to the ability to think about vision and direction. Eventually one can resist the urge to plunge into battle details and focus on the war.

IT might be the worst at this. IT has some deep thinkers (and not all in management) who understand strategy and don't get recognized for it. Then there is the rest of IT who is either incapable of or disinclined toward strategy.

So for those of you who are going be promoted to IT Management and put your engineers in intellectual harm's way, here are some ideas to consider when you have to craft a strategic plan.

Highest-Level Strategy

This is where you define your overall direction or your ultimate desired outcome.

Q: What do we produce?
A: Delighted Clients. [See Steve Denning's article.]
  • Engineers who can turn out good products faster.
  • Salespeople who can sell solutions more easily.
  • Executives who can execute on strategic goals.

By the way, if your focus is on how you're going to report on SLAs so that you can prove that you're doing your job, you are losing. All you have to do is ask the employees a simple question: "Would you be sad to see IT management replaced?" Most SLAs are B.S. and everyone knows it. I've never worked at a company where IT at some level didn't rig the metrics or the reporting.

(Also, notice that I asked a"what" question. You should have already answered "Why?" Visit Simon Sinek for more.)

Mid-Level Strategic Talking Points

Here's where you flesh out at a high level what you're strategy means operationally. Try asking questions.

A: By enabling and facilitating.
  • Clear roadblocks.
  • Mask corporate turmoil.
  • Provide clarity and prioritization.
  • Minimize fire drills.
  • Resolve concerns and be transparent.
  • Focus on relationships over rules.
  • Allow employees to focus on delighting the client.
Q: How will we manage?
A: We will expend 20% effort to get 80% results on things like:
  • Measuring
  • Documenting
  • Policy creation and maintenance
  • Reporting
  • Compliance (with obvious exceptions)
  • Forms
  • Meetings
Q: How will we communicate?
A: We will communicate transparently.
  • Frankly
  • With full disclosure (except where prohibited)
  • Promptly
  • Often
  • Unambiguously
Q: What will we reward?
A: We will overtly reward innovation, creativity, and the extra mile.
  • Rely on our experts; don't dictate to them.
  • Foster cross-team collaboration and synergy.
  • Provide time, incentives, and recognition for valuable behavior
Q: What kind of team will we build?
A: Fully engaged and leveraged.
  • horizontal, cross-discipline integration
  • natural collaboration
  • spontaneous and assigned mentoring
  • constant personnel development and promotion
Q: What will our systems and applications look like?
A: Primary features: elegance and simplicity.
  • Simplify processes and minimize rules.
  • Encourage risk taking and judgment calls within thresholds.
  • Reduce system and configuration complexity.
  • Make things reproducible, intuitive, and intrinsically documented.

If this list makes you want to define forms, meetings, policies, or org charts, you're thinking tactically. If it gives you a vision of a team that functions with enthusiasm an generates high-volume, high-quality output, you're on target.

Of course, questions like these lead to action plans. Action plans bridge the gap between strategic and tactical thinking. The more detailed they are, the more tactical they are. You need action plans.

However, a list of projects that you'll execute on, especially if it was handed to you by the business units, is not a strategic plan. It's a project list. It's the tactical outcome of your strategic goal to delight your clients.

Try to learn to think about the big picture, or at least the medium-sized picture. If your approach to building and running your organization is overly tactical, you will end up spending too much time tweaking minutia and minimizing the ability of your people to do great things for you.

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