Note: the ideas in this post have been significantly refined and turned into a book. The treatment here is somewhat obsolete as a result, but the spirit of my revised arguments remain the same.
Suppose a job candidate walks into your office and hands you a resume. It proclaims, “strategic, systems thinker.” You wince, and almost throw her out right there, but since other parts of her resume look promising, you decide to give her a chance and proceed with the interview. Now ask yourself, how would you actually probe if there is any substance behind the candidate’s claim to strategic abilities? Here is a very good answer: ask the candidate to tell a story. Not any old story, but a relevant one, like how she views the history of development of her field. Or how she views her own personal trajectory. If you can’t figure out why this is an excellent question, read on.
(Credit: many of the ideas in this piece came out of discussions with Mike Allers, ex-US Navy, in 2003, now a philosopher. More on that story later in this piece.)
I react badly, very badly, to words like strategy. Even when people apply the term to me and mean it as a compliment, I cringe. This is because self-descriptions like strategic thinker (and dismissive insults like mere tactician) are at once irresistibly attractive, functionally unique (when you need them, very few other words will do) and so ambiguous that when they are used, the result is usually the worst sort of content-free hand-waving. Unfortunately though, you cannot dismiss every instance of the use of such terms as self-important gas from superior hand-steepling armchair generals. Occasionally, you’ll actually be part of critically important conversations where terms like strategy and tactics are used with sophistication, and consequential matters hang in the balance. Occasionally, even idiots using these terms clumsily will be saying things you need to decipher.
But hopefully, through this piece, I’ll be able to arm you with a cleaner instinct for this language. Note that my treatment is both normative and descriptive. Normative because I’ll try to convince you that you should use such language my way (and because I’ve never seen a comparable set of definitions anywhere). Descriptive because the most sophisticated users of such language I have met do in fact use the words in these senses.
The Triangle and Waves Model
Chances are, your mental model of complex decision-making, based on just the terms strategy and tactics, looks something like this picture, which is simple, elegant and wrong. I call this the ‘triangle and waves’ model because it conceptualizes the structure of decision-making with a triangle (implying hierarchy) and a set of time scales with shorter and longer cadences.
I won’t tackle all parts of the diagram right away, but here is a sketch of why it is the wrong mental model to have in your head.
- Relativism: Draw a bigger triangle subsuming this one, and/or longer/shorter time horizons. Everything changes, making your definition relative. You gossip that your annoying co-worker is “tactical” and doesn’t see beyond his product to the whole product line. One floor above, some managers are shaking their heads and labeling you as tactical because you don’t consider succession planning issues or morale, and are focused on just the product-line.
- Reversal: The captain of a military unit is sent on the tactical mission of securing a bridge. “Private!” he barks at one of his men, “Place those charges at strategic points on the bridge.” (I made this up, but my military friends have assured me its not too unrealistic). Isn’t strategy supposed to be on “top” of tactics?
- Arbitrariness: Why three levels? Why not 2, 7 or 19? If it is just a matter of zoom levels, why only 2?
- Over-specificity: Do strategic and tactical mindsets only exist in hierarchical decision-making contexts? Can strategists and tacticians exist among a set of nominal peers? Can an individual cook be strategic as opposed to tactical? Can a writer or comic-book artist? Can people trade roles, with tacticians temporarily doing strategy and strategists doing tactics?
So why do so many people seem to have this sort of picture in mind when they talk about complex decision-making? One reason is that it can function as being practically true under specific local conditions (like a stopped clock being right twice a day). We can get away with the vague notion that strategy is about the ‘big picture’ while tactics is about the ‘details’ because, most of the time, believing this doesn’t hurt us.
But the problem is, it doesn’t help us either. You cannot compute with this mental model, making it effectively useless. You can rationalize, but not reason, with this model. Here is an example. Suppose you are the chairman of the board of a company on the brink of bankruptcy. You’ve just fired your incompetent CEO and are scrambling to find a turnaround artist. What do you need? A master strategist or a brilliant tactician? Turns out, most of the time, you will need the latter, and that’s often the type of person hired (in fact there are firms and executives who specialize in turnarounds). The triangle-and-waves model can be used to rationalize this. You could say turnarounds are “short-term” quick changes and therefore require “tacticians.” But what is the reference scale? Is 6 months short-term or 3 years? You can tell this is a retrofitted explanation because the alternate (“To turn a company around, you need long-term focus on the rebuilding the fundamentals”) sounds equally plausible.
I haven’t completely demolished the triangle-and-waves model (that would take a longer essay) but I hope I’ve poked enough holes in it that you are ready for something better. I’ll move on, but after providing you with a final question to undermine your confidence in the triangle-and-waves model. Which do you think is the more abstract construct? Strategy or tactic? If you answered “strategy” you’ve been misled by the model. Along the dimensions that actually matter, tactics are the abstract constructs. Strategies are the more concrete ones. I’ll tell you why in a bit.
To get at why the triangle-and-waves models leads you astray, let me introduce to you two terms that are part of military discourses but unlike strategy and tactics, haven’t made as successful a leap to civilian language. These are operations (sometimes termed logistics) and doctrine. A popular cliche in the military goes: an amateur focuses on strategy and tactics, a professional focuses on operations (an observation validated by the fact that most video games have no operational elements). Operations is what the naive dismiss as bureaucratic middle management. Doctrine usually doesn’t even appear in the lexicon of an inexperienced decision-maker. Here are my four definitions:
- Doctrine: Doctrine is the set of assertions we accept as true in an action domain.
- Strategy: A strategy is a set of action and sequencing commitments, consistent with doctrine, and driven by the unique features of an action domain that constrain, but do not define, plans and schedules.
- Tactic: A tactic is an abstract action that can be applied in any of a large class of situations that conform to set criteria.
- Operations: Operations is the discipline of realizing strategy in the context of a background of infrastructure systems, resources and processes using a vocabulary of tactics.
I don’t (yet) have a clean visualization or metaphor, but here is how the concepts relate:
Strategies are imagined stories about possible worlds, whose constraints are determined by elements of doctrine, and whose vocabulary is determined by available tactics. Converting those stories into reality through appropriate mixes of deliberative, reactive and opportunistic planning, scheduling, resource allocation and risk management, in the fog of action, is the discipline of operations.
Quick example to illustrate the relationships. In World War II, the Germans invented the tactic of moving infantry on vehicles at the achievable speed of mobile artillery rather than keeping mobile artillery at the speed of soldiers marching, as was done in World War I. This lead to the doctrine of blitzkreig, which in turn constrained the specific strategies in the invasions of Poland and France.
Notice how, in this example, there is a complex circular relationship where the apparently low-level element (tactics) drives the apparent highest level (doctrine) which in turn rewires strategy. Hardly the simplistic case of picking a strategy and then fleshing it out with tactics.
Here are some examples demonstrating the use of these definitions in classification and short fragments of analysis.
- The idea in the US military that one must control the tempo of a military engagement is an element of doctrine (hence “shock and awe”). So is the distinction between air superiority and air supremacy. In the corporate world, mission statements articulate doctrine. Pop quiz: what do vision statements articulate (hint: NOT strategy).
- Strategic nuclear warheads are strategic because they can take out enemy cities and other assets that play unique roles in enemy social systems. New York, Moscow, New Delhi and Baghdad are not just large cities. They also play unique roles in their respective cultures.
- Blowing up a bridge or securing a building is about tactics. Running a meeting effectively is tactics. Choosing not to describe yourself as a “strategic thinker” on your resume or in an interview is a tactic (based on the nugget of learned Groucho Marxian wisdom that people who call themselves “strategic” are perceived as NOT strategic).
- A unique context can turn a tactical element into a strategic one. Blowing up any bridge is a matter of tactics. Blowing up the only bridge leading into your enemy’s capital becomes a matter of strategy. A tactical nuclear warhead can be used to strategic effect if you use it to blow up your enemy commander-in-chief’s bunker. In the business world, a crucial meeting about a merger can turn an everyday tactical skill into a unique, once-in-the-history-of-the-company strategic element.
- The notion of “Information Superiority” in today’s US military is a matter of doctrine. The related concept of “Network Centric Warfare” is a matter of operations. Business analytics is a tactical element, the idea of Open Innovation is doctrine, not strategy. Lean Six Sigma is about operations. IBM moving to services is strategy.
- Placing a charge to blow up a bridge (a tactical objective in general) can be a strategic matter because you must identify the unique parts of the bridge structure that, if blown up, will cause the bridge to collapse most efficiently.
- Tactics are abstract: they can be described in manuals with toy situations (for running a meeting or blowing up a bridge). Strategies are concrete: they are best learned through case studies of specific real histories about real people and places, with names (ever wonder why military officers and MBAs train on case studies rather than game theory?)
- Can you analyze the “turnaround artist” situation described earlier and propose an argument why this person must be a tactician rather than a strategist?
- Apply these definitions to a different domain. How would you tell a tactical chef apart from a strategic one? What elements of a chef’s approach to cooking constitute doctrine? Is Iron Chef a game of strategy or tactics? What about Dinner Impossible?
- Try art. What parts of making a portrait map to doctrine, strategy and tactics?
So why are these definitions justified? I’ll provide a hint, but defer a full development of the underlying theory (I promise you, I have one!) for later. Here is the hint: think about the complexity of a decision problem in terms of the number of variables involved. Now think about the processing limits of a decision maker (7 plus or minus 2 items in short term memory, and similar constraints). Now think about how many repetitions it takes to master a skill (about 2000 for a motor skill), and the time it takes to get one repetition under your belt in a given domain. How many generals do you think will have a chance to become good at leading alliances in world wars through 2000 instances? If they don’t have time to learn the “leading world war alliances” skill through repetition and practice, how do the Eisenhowers and Genghis Khans of the world come about?
To make it even simpler, consider toy examples. Why is Go, a game with a 19×19 board, and indistinguishable pieces considered “strategic” while Chess (6 unique pieces, 8×8 board) considered tactical? Why is cricket considered a strategic game with respect to baseball? Why is American football considered more strategic than soccer?
I’ll address all these interesting foundational questions in a future piece (bookmark and check back), but for now, let me leave you with some simple rules of thumb to operate with, and a little history of my own interest in these matters.
The Cheat Sheet
I’ll explain some of this in a later article (bookmark this and revisit, I’ll add links), and leave some as homework exercises. (How’s that for arrogance?) Keep in mind that individuals may display all four of these skills in varying amounts.
How to tell a real strategic thinker apart from a pretender
Strategic abilities are developed by studying case studies, which pick out unique features of histories of actions, highlight the important and ignore the irrelevant. If you tell a story incoherently, you are not a strategic thinker. If you tell a story dutifully and boringly well, respecting the canonical telling (or genre conventions), you might be a competent strategist, but are not a talented one. If you are able to tell a story in an exciting way that picks out the right elements to highlight, you might be a talented strategist. These are necessary conditions; by no means sufficient. This is one reason why ‘a sense of history’ is a symptom of strategic ability.
How to spot a doctrine artist
A doctrine artist — a priest — is a decision-maker who thinks about the consequences of asserting or denying various existing beliefs about actions, and adding new beliefs to the set of axioms. To spot talent at doctrine-setting, ask questions like “What are the fundamental assumptions of our industry today? Which of these do you think is changing?”
How to spot a tactician
Look for practiced, non-disciplinary skills. Most people have mastered at least one or two professional skills requiring specialized training, so looking for that doesn’t help. But natural tacticians tend to have developed skills that aren’t taught, but nevertheless require practice. These include conversation skills and meeting skills. Look in particular for things someone could have said or done, but chose not to.
How to spot an operationalist
Operationalists are usually the easiest to spot. They usually display a high degree of comfort with the design and maintenance of systems and processes and “getting things done.”
Despite what many people think of me, strategy is not my strongest suit. Doctrine is. I tell interesting but not striking stories. Like Vonnegut’s Kilgore Trout, I am better at making up clever premises for stories than actual stories. My tactical abilities are patchy, with pronounced weaknesses and strengths, as are my operational abilities. I’ll deploy a tactic right now and not tell you what my strengths and weaknesses are.
Where this is coming from
Someday, I’ll do the full version, but here is the short version. Back around 1994, I sat next to an Indian Air Force pilot (he flew Mig 29s) during a train ride, and had a long conversation about the differences in warfare driven by the differences between Soviet and American military hardware. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, that was the first conversation I ever had about doctrine. I was an undergraduate at the time, and still not over my infatuation with encyclopedias of military aircraft.
Skip ahead to about 2000. I was in graduate school at the University of Michigan, and playing a small part in a US Air Force research proposal our department was submitting. We talked a lot about some very complex problems with very loose language. We used, and drew diagrams of, nebulous ideas like “strategy is about what you want to do, tactics are about how you do it.” We proposed fluffy “three layer architecture” diagrams based on such foggy arguments. No wonder we lost the contract. Substituting one pair of ambiguous terms (“what” and “how”) for another (“strategy” and “tactics”) just makes things worse.
I survived and found other ways to fund my PhD, but was left with an uncomfortable sensitivity to clumsy language in this domain and wrote up some notes. In 2003, I met Mike Allers, who had just quit the US Navy to pursue a PhD in the philosophy of language. After a series of excited brainstorming sessions, we actually co-authored a proposal to study the semantics of the terms “strategy” and “tactics.” We didn’t get funded, but the ideas stayed with me and fermented. Between 2004 and 2006, I spent my time doing more Air Force research as a postdoc at Cornell, this time on things like command and control systems and notions of “situation awareness.” In the process, I plowed through reams of military literature (mostly around the concepts of network centric warfare) and had some interesting conversations with Fred Zeitz, a retired USAF Lieutenant Colonel. The ideas finally started coming together.
Somewhere along this long journey, two simple words, “strategy” and “tactics” become a 3-ring binder full of half-digested notes and thoughts on this sort of thing. You’ve just read the first of my attempts to finally process that 15 year line of thinking (and hopefully be done with it).
It’ll take me some time to work out all these ideas in beta, so apologies for any incoherence. Any ideas you can add to flesh out my snowballing theories (Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, Machiavelli and Kautilya beware) appreciated.