Why planning breaks down and fails: Effects of the tactical culture

In the Tactical Culture, a stream of wide-ranging tactics can be effective but results aren’t attained very efficiently.

Installment 3 in a 10-part series by Bruce Anderson, a revenue-focused strategic planning and business management consultant

These days I have a “short runway.” In recruiter-speak, that’s code for an executive with an AARP card. However, wisdom is a great by-product of having more career behind you than in front of you.

For me, the world started gaining speed the day a fax machine was installed in our ad agency that could get a layout for a national magazine ad to a client 1,500 miles away in six minutes. Next thing I knew I had a cell phone mounted in my car so I could increase productivity driving back and forth between offices 100 miles apart. Then came a Macintosh PowerBook and I could work from Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., New York and Paris by just dialing up the internet on my modem (as long as I could get a handshake).

When I first began conducting strategic planning sessions, we were anticipating and preparing for what we thought would be happening 10 years into the future. That became five years and now it’s tough to get executives to focus on what’s three years in front of them.

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The frightful pace of business keeps leaders in reactive mode. It’s not unusual to find them a little frazzled and operating with a short attention span. Minds are constantly spinning because the present is just happening and changing way too fast. Reactive thinking devolves into tactical thinking and the planned course of action gets altered.

Among executives in the small- to mid-market sector, a different mindset of what it means to be in control seems to have emerged. They actually embrace chaos and seem to be feeding on the adrenaline rush of operating just on the edge. They work IN the business almost all the time and invest little to no time working ON the business. Success is frequently related to how quickly leaders can recognize and adjust to change, how well cost can be controlled in this dizzying environment, and how fast they can move to seize opportunity while constantly trying to plug the holes in the dike.

I saw where Mario Andretti said, “If things seem under control, you’re just not going fast enough.” I don’t really see that being much of a problem these days.

I find more and more leaders using short-term tactical thinking to try to address strategic issues. It’s easy for them to get caught up in reacting to the thing causing them the greatest level of urgent pain.

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A few years ago, I got fired from an assignment in the middle of the engagement because the owner of a mid-sized distributorship got really frustrated. He’d signed a contract for strategic planning but it turned out that he didn’t care about thinking through the situation, setting objectives and developing smart strategies. What this business owner really wanted was as many tactical ideas as possible, as fast as possible, to attempt to interrupt an extended cycle of sagging sales that was bringing cash-flow pressure. He had no patience, and therefore no interest or time, to identify, understand and correct the systemic issues producing the problem.

It was an epiphany for me because this person had a hole in the bottom of the boat and wanted to direct every bit of available energy toward bailing. That clearly wasn’t a sustainable, or productive, approach. In my view, it would have been close to impossible, for even the smartest, most creative and most resourceful mind, to produce and execute the continuous volume of good ideas required to keep that boat afloat.

The solution was to solve the immediate problem to the best of our ability while correcting the systemic problems so a better level of performance could be consistently achieved in the future. The exasperated owner wound up selling the business to a competitor. He was ready to trade the hamster wheel for a more peaceful existence in retirement.

Especially with entrepreneurs in emerging businesses, tactical behavior tends to rule the day. It’s common to see them being really scattered and unable to get and stay focused on objectives and strategies. Racing brains bring them a flood of new ideas every day. Their resources already are constrained yet they’re jerking what staff they do have back and forth, sending them off in different directions. They’re busy putting out fires that are combusting spontaneously around them while starting plenty of new fires on their own.

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I’m not saying a steady stream of wide-ranging tactics can’t be effective, but the results are achieved at a cost. They certainly aren’t attained very efficiently because inherent in conceiving and implementing tactics is a high incidence of missing the target.

Billionaire Morris Chang chairs one of the world’s largest manufacturers of semiconductors. He said it very simply, “Without strategy, execution is aimless.” And Sun Tzu had it right in the late sixth century BC: “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

More next week.

Bruce Anderson is president and CEO of Anderson Consulting. Contact him at ba@acdallas.com and @bruceadfw.