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Why planning breaks down and fails: When tactics replace strategy

🕐 4 min read

Anderson Consulting 

Installment 4 in a 10-Part Series by Bruce Anderson, a Revenue Focused Strategic Planning & Business Management Consultant

Early on in every strategic planning engagement there’s always the discussion of the best people to involve in the process. Over the years, I’ve broadly segmented individuals into two groups – Thinkers and Doers.

I like involving people at all levels of the organization … especially those closest to the customers. And, I’ve found when considering high-level strategic issues, the best results are achieved with the Thinkers. These are smart, positive, high-energy individuals enthusiastic about innovation, generating big ideas, and probing totally new and different ways of solving problems and identifying and targeting opportunities.

I recall one planning session where about 10 Brainiacs were seated around a circular table. The nervous energy being expended by this collection of wired Type A’s had right legs bouncing with such intensity the table was actually vibrating. I remember placing both hands on the tabletop, feeling the amperage, smiling, then standing up and giving everyone the time out signal. We acknowledged the moment with a good laugh then took a short break.

I have total respect and appreciation for Doers. They’re the practical and dependable operations folks that execute faithfully day in and day out. Without them, the real work in the trenches doesn’t happen. Doers have a remarkable ability to accept and follow instructions and carry out a plan effectively and efficiently. They also are a great source of honest feedback in identifying plan oversights and flaws and can be highly-skilled problem solvers when confronted with unexpected issues arising in the heat of implementation.

However, Doers always are way more comfortable focused on the details of today than anticipating the possibilities of tomorrow. And, in an adrenaline surging ideation session with a bunch of dreamers, Doers can quickly kill the buzz by sharing their well-intentioned operational appraisal of why each idea won’t work.

Every organization needs a great mix of both groups to excel. And, it’s critical to involve Doers when the process moves to establishing timelines and imagining and documenting the tactics that will be employed to achieve the specific objectives via the strategy.

Over the past decade I’ve noticed more tactical leaders becoming top executives. I’m sure the rapid pace of change in the wildly competitive business climate is a key contributor in this shift. It takes a disciplined, well-organized individual to avoid spinning out of control and driving the business into the ditch.

Tactical leaders are concerned with the present. They’re oriented to short-term decisions and managing risk for a quick gain. They’re disciplined, make lists, pay strict attention to details and check every box when preparing to execute the plan.

Common tendencies I’ve observed among them are that they: run their business day-to-day and primarily focus on what’s right in front of them; involve themselves in projects (who else will do it); have a lot of day-to-day management tasks (no one else on the team can do them better); have no time to teach (quicker to do it themselves); focus on systems and processes (must have a well-oiled machine); hold an obligatory planning session once a year (might lead it personally); and have a generic, cookie-cutter mission and vision statement (checked that box).

I’ve always believed the best organizational leaders have the ability to think strategically before acting tactically because even the most brilliant execution of bad strategy can end poorly. I’m reminded of a favorite quote from the futurist Alvin Tofler, “You’ve got to think about big things while you’re doing small things, so all the small things go in the right direction.”

For me, the term “tactical leader” is an oxymoron because by nature, tacticians have more managerial characteristics than leadership qualities.

Peter F. Drucker taught us that every organization must concern itself with: 1) “Doing things right” and 2) “Doing the right things.” Doing things right is tactical thinking. Doing the right things is strategic thinking. Tactical thinking is management. Strategic thinking is leadership.

So when a tactician leads an organization, it’s understandable that the distinction between strategies and tactics can get a little fuzzy. As tactical leaders attract and add more tacticians around them, the enterprise becomes increasingly oriented to tactics and less focused on strategy.

The adage “Failing to plan is planning to fail” still applies. So when tactical leaders replace strategy with tactics, they’d better have a large tactical toolbox and a well-organized, equipped and impeccably trained tactical unit built to prevail against the competition at any cost. Even then, it’s wise to consider the words of U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Peter Pace (16th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff). Pace said, “Today’s tactical victory does not guarantee tomorrow’s strategic success.”

My counsel to the tactical leaders is to use your inherent discipline to create space for you and your team to think frequently about the big-picture results you’d like to achieve, then use those brilliant tactical minds to plan and execute efforts aimed precisely at those big-picture goals.

More next week.

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

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