Strategic vs. Tactical Decisions and Actions

Podcast Ep. 138: Strategic vs. Tactical Decisions and Actions with Adam Ulery

Strategic vs. Tactical Decisions and Actions
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Episode Description:

This week, Dan Neumann is joined by return guest, and senior consultant in AgileThought’s Innovate line of service, Adam Ulery. Adam is a perpetually curious, continuous learner who is always willing to encourage others to try new things (as he very often does himself). He is very focused on helping organizations clarify and meet their business outcomes, and he loves to help companies become resilient and rediscover their curiosity.

In this episode, they are exploring the topic of strategic vs. tactical decisions and actions in agility. Adam explains why it is important to make this distinction; why, as leaders, we need to be focused on strategy more than tactics; the key differences between a strategic and tactical perspective; and tips, techniques, and advice for navigating strategy vs. tactics.

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Key Takeaways

  • Why is it important to distinguish between strategic vs. tactical decisions and actions? 
    • With the distinction, leaders will often focus too much on the tactics and not enough on the strategy or strategic duties
    • Organizations are often focused on the tactical details of what’s happening in their business and less on the strategy — distinguishing between the two allow for a more healthy/appropriate balance
  • Why is focusing more on tactics rather than strategy bad? What are common anti-patterns?
    • As a leader, you shouldn’t be too involved in the micro-details of what to do to fix an issue (instead, let the people closet to the work do the work)
    • As a leader, you should be focusing on the higher-level leadership activities rather than getting granular on what the experts should be doing on a micro-level
    • If you’re too focused on the details of what your team is doing, you’re slowing down the decision-making
    • Employees that are being watched/queried by a higher-level leader are going to end up slowing down and deferring to them to make decisions where they don’t need to (which eventually leaders to demotivation down the line)
    • If the leader continues to operate in this way (of micro-managing) the employees don’t have the time to cultivate and nurture the competencies and higher skills needed to be self-sufficient
    • Focusing on tactics more takes eyes off of meeting the strategic outcomes that are desired
    • Instead of focusing on: “Does the team have the right priorities?” focus on: “Is what we’re putting out to market this month aligned with our organizational goals?”
    • Leaders should be focusing on higher-level things (i.e. business outcomes and ensuring they are aligned to the organization’s strategy)
    • Focusing on tactics as a leader also takes eyes off of improving the system in which people are working (for example: Building customer loyalty by delivering what they need quickly and reliably)
    • If leaders are focusing on embracing technical excellence and the small details of how to actually get those activities coordinated and executed on, then they’re not focusing on the higher-level strategy of building customer loyalty or the long-term view
    • If leaders are getting in the trenches and focusing on low-level things, it distracts them from being able to think about long-range goals
  • The differences between a strategic and tactical perspective:
    • A tactical perspective is shorter-range and a strategic perspective is longer-range
    • If you’re a leader, you add value by executing on the strategy, creating vision, and growing your people
    • On the operational level, you add value by “doing the thing”/executing on deliverables
    • Neither is better than the other; it’s just about how you want to add value, where you’re focusing, and where you want to spend your time
  • Tips for how to navigate strategy vs. tactics:
    • Leaders need to work on their fears associated with letting go of control and do what they need to do in order to let others take control and be self-sufficient
    • Leaders need to enable and equip their people by making sure that they are competent and skilled before they take control (if you give control at the wrong point, you risk massive downsides)
    • As a leader, allow your people to be accountable (and teach them how to be accountable); and as they build their skills, competencies, and they’re able to take over; let them be accountable
    • As a leader, it is your duty to make sure that everyone knows what the strategy is and that they understand it (because it is hard to align to a strategy if you don’t know what it is)
    • Do introspection, self-study, lookin and analyze your own behavior and actions as a leader — are you too “in the weeds” with tactics?

Mentioned in this Episode:

Transcript [this transcript is auto-generated and may not be completely accurate in its depiction of the English language or rules of grammar.]

Intro: [00:03] Welcome to the Agile Coaches’ Corner by AgileThought. The podcast for practitioners and leaders seeking advice to refine the way they work and pave the path to better outcomes. Now here’s your host, coach and agile expert, Dan Neumann.

Dan Neumann: [00:17] Welcome to the show episode of the Agile Coaches’ Corner. I’m your host Dan Neumann, and joined today by one of our senior consultants in the innovate line of service and all around, good guy, Adam Ulery.

Adam Ulery: [00:27]
Hey, thanks Dan.

Dan Neumann: [00:28] Thanks for joining.

Adam Ulery: [00:29] Happy to be here.

Dan Neumann: [00:31] Good, good. We’re mutually happy. I like that. We today have a topic, um, exploring some of the differences between what are strategic decisions and actions versus tactical decisions and actions. This is, um, something that you brought to the table as far as the topic. And, uh, maybe you could share a little bit about why does it matter? Why does it matter if we understand the differences here?

Adam Ulery: [00:59] Yeah. Um, I think one of the reasons it matters, Dan, as we often see leaders focusing too much on the tactics and not enough on, on the strategy or the strategic duties. I know, um, according to Franklin Covey, there are four roles, leaders play that are highly predictive of their success. And one of those four is to execute strategy. Um, that is a very important thing for leaders to do. And often in organizations that you and I will engage with, we see that they’re not doing that enough. They’re more focused on the details that the tactical details of what’s happening in their business and just not spending enough time there. So I think that’s, that’s why it’s important, but I’d love us to talk about why that is a problem. Well, so right there, they’re focusing too much on tactics. Why is that an issue?

Dan Neumann: [02:07] Yeah, maybe we could, um, let’s give an example of maybe a scenario that comes to mind and then we can talk about some of the challenges there.

Adam Ulery: [02:17] Let’s talk about an example that we see as an anti-pattern and that would be there’s a production issue. Senior folks are involving themselves in the micro details of what to do to fix that issue. Right they’re in the meeting, they’re asking about code very, uh, specific details that engineers, uh, people who are experts at that job should be working on. Right. That that’s, that’s an example. I think that shows what we don’t like to see.

Dan Neumann: [02:55] I think I’ve seen that a bunch, right. Where, you know, it’s all hands on deck and that includes people way up the food chain. Right. So, so why is that a problem?

Adam Ulery: [03:07] Yeah, exactly. Now that that’s right now, why is that a problem, uh, for them to, to be involving themselves at that level? And I think there are quite a few things, unintended consequences of that, uh, things that, that causes, and one of them that comes to mind there in the, in this specific example would be not letting the experts do their job. Uh, sure. You may have been an expert in that field at one point in your career, but now that you’re a senior leader, uh, you would let the people who are currently experts at that handle, that what the people who are closest to the work do their job, because that is their job. That’s what they do. And for them to be masters of their craft, we would expect them to do their job very well, which then gives you time as a leader to focus on those higher level leadership type activities that you should be focusing on. So that’s, that’s one thing that I see, um, another, I feel like a lot of these are related, but another one is, uh, it’s disempowering. It really slows down the decision-making and someone who is being kind of overwritten or even even watched and queried by a top level leader is going to quickly start to slow down and defer to them on a lot of things, uh, where they don’t need to, they have the information they need they’re experts at what they do and for them to slow down and essentially began asking permission or waiting for approvals when they don’t need to. That just really slows things down.

Dan Neumann: [04:57] Yeah. Uh, I think your observation that a lot of these things are related is, um, an important one because they are related there. Isn’t just the one switch to flip certain behaviors, ripple through an organization in and senior folks who get way down into the tactics inappropriately, um, does have, have a lot of downside, um, you know, with the assumption that you’ve got experts who are capable of doing their job, by the way, if they’re not, that’s oftentimes a failure of leadership to select the right people, train the right. People hold them accountable, but, but assuming then that you’ve done your job to get the right people capable and on the bus, now you’re in there managing it too low level and causing complacency where, why would I figure it out? The boss is going to figure it out. So I’m just going to wait for the fricking boss to tell me, because I, I’m not going to waste my time and my talents, if they’re just going to tell me any.

Adam Ulery: [06:01]
Absolutely. And then that eventually will lead to de-motivation, especially for the brightest and the sharpest people who want to continue to grow, they enjoy solving difficult problems. They find themselves constantly having to wait or, um, you know, get some sort of approval. That’s going to start to demotivate them. And then one to me, Dan, that really it’s, it’s almost my biggest pet peeve. It just annoys me it wastes time to explain the details. Those experts could probably get the job done in the time it takes to explain why and answer continued questions of, well, why did you do this? Okay. Then why, what about that? And, you know, tell me why you’re doing this constantly justifying what they’re doing. Just wastes a lot of time.

Dan Neumann: [07:00]
There’s a balance with that particular one. And it relates back to, are the people competent enough to do their job? I know we’ve both read, turn the ship around by David Marquet. And at one point it sounded like his ship crew really didn’t have the competence to execute. And therefore it was his job to do a bit of a checklist. If you will, of, you know, have you considered these things? Yep. I heard you intended to do that. Have you done X, Y, and Z. Cool. Go do it. So I wonder if there’s something to the degree, to which some of that is done or maybe the maturity of the organization.

Adam Ulery: [07:43] Yeah. I, and if the leader continues to operate this way, they don’t have the time to cultivate and to nurture those people, to grow into those competencies and to be at the higher skill levels that we would need them to be, because they’re focusing on the wrong thing, they’re being too tactical. And if they bring that up and instead focus their energy on growing their people and teaching them how to do those things, then those people can be more self-sufficient and handle those things.

Dan Neumann: [08:20]
Yeah. What, what you’re describing there, it just doesn’t scale, right. A person getting involved in details doesn’t scale. So you have to abstract away in order to be able to focus on the system.

Adam Ulery: [08:33] Absolutely. So Dan, another thing I think it causes problems with is it really takes the eyes off meeting the outcomes that are desired, right? So we want leadership focused on those business outcomes, but if they’re too focused in the tactics, the details of how we’re doing these things, they’re not going to be able to focus on those outcomes.

Dan Neumann: [09:03]
Yeah. I think of that. We’re going to get into an example of strategy and tactics here in just a moment around agility. Um, but a, a place where I see leaders not focus on outcomes is when they become insanely curious about things like, well, what’s the team’s velocity, is it going up? Is it stable? Velocity is just a number. If anybody wants to hear, uh, a protracted conversation about velocity, uh, Sam Falco. And I did an episode, just a few back on kind of the, the good, the bad and the ugly of, of team velocity. Um, instead of focusing on, does the team have the right priorities what’s going to market this month? Is that aligned with our organizational goals? Those are much more valuable conversations than focusing on the tactics and the activities of a thing like velocity.

Adam Ulery: [09:54] Yeah, absolutely. And, and that’s exactly why we’re talking about this because we want to see leaders focusing on those, those higher level things. That’s where they are most effective, right? That’s where we want to see them playing is focusing on the business outcomes and ensuring that those aligned to the organization strategy and where we want to take the business.

Dan Neumann: [10:21] And then the last thing that it takes their eyes off of is improving the system in which people are working. Let’s focus on a system where people have clear priorities, let’s focus on a system where people have better skills, more modern approaches, and that’s something leaders should be focusing on strategically instead of down in the weeds.

Adam Ulery: [10:43] And as we mentioned before, if they’re down in the weeds, they don’t have time to do that. So it is a bit of a vicious circle, which is one of the reasons that we try to pull them, pull them up out of that and find ways to, to get out of that. So you can focus on the right things at that higher level.

Dan Neumann: [11:01]
Yeah. Let’s um, make sure to come back on that, find ways to get out of that vicious circle. Um, maybe an example of strategy and tactics. I think in my mind at times it can get a little fuzzy, um, what, what is a strategic perspective of a tactical perspective? And, and sometimes there’s this gray in between, um, an example we were talking about, uh, in prep for this is building customer loyalty by delivering what they need quickly and reliably that’s, that seems like it’s strategic, it’s longterm, it’s a fairly stable type of strategy. And the tactics to support that might look like, Hey, we’re going to use an agile framework, Scrum, Kanban, both, um, whatever that enables delivering value quickly and reliably. Exactly.

Adam Ulery: [11:53] So if leaders are focusing on, um, creating the team that can do both development and operations improvement, if they’re focusing on, um, embracing technical excellence and, and they’re focusing on small details of those things and how to actually get those, those activities coordinated and executed on, then they’re not focusing on that higher level strategy of building the customer loyalty by delivering what they need quickly and reliably. And that’s really what we want the top level leaders focused on is that longer view.

Dan Neumann: [12:37]
And in how they can enable that longer view. So do we have people who are, you know, if you’re going for technical excellence, do they understand software craftsmanship, or do they understand how to leverage the Azure cloud to get the resiliency or the speed that they want, or to be able to roll out a change to test it and then roll it back if you get unintended business outcomes from it. So that type of environmental situation, the people, the stress, the tactics, the training, whatever people need is a great place for leaders to be focusing.

Adam Ulery: [13:17] Right. And I, I just, I see it all the time where if they’re rolling up their sleeves and they’re getting down in those trenches and helping with those low level things, it just distracts them from being able to think about those longer range goals that we want leaders focused on.

Dan Neumann: [13:38] So one of the differences then when you’re trying to, as, as a human look and see, is this a tactical approach, is this a strategic approach? Is the, the horizon, the, the range you’re looking for longer range versus shorter range.

Adam Ulery: [13:53]
That’s really the primary difference. And then it’s important to understand that strategy will change more slowly, whereas tactics will evolve more rapidly, right? Just by the nature of the items.

Dan Neumann: [14:21] Back to kind of the restaurant industries, uh, you know, right before COVID. And then what we experienced here in the U S with some of the lockdowns. Um, I think when there’s a, a big trigger like that, some of the strategies shifted very rapidly from maybe having, uh, an optimal, um, in restaurant dining experience, whether it’s a fine dining or whether it’s, you know, grab the fried food and get them out as quick as possible, right. There’s there’s people who want either of those at any particular time. And there was a lot of strategy shift to how do we feed people without them being in a restaurant? The takeaways, the, um, I know Indiana, the state of Indiana here in the US they, um, got more liberal with their liquor laws. So restaurants can now sell bottled liquor. So you get yourself a margarita kit to go suffer through COVID with a margarita. Um, whereas before that would have never been allowed. So sometimes a, a rapid shift in strategy makes sense.

Adam Ulery: [15:21] Yeah. And if the leader is in a specific bar making a margarita or a restaurant making the margarita and saying, but is that really how much lime juice we need to put in? No, I think we need to put more or less of that in here. Then they’re not able to think about those larger, um, that, that larger strategy there of allowing that to happen across all of the restaurants in the state.

Dan Neumann: [15:51]
And what’s your sense for the strategy is the domain of the big brains at the top. And the tactics are the domain of the little people at the bottom, or kind of, you know, and just framing that question. I hope, hope to weigh you down a perspective there.

Adam Ulery: [16:10] Yeah. Well, I think it’s more about the, the role you play at the level you’re in than, um, than an intelligence or, or an entitlement because of a title or those types of things. Right. I think it’s more about where people add value to the organization. And, you know, if you’re sitting in those top level leader seats, this is where you add value, right? You add value by, uh, executing on the strategy. You add, add value by, um, creating vision by, by growing your people. Um, if you’re not, if you’re in those lower, those, um, operational levels, then you add value by doing the thing. One’s not really better than the other. In my view, it’s just where people feel comfortable, where they like to focus, where they enjoy adding value and working. Um, so I mean, that’s kind of the way I look at it and I never want to say, we want to prevent people from asking questions or collaborating with the operational worker. So stopping people from communicating. It’s not that at all. It’s more about where you’re choosing to spend most of your time and where you’re really focusing.

Dan Neumann: [17:44]
Yeah. The way you’re describing it as a primary focus, maybe a primary role, because we do want overlaps. We typically don’t advocate for silos in, I can think of safe to say most situations, we don’t advocate for silos. So if the, uh, in the bar example, if the bartender’s got an idea, you know what, boss, we might be able to package this up and sell it. That could be a whole different offering. People are responding positively to this. What do you think? You know, offering some strategy ideas, um, in the technology field, if you’ve got some folks who are deep technicians and Azure DevOps rolls out a new capability, and they go, that is the best thing since sliced bread, this will solve our problems, right? That’s an opportunity to share the strategic alignment or even suggest a strategy shift. Um, similarly, if, if you’ve got, um, people who have long tenure in the organization and they know something about the tactics, um, it would be silly for them not to share if somebody got a blind spot, if they just have no idea about this, this secret of the organization, that’s been there forever, that, that maybe you built and share some ideas. So there’s, it’s appropriate to overlap at times. And so we’re in absolutely people in silos. Yeah.

Adam Ulery: [19:07] Yeah. I completely agree with that. And maybe in an upcoming episode, Dan, we can talk about the importance of alignment of execution to strategy, right. Because it’s, it’s critical to have that alignment and that’s kind of what we’re starting to do.

Dan Neumann: [19:24]
Totally agree. Totally agree. So we won’t chest chase that rabbit rabbit now we’ll, uh, we’ll look to have it in a, in an upcoming episode, but let’s, um, maybe as we’re getting towards the back part here, we can share some tips for people on how to navigate this strategy and tactics.

Adam Ulery: [19:42] Yeah, sure. I, well, I think one of the reasons we see this behavior might be a fear of letting go. Uh, it might be a fear of losing some control. Um, and I think something leaders can do is work on that personally and, and start to do what you need to do to become comfortable enough, to let people take control, um, and enable them, equip them. We have to ensure they’re competent and skilled to do that. You don’t want to just let them take control if they don’t have the skills and competencies to do it, that would be disastrous. We don’t want that to happen.

Dan Neumann: [20:34] I was thinking of, uh, my, my son, he, I don’t believe he listens to my podcast despite being 21 years old. But, uh, he went through driver’s ed, uh, which is a thing we have to do. And I thought about my drivers ed, that we drove a car around a parking lot around the cones, et cetera, et cetera. I got yelled at for being too close to the car in front of me. I assumed that in Indiana, we might’ve done something like that. God, no. Like I got in the car, he whipped out onto, it’s not a main road, but it’s busy enough. And he was across the center line and I kind of told him to correct. He almost put it up on the grass. On the other side of, I had just stop the car. Right. What what did they teach you? Because holy cow, I’m scared. Um, and so we went and found a big parking lot with lots of room for error, no cars, and, and we spent some time actually driving a car. Um, and I think of that with, uh, with technology teams and with businesses, where if you give control at the wrong point, you risk massive downsides. And so your point, uh, sometimes it makes sense to let go, but only when you’ve done things to build competence, to build trust, safe, fail experiments, um, smaller test environments, more training, whatever that looks like, improve the environment people are in so that you can let go, uh, with the fear.

Adam Ulery: [22:05] Yeah. And closely related to that in my mind is allowing them to be accountable, teach them how to be accountable if they don’t know that. And as they build their skills and their competencies, and they’re able to take over, let them be accountable, teach them how to be. And then that’s another step as a leader you’re taking not only in coaching and growing your people, but, and getting yourself comfortable to let go a little, let them do that. So you can now focus on more strategic items.

Dan Neumann: [22:44] I’m going to pull on that thread of accountability a little bit. That was one of those terms that, uh, for the longest time I felt I heard it short of firing somebody. I wasn’t quite sure what was meant. Cause I was at a place where, you know, I’m pretty sure by accountability, they meant you’ll lose your job if you screw it up. Um, but I, at one point I heard the description of, to give an accounting for as, as a description of accountability. So it isn’t you make the right decisions or else it was give an accounting for why something transpired, Hey, I, I did X, Y or Z. Well, why did you do that? Well, I looked at this and I looked at that. I considered this. There was a, there was a situation that seemed to make this the most prudent path of action. And I took it. Maybe it didn’t work out the way we thought, because that’s how life works. But did you take a responsible approach to what you did? And for me, that really helped with what accountability meant. I don’t know what your perspective is.

Adam Ulery: [23:48] I, I couldn’t agree with you more. And for a long time, I was also confused by it. And I associated it with a negative word to me when I heard it, it was a negative word that inspired some fear in me because of what you said, right? Like, oh no, if someone’s being held accountable, they’re in trouble or, you know, something like that. And I also like you learned that it means more an accounting for, and being able to stand up and talk to what happened, take, you know, take ownership of that and, um, be the person who speaks to that. And, and that made it more of a positive word. And someone has to a leader above you has to allow you to, to have it. If they’re always stepping in to do that for you, then you’re never able to learn it and to, to take it and to be accountable.

Dan Neumann: [24:50] Totally agree. Maybe just, uh, a little bit more here on some of the tips, I would imagine it’s hard to align to a strategy if you don’t know what it is. And I, I see that with leaders frequently. Well, they, they assume everybody knows, or it was said once, and I can be a little guilty of that at times. Well, I said it. Okay. Has it been said over and over and over to the point where people like can literally repeat it?

Adam Ulery: [25:19] Yeah. I think it’s so important to ensure it’s understood because you say it doesn’t mean people process it or understand it or could be behind it. Right. So communicating it well and ensuring it’s received people, get it. I think that’s important. You’re right. We see that all the time where yes, the leaders have come, they have spoken the statement. They have shared it maybe multiple times, but no people have not received it. They don’t really know what it is.

Dan Neumann: [25:58]
So Adam, thanks for taking some time today to explore strategy versus tactics. And who’s focused where, and some of the why’s behind that. And I’m curious what closing thoughts you might have.

Adam Ulery: [26:12] Yeah. Thanks a lot, Dan, for having me on always fun, uh, in partying, I I’d like to encourage any leaders out there to do some introspection, some, some self-study and, uh, make yourself aware if you may be following one of the anti-patterns we discussed where you’re too far in the weeds on a regular basis, uh, and think about what you might do to pull yourself up out of that and, um, and start to operate at a more strategic level.

Dan Neumann: [26:43]
Perfect. Thanks for that, Adam. And then we closed most of the podcasts asking what’s on your continuous learning journey. And so I will, uh, I will ask you that.

Adam Ulery: [26:56] Yeah. So, um, lately I have taken to reading this book called sprint how to solve big problems and test new ideas in just five days, it’s by a guy named Jake Knapp, K N A P P. Uh, and it’s, it’s really interesting. It is, um, a design thinking type book. So talking about how to bring ideas to market essentially very quickly by running like some, some, uh, design thinking type spreads. Really interesting.

Dan Neumann: [27:33] Oh, interesting. Very cool. I know there’s some design thinking, uh, stuff that came out of what does it stand for D school if I remember, right. And so this might be a nice compliment to some of that exploration we’ve done. Wonderful. Hey, thanks for sharing, Adam. It look forward to having you on and what we’re going to talk about alignment in a future episode. So people will have to stay tuned and look for that one.

Adam Ulery: [27:57] Awesome. Thanks, Dan.

Outro: [28:01]
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