Vision and goals. Strategy and tactics.

November 2011

We have a strategic plan. It's called doing things.

— Herb Kelleher, Southwest Airlines

A friend of mine recently gave me a short article to read concerning corporate strategy and bad strategy in particular. The basic premise is that a lot of bad strategic decisions boil down to lack of clear direction, interpreting tasks as strategy and engaging in pointless word-play. One bank's quoted mission statement was especially amusing (paraphrased): focus on effective customer financial intermediation. In other words, the bank's mission is to be a bank... The article encouraged me to write a bit about this issue, but instead of playing with words I want to give them a bit more structure.

While the term 'tactics' isn't typically used in a business context, the other three terms in this post's title are. The problem is that they are used interchangeably or entirely misused. Here's how I define these four terms:

  • Vision: a particular view of the world as it would be if the product or service is in use. How does a person's life change? How does society change? What new opportunities are created?
  • Goals: a set of events that help the vision become a reality. This could be a product launch, an efficiency improvement or a boost in user numbers. Still abstract, but showing some direction.
  • Strategy: a thought-out plan of possible actions and distinct results that will accomplish the goals. How will you get 10,000 more users within 3 month? When will the new 3rd party system need to be integrated into your current infrastructure? Here is where it gets a lot less abstract. Numbers, diagrams, expectations, orders.
  • Tactics: moment-to-moment adjustment of action based on changing circumstances. The nitty-gritty. The doing, the daily operations. This isn't long-term: this is now, intuitive, based on experience and what feels right given the situation.

Although the numerical hierarchy between 1 and 4 corresponds to the level of abstraction, I don't see this list as necessarily top-down or bottom-up when it comes to execution. When it comes to it, each 'stage' is reliant on the rest: no point having a vision if you don't have a way to bring it to life; no point just doing stuff without a bigger picture in mind.

However, what's important isn't talking about the definitions and writing stuff down, but - as Herb Kelleher put it - "doing things." At the end of the day, these are just a bunch of words. Where's the action? I think we can all benefit from less talking (both physically and in our minds) and more wilful acting. Not impulsively or doing for the sake of doing, mind you... That's just as destructive!