The importance of strategic and tactical balance in uncertain times

Discussion
Photo: Getty Images/adamkaz
Mar 12, 2021
Dave Wendland

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is an excerpt of a current article from the blog of Dave Wendland, VP, strategic relations at HRG. The article first appeared on Forbes.com.

Last year, many companies struggled to implement tactics to build resilience into their organizations to survive short-term perils, without losing sight of long-term strategies for an unknown future state. Indeed, the pressures of the day often overshadowed longer-range thinking.

That was one finding from a recent executive roundtable session I hosted on balancing resilience.

Several attendees commented that managing the day-to-day has become more exhaustive since each day brings to light something unknown. This has always been the case, but it’s been further exacerbated by the pandemic.

Flexibility and the ability to adapt have been essential over the past year and will undoubtedly become the “new normal.” Most felt the increased speed to decisions and the time to execution were positives that emerged as a result of COVID-19.

So, how can business leaders move beyond the status quo and start driving action?

A famous quote and lesson from Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” is: “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

At our roundtable, bringing in an outside perspective was considered a valuable option to help see the forest for the trees. Considerable time was spent exploring the two questions below and we felt that, regardless of industry, balancing these two vantage points of tactic versus strategy are important:

  • In what ways are you stepping above the fray and seeing a broader, more strategic view?
  • How do you nimbly and objectively assess what is working and what isn’t?

Uncontrollable circumstances always have the potential to disrupt an organization’s focus, energy and mission. Remaining calm under pressure is vital. As our own organization faced the uncertainty of the ensuing pandemic, senior leadership has set the tone in four areas:

  1. Reestablished trust across the company — we’re all in this together.
  2. Recognized individuals and their unique needs, circumstances and priorities.
  3. Reiterated teamwork as an essential factor to serve each other, especially given work-from-home realities.
  4. Reminded clients that we are committed to their success.

The bottom line for leaders looking to build resilience into their organizations is clear: create processes that withstand disruption, communicate vision with confidence and prepare to dynamically adjust previous thinking and approaches.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What tips would you have for businesses for building resilience in uncertain times? How do you balance short-term tactics and long-term strategies?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"Investing in the right retail technology will help with both the short-term and long-term strategies."
"These are tough conditions for planning when the priority may simply be survival."
"The compression in the rate of change is making the distinction between strategy and tactics a genteel artifact of a more innocent phase in the history of capitalism."

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23 Comments on "The importance of strategic and tactical balance in uncertain times"


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David Naumann
BrainTrust

With the dramatic shifts in consumer habits and social and economic uncertainty throwing a curve ball to retailers during the pandemic, agility has never been more important. Responding quickly to new consumer expectations and supply chain demands has been a tactical imperative during the past year. Retailers that have embraced a culture of agility have thrived during the pandemic and are positioned well for future shifts in trends and unpredicted disruptions. Those that make the necessary short-term changes with consideration to alignment with long-term strategies will be the winners.

mansirana
Guest

Well said!

Rich Kizer
BrainTrust
There are rarely keys laying on the floor of the executive suite that contain all the answers. One business owner we worked with during the height of the pandemic sat in his office with a blank look on his face and admitted he had no idea what to do. He had badgered his upper management with no success of finding a path to answers. We asked him if he remembered the famous advertisement of an airline, where the CEO was gathered with his executive staff. The CEO was giving assignments to all of his staff on what clients they had to immediately visit to discover what their customers wanted. Finally one staffer asked the CEO where he was going, and the reply was golden, as he replied “I’m going to our best and biggest client who just fired us.” With that, we all walked down to the sales floor and spent time with the associates on duty, and with customers. We discovered volumes that day. You have to search areas you have never tread at… Read more »
Ben Ball
BrainTrust

Ironically, we just started our annual review of the business with our associates yesterday in our weekly virtual meeting. Many of the things Dave discusses like recognizing individual needs and being in this together came up as important. But the single most referenced attribute was “agility.” Our business has transformed over the last decade as our MossWarner communications agency has become a much bigger part of it. One of the drivers of that business has been high stakes, senior level or company wide meetings — almost always “live.” With all that coming to a screeching halt in March of 2020 the situation wasn’t hard to read — pivot or be crippled, perhaps permanently. The management team put a full court press on leveraging every technology and technology partner available. Clients responded with a newfound appreciation for the importance of strategy and preparation, not to mention attention to detail and commitment to safety. I’m sure there are many similar stories in the RW universe. Congratulations to all the survivors.

Dave Wendland
BrainTrust

Great point, Ben Ball: “Pivot or be crippled, perhaps permanently!” And strategy must include an appreciation for this newfound agility.

Ron Margulis
BrainTrust

Some think the best end-state for businesses after COVID-19 is a return to exactly where we were at the end of 2019. That misses all the opportunities the pandemic has created, and not just in terms of the commercial prospects. Individual businesses should take advantage of the transformations resulting from the lockdown to better align the workplace with productivity, profitability, job satisfaction and social responsibility goals. Not to do so would be a waste.

Dave Wendland
BrainTrust

Brilliantly stated, Ron. To go back to what was would be devastating to nearly any organization. We should have changed forever.

As Oliver Wendell Holmes suggested, “A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.”

Andrew Blatherwick
BrainTrust
It is very important that the strategy and tactics are not conflicting. The tactics are tools to achieve the overall strategic goals. If the two are not aligned then chaos will occur. To avoid chaos from happening, it is very important that the strategy is not written as “Tablets of Stone” that are so inflexible as to create conflict between what is necessary for the business today (the tactics) and what is the future direction for the business (the strategy). The strategy should constantly be reviewed to make sure it is still relevant and desirable. If it isn’t, then change it. If changes in the business environment dictate that the old strategy is no longer valid, then management must have the courage to make changes. As stated in the article, communication is crucial so that the whole team understands the reasoning behind any changes and move forward in harmony. As we all know communication is often the element that leads to failure in a business. The board thinking they are the only ones who need… Read more »
Brandon Rael
BrainTrust

Companies had built three to five year strategic road maps and longer-term organizational and technology transformation plans during pre-pandemic times. These were wider scope, enterprise-wide significant investments, and typically announced as part of annual reports or PR announcements.

However the great digital acceleration sparked by the pandemic has required organizations to pivot on the fly, taking a far more agile and tactical approach to the immediate business challenges they have faced. The term “think like a startup” gets overused. However the startup agile and tactical strategies can help companies shift and pivot to meet the needs of a rapidly changing consumer landscape.

We should expect a blended organizational model of agile/quick-win tactical projects and longer-term strategic transformation plans as we move to a post-pandemic world.

Lisa Goller
BrainTrust

The pandemic proved the irrefutable need for organizational agility. Winter storms in Texas and bottlenecks like port gridlock have also disrupted business this year.

In response, companies can establish cross-functional risk management teams to boost resilience and ensure business continuity. These teams help leaders stay mindful of the big picture, beyond their company, supply chain and domestic market. Global market scanning helps companies monitor long-term trends and prioritize short-term tactics.

Starting with long-term strategies (like boosting efficiency and getting closer to consumers) helps companies prioritize tactics (like digitizing retail processes and analyzing consumer data). Balancing the big picture with relevant action keeps companies competitive.

Adrian Weidmann
BrainTrust

While many of us have forecast the seamless merger of the shopping journey along with the shopper’s control of that journey for years, the pandemic has compressed the timeline of the acceptance and need for that seamless process from years into months. “Retail everywhere” is every digitally-empowered shopper’s expectation. The understanding and willingness to accept that reality and the ability to address it requires both strategic design thinking AND the agility and capability to adapt and activate tactics today. It’s not a question of balance between the two – it’s the ability and agility to do both simultaneously.

Di Di Chan
BrainTrust

Investing in the right retail technology will help with both the short-term and long-term strategies. For example, during COVID-19 lockdowns, an easy and proven technology solution that has immediately helped grocery retailers offer a fast and touch-free shopping experience is scanning and going mobile checkout. Mobile checkout solves short-term pandemic related issues such as how to implement social distancing for grocery retailers. Simultaneously, an excellent mobile checkout platform can be customized and quickly upgraded to offer new features and better services in the future. Westside Market in New York City is a good example of a retailer that recently connected their mobile checkout app with SIRL’s location navigation capabilities so their shoppers can now search for an item in stores too.

Yogesh Kulkarni
BrainTrust

These are very interesting times where the goalposts are constantly moving for all businesses, especially the retailer. Outside forces such as stores opening and closing, rapidly shifting consumer preferences and channels, supply challenges and now investor activism is making every day look like war time for a lot of executive teams. It isn’t an easy environment to keep a perspective when strategy looks like a distant North Star and everyday tactics look like firefights. However I agree with the comments made by many here – long term perspective, trust, constant communication and, most importantly, adaptability are key to success. I keep reminding myself that this time period will create as many success stories as failures.

Dave Wendland
BrainTrust

Yogesh, I agree with your observation, “This time period will create as many success stories as failures.”

DeAnn Campbell
BrainTrust

I think the speed of change is only going to escalate from now on. Few large organizations have the ability to truly be as agile as will be needed, so part of both strategy and tactics will need to be creating a mechanism to enable failures, gaps and misses to be identified and dealt with effectively. As a culture, we all understand that everyone makes mistakes, success is in how they are handled.

Yogesh Kulkarni
BrainTrust

Completely agree with your comment on “Speed of change.” Change itself is hard and doing it quickly is even harder. It is a very difficult transition to become truly agile “bottom-up” as an organization for many. Well said.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

I would suggest looking at the shelves, file cabinets, and digital files of strategic plans littering your corporate office in America and asking why almost none of them ever worked. Resilience isn’t very useful if you are misreading the market because it means you will be more nimble and agile at doing the wrong thing. The compression in the rate of change is making the distinction between strategy and tactics a genteel artifact of a more innocent phase in the history of capitalism. Increasingly they should be one in the same. Maybe what we really need is a new word that combines the essential elements of both into a single tool.

Cynthia Holcomb
BrainTrust

Under the extreme human challenges and life uncertainties caused by the pandemic, both employers and employees have faced disruption and loss in their personal lives. Building resilience in uncertain times like these, kids out of school, elders alone, waiting for a vaccine, being confined to Zoom, homebound, all of it is against our combined human nature.

Short-term tactics and long-term business strategies must be cognizant of the current realities of their employee’s lives. The greatest strategy a business can have at all times, especially in hard times, is employee buy-in. Employee buy-in — fostered by an open culture of management transparency, communication, and care, enabling employees who execute the tactics and strategies to do so as part of a greater and stronger community of valued corporate workers. This leads to the greatest compliment an employee can share with others: let me tell you about “my company.”

The power of individual human belonging to a corporate mission is a hard emotion to break if treated with care and kindness by those in leadership.

Brian Cluster
BrainTrust

For the most part, companies that were strong digitally performed better during the past year. To be successful in these uncertain times, retailers must improve the transparency of their business. This means a better understanding of their most important assets of data, talent, and how things are getting done. Building resilience requires building a foundation of consistent and trusted data where your company can be laser-focused on continuously improving business processes and analytics. With a holistic view of your data and an understanding of who uses it and how it is used, retailers can close the gaps of understanding oof siloed decision making that may be impacting growth.

Kenneth Leung
BrainTrust

I think the key is to have an open attitude that as a leader, you don’t have all the answers right now, but you have the flexibility to make the changes needed. You also have to be open hat your experiences may not help when the underlying assumption is changing, what worked before will not work now.

Doug Garnett
BrainTrust

I’d suggest deep reading on the topic of emergent strategy. Strategy must not be an “either/or.” There are many times when strategy must emerge from tactics — and most of the times tactics must derive from strategy. Mintzberg discusses this in his books (Managers not MBAs and also The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning).

For more modern reading, I recommend the work of JP Castlin from Sweden. His newly published Castlin Manifesto looks at traditional and emergent strategy both. It’s quite good.

This all results from understanding both how strategy works in real life as well as some of the excellent understanding of complex behavior from the world of Complexity Science (Santa Fe Institute for example).

Find JP’s work through his website StrategyInPraxis.

Rachelle King
BrainTrust

These are times when we all wish our crystal ball had a little more focus. Uncertainty has always been around but until recent times, it hasn’t taken a seat at the table. Few things threw off strategic planning more so than doubt, fear and uncertainty; all of which have been amplified with the pandemic.

Even more, there is a new, compounding factor that we used to take for granted; the general welfare of our employees. Now, employee welfare is as much a focus area as the bottom line. These are tough conditions for planning when the priority may simply be survival.

One thing that will help long-term planning is to have a short-term plan. Once the immediate needs/concerns have been addressed, it may be easier to plan forward without fear of shifting focus from the day-to-day. Then of course, blanket both plans in flexibility and scenario planning.

Larry Miller
Guest
1 month 6 days ago

Love the topic of Strategy vs Tactics. It’s always swirling around. In my consulting I stress the immediate understanding (as Sun Tsu put it in The Art Of War) “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” My experience shows the we naturally think and act tactically, often missing the vital strategic. The process must begins with a clear vision. Then the development of the strategy, the desired brand result, the vital tactics needed to accomplish the strategy and finally the specific plan of how to clear and consistently communicate each element throughout the enterprise. It does take time to get VSBTC into your culture, but I love the results this process can achieve. It isn’t complicate if we break the elements down step-by-step. I’d enjoy hearing thoughts….

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"Investing in the right retail technology will help with both the short-term and long-term strategies."
"These are tough conditions for planning when the priority may simply be survival."
"The compression in the rate of change is making the distinction between strategy and tactics a genteel artifact of a more innocent phase in the history of capitalism."

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