“In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” – General Dwight David Eisenhower
I recently returned from Key Biscayne, Florida, where I spent a few days administering and watching the 2004 US Olympic Trials in sailing. The US Trials occur once every four years and are a series of winner-take-all events. Only the top boat in each class qualifies for the Olympic Team. Winning an Olympic medal is generally recognized as the most difficult and significant achievement in the sport of sailing, and in the US you can’t compete in the Olympics without first winning your Trials.
The level of competition at an Olympic Trials is remarkably high. The most competitive teams are world-class sailors in excellent physical condition who have spent countless hours on their technique, speed and maneuvers. All of their equipment is meticulously prepared. On top of all this, they need to market and fundraise to support their efforts because our government and the USOC do not provide significant funding.
Because of the competitive nature of both Olympic-caliber sailing and business, I often draw parallels between the two in my writing and client work. Both share several requisite intangibles: vision, determination, confidence and patience. And there are tangible requirements as well: mastery of skills, teamwork, effective marketing, financing and organization, and first-rate communication and sales skills.
The one similarity between business and Olympic sailing that I find most intriguing is the necessary balance between strategy and tactics. Olympic-caliber teams are masters of both, and understand the nuances required to balance the two.
Defining the Terms
Before we go any further, let’s look at a dictionary definition of the terms:
Strategy: the science of planning and directing operations, specifically of maneuvering into the most advantageous position prior to actual engagement with the opposition.
Tactics: the science and art of maneuvering resources in action or in response to the competition.
Here is how I define the terms in a more practical sense. Strategy is the pre-game plan to achieve your goal. Tactics are the decisions you make, and how the strategy is altered in response to changing conditions during the game.
Prior to beginning a sailboat race, competitors determine their race strategy, which in its simplest form consists of a plan to cross the finish line first. To create this game plan, it is critical to decide where the best wind and current will be, and then design an optimal approach to achieve the goal.
Businesses do the exact same thing. Executives plan their brand strategy, product launch strategies, and business development strategies. These activities happen in one form or another every day, in every industry, in every organization.
Back out on the race course, once the race begins a natural shift from strategy to tactics occurs. Some teams will execute better than others, forcing other boats to adjust their plan. Or, perhaps the wind and weather will change, making the chosen strategy less appropriate. Perhaps, it will become apparent that the pre-game strategy was flawed from the outset. Whatever the case, the best teams adapt their pre-game strategy by making tactical decisions in changing environments to achieve their goal.
Good strategy and good tactics together are required for success – on the water, in the boardroom, on the shop floor, or in a sales meeting. Strategy without tactics leads to inflexibility. Tactics without strategy leads to disintegration. To return to our sailing metaphor, strategy without tactics will cause you to keep racing north, when your opponents all have identified a wind shift and are now sailing east. And tactics without strategy will cause you to tack, or change direction, constantly on every tiny wind shift, losing sight of the bigger picture.
Planning Strategy versus Executing Tactics
Strategic planning generally occurs within the senior levels of an organization. But tactical decisions are best made in a more responsive, agile way. Often there is not time for the questions to be deferred up within the organization. The marketplace and the customer demand quick answers. So while the senior executives can and should play the role of strategist, the managers and the sales teams often are the organizational tacticians. They are at the front line with the customers. They are the ones responsible for implementing the strategy day-to-day. They give the strategy a face and a voice. And they are the ones who need to react quickly to the customer response to a product or a service.
As an example, Smith Barney Citigroup wants the public to believe that its financial advisers are elite. Their current advertising tells us that only one in seven who apply are actually hired and put to work in the field. The strategic message is that their financial advisers are uniquely qualified to serve the client need. This is a good message, and it is appropriately broad for a firm of its nature and size.
But the challenge for every branch manager and every financial advisor at Smith Barney Citigroup is to give the strategic message life and substance. The message came from on high, but the tactical response will come at ground level. To a certain degree, the managers and advisors are the ones in charge of the tactical message. They must demonstrate with their words and by their actions how and why the strategic message is true. In other words, they must identify themselves as individuals within the umbrella of the company branding. They experience the reactions of the clients and the competition to the strategic message first, and therefore, are the ones who must initiate any tactical adjustments.
As senior executives, you need to train and empower your sales managers, sales teams and customer service representatives to be able to communicate your strategic message and make the necessary tactical adjustments to move the organization closer to its goals. Mid-game decisions should be made on the field, and the only way this can work is with appropriate training and empowerment.
As you think about your organization, ask yourself a few questions.
- Can all your sales people articulate the message in a consistent and compelling way?
- Are you confident that the people throughout your organization are capable of bringing your strategy and message to life through their words and by their actions?
With these questions in mind, there are several ways that you can train and empower your people to react tactically:
- Educate everyone on the strategic message and make sure that the entire organization understands it, can articulate it and does so in a consistent way;
- Create layers to the message so that there is substance, texture and context to it. It is not enough to simply create a plan and a message that states “customers are our top priority.” There needs to be sufficient layers so that the message can be brought to life by the individuals throughout your organization. There needs to not only be a “what” to the message. There needs to be a “how”, “when” and “why”.
- Empower individuals throughout the organization with sales skills and tools that will allow them to brand themselves – through their words and by their actions – in a way that is consistent and enhances the company brand and the company message.
In my six years of training and competing for a spot on the US Olympic Sailing Team and throughout my professional life, the best teams have always been the ones where both strategic and tactical thinking were present and encouraged throughout the entire organization. Certainly, some strategic centralization makes sense in larger companies. But I submit that the most successful and effective organizations train and empower their people to react and respond to their customers, to the marketplace, and to the competition with strong tactical and sales communication skills.
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