Strategy is easy – it's tactics that's tricky

Game plans are fine ... until the other side gets the ball.

Now that everyone’s sitting nicely on the mat, we’re going to talk about strategic planning – and how much time it wastes. In my view, the real effort when planning should go into tactics – the ‘how’ rather than the ‘what’. Strategy is simple – it’s tactical implementation that’s hard.

mike hutcheson business strategyThe trouble is most people want to play in the high-level strategy sandpit and tend to confuse strategy, tactics and objectives, so it’s worth defining the terms. If, for example, your objective is to get to work, your strategy would be to either take the bus or the car. Having say, chosen the bus for practical reasons, (a decision taking all of five seconds, trading off the cost of the bus fare versus convenience, costs of petrol and parking) your tactics would be to get up and get dressed, have breakfast, organise the kids and leave the house in sufficient time to make it to the bus stop to catch the next bus.On the decision tree, most of the boxes to tick are on the tactical rather than the strategic side of the ledger.

Similarly, with a game like rugby, the objective is to win the game and the strategy is to field the best players with the best skills. It’s that simple. Again, the strategic decision taking all of five seconds to figure out. Once that’s sorted the tactics involve the hard work of getting the team to implement the right moves, run the right lines, tackle, scavenge, run, retain the ball, or kick it as appropriate.

Now, the theory sounds fine, but it doesn’t guarantee success, because of course, the practice is somewhat different.As a friend of mine (a former coach of the Auckland team) once said, “Game plans are fine till the other side gets the ball.” Sometimes the pesky competitors change the rules and blindside the opposition.

As a kid in the early 60s, I recall listening to a radio broadcast of a test match between the All Blacks and France. I was incensed when fly-half Pierre Albaladejo put France in the lead (albeit briefly) with a drop goal.

“The cheat,” I thought, staring aghast at the glowing dial of our Philips Soundmaster 6 valve radiogram. “He can’t do that!” Such a thing was unheard of in this part of the world.

That incident was bad enough, but around the same age I totally lost my innocent faith in rules and authority. I learned that fine upstanding Englishman Robert Falcon Scott had been pipped in his race to the South Pole by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who committed the appalling crime of eating his dogs on the journey! My pre-pubescent sense of chivalry told me that simply wasn’t right.

And what of Osama Bin Laden, whose fanatical acolytes turned commercial jets into guided missiles? They totally changed the rules of air travel and have made getting on planes a tedious inconvenience. A gaggle of deluded zealots completely subverted the strategies of the biggest and best funded security, policing and anti-terrorist organisations in the world.

It’s a misconception that the more you plan, the better the results. Often the opposite is the case – many organisations, particularly large bureaucratic behemoths, suffer from paralysis by analysis, missing the boat by over-worrying problems.Research has shown there is often a negative relationship between time spent putting together a strategic plan and the success in implementing it. Personally, I favour the “Aim, Fire, Ready” approach, rather than “Ready, Aim, Fire.”You don’t want the target to have moved while you’re getting ready.

Nor is good strategy the infallible key to success. A moment’s thought will give you a litany of great plans that failed, from the Ford Edsel to New Coke.

That underscores a major problem with strategic planning and delivers the most important lesson. Conventional wisdom says that consistency is crucial – once you have a plan, you should stick with it. But the best-laid plans need to be flexible enough to evolve over time, tweaked and changed as situations evolve. While the end objective should always be kept in mind, to paraphrase Einstein, adaptability is more important than rigidity.

Experience tells us that a good strategy is just one ingredient for success. Success can’t be guaranteed – if it were, we’d all be winners. If there were such a thing as predictive research, researchers would be billionaires.

Visionary leadership is what really underpins success. Visionary leadership is able to deliver insights that can form clear and simple strategies. Strong leadership can fix a weak strategy, but even the best strategy won't help weak leadership.

And taking a longer view, it’s worth remembering Darwin’s dictum: “It isn’t the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”

Mike Hutcheson is a former Saatchi & Saatchi grand fromage, a director of Image Centre, and a fine player when he puts his mind to it. He also won business columnist of the year at this year's Magazine Awards.