Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Tactics and Strategy

These two words -- “tactics” and “strategy” -- are among the most misused and misunderstood in the English language. An understanding of both, and their relationship to each, is of great importance to the running of all organizations and significant efforts, including any philanthropic enterprise.

I will not try to define them with abstractions. I will use the metaphor of a bridge. A good tactician is like one who knows how to design and build a bridge; a strategist is one who determines the optimal place to locate it. Both functions are essential but to build a bridge without giving thought to where it can be of greatest utility, now and in the future, limits its effectiveness. An exquisitely built bridge in a poorly chosen location is truly “a bridge to nowhere.” It would be unwise to even start designing a bridge until the best possible site was carefully thought through. That would entail not only thinking about the role of the bridge today, but the role it might play in shaping the future. For instance, a good strategist would ask, “How might this bridge link two major metropolitan areas and thereby promote commerce and economic development? How might it anticipate shifts in population that might allow a city to grow that reduce traffic congestion and improve the environment? How might it allow more people to have access to cultural or natural amenities?” Good strategists do not just think about reacting; they think about improving. They study trends and patterns and try to anticipate that which is coming. They try to get a jump on the future, to profit – economically, culturally, or spiritually – by better understanding what will be. They think about how current hopes and plans will have to adjust to changing realities.

Sound strategy determines the function; tactics are the form that follows function. To put it plainly, strategy always comes first. Philanthropy is ill-served by too great an emphasis on the tactics of fund-raising as a means to an end. Those tactics must always be subordinate to the strategies that imagine how an organization can make a greater difference in the lives of those it purports to serve.

And, yet, strategy without sound tactical execution consigns the potentially transformational project to the drawing board forever. To have vision or the most noble of intentions is not enough. Indeed, so many philanthropy-seeking organizations fall short of worthy aspirations because they think that’s all it takes. Do-gooders need doers. Visionaries need implementers.

Some strategists have the tendency to sniff at “mere tactics” while tacticians paw the ground at the mention of strategy and say, “Let’s just get on with it.” Leaders understand the importance of both, and work to convince each of the importance of the other. Great leaders know which one they are not and seek out their counterpart.

Philanthropy is about a bridge to a better world. It begins by defining where a difference most needs to be made. Actually making the difference requires sound engineering and dedicated steel workers

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