Business once encouraged the view of strategy's superiority to tactics by throwing piles of money at it. Fifteen years ago, many with a Wharton MBA and a lust for money and status tried to get into strategic planning. They're still great jobs if you can get them. But after Business Week in 1984 reviewed the history of thirty-three major strategic plans, and found that nineteen had failed, the exalted status of strategic planners was in trouble.
Many business textbooks reinforce this bias about strategy's superiority. No surprise. Professors write textbooks, and most professors think that working on strategy sounds like a more dignified use of one's gifts than toiling on tactics.
But in successful companies, tactics drive strategy as much or more than strategy drives tactics. These companies do something and learn from it. It changes their thinking. As Tom Cooper, the former COO of the Access Management, has observed, "Sometimes, the very first tactic you execute changes your entire plan.".
For a vivid example of tactics shaping strategy, consider the Apple Macintosh computer. The Macintosh was not the first iteration of the Macintosh product; the Lisa was. Lisa bombed. But Lisa showed Apple what the market really needed. Guy Kawasaki, Macintosh's product manager, has admitted that Macintosh evolved from an explicit strategy:
Ready, fire, aim.
Or, as Kawasaki expresses it, "Lead, take a shot, listen, respond, lead again."
Tactics don't complete a process; they continue to shape one. Tactics sometimes are the end, the beginning, and the middle. Most important, tactics play a critical role - often the critical role - in information gathering. By contrast, you can't learn from your strategy. It's just sitting there pretending it knows what it's talking about, while your tactics are out there getting battle-tested by the market.
I once advised a consultant who was vacillating among several reasonable marketing tactics. I had a button printed with two words of advice for him:
Morale : Do Anything.