Strategic thinking is generally characterized as thinking about the future with a focus on moving the organization forward. The important attributes of strategic thinking are:
A long-term view. Most strategists tell me they work three to five years out though some look out as much as ten years. The length of time has more to do with business cycles and marketplaces than methodologies. The key is to get sufficiently beyond the current planning horizon to have the ability to materially affect the next planning cycle.
A big picture view. Small problems often require strategic solutions, but most strategic thinking focuses on big issues like growth and transformation. Systems thinking is the typical style as strategists attempt to understand the complete operational and contextual picture. The downside of big picture thinking is that it is easy to miss important implementation concerns. Just one of many reasons we need tactical thinking too.
Exploring. Strategic thinking is exploratory, looking for possibilities and opportunities. This is the attribute that most frustrates the more tactical thinkers. They want to focus on things they KNOW will work. Creativity is the critical thinking skill required for exploration.
Testing. Much of strategic thinking is idea testing. Which of these ideas will work? Which ideas even make sense? Which options are the most valuable? Which create the most challenges for the organization? Do we have the capability to pull this off?
Tactical thinking is characterized by making in-the-moment decisions to get things done. Attributes of tactical thinking are:
Short-term view. Tactical thinking focuses on current plans, projects, and problems. The typical timeframe is 12 to 18 months but can be much shorter – sometimes days. The big question is how we make progress TODAY.
Narrow solutions. The goal of tactical thinking is to reduce the “clutter of strategic thinking” and get to some actionable element. The tactical thinker is constantly scoping work into something that is clearly manageable and within the organization’s current capabilities. This often leads to resolving symptoms while not addressing the core problem. The tactical thinker sees this as an appropriate tradeoff while the strategic thinker sees it as a failure to follow the plan.
Safe choices. Most tactical choices are safe choices. Tactical thinkers are highly time sensitive. There just isn’t time for creativity. They want to leverage current capabilities. Additional risks slow down decisions and ultimately cause more rework. The safe choice is “do what works”.
Postpone solving the hard problems. Tactical thinkers do not ignore big issues. The just set them aside to make more tangible progress on pressing (short-term) issues today. They see getting to the ultimate goal as a series of plays where their job is to move the ball forward, not throw a touchdown pass.