Stop Trying to Find Tactical Solutions to Strategic Problems

Most problems in life require strategic solutions, but we falsely apply tactical solutions to these problems because it's in our nature to do so. Here's how to fix that.
July 19, 2020

Early on when I was building EDMProd, I had the same problem that every business owner has...

“How can I grow my revenue and profit?”

Sales had stagnated. I was barely making enough to live off and pay my brother who was working for me at the time.

I tried solving that problem by:

  • Tweaking the sales pages for our existing products
  • Adding short call-to-actions at the bottom of our blog posts
  • Posting more content
  • Praying that the USD/NZD exchange rate (I live in New Zealand) would adjust in my favor so I could get more money without doing any work

Except none of these moved the needle. I was dealing with a strategic problem that simple tactical actions would not solve.

The Tactical Bias

We all have a bias towards using tactical solutions to solve strategic problems.

Tactics are usually:

  • Obvious
  • Simple
  • Easy to put in place
  • Sound good
  • Make us feel like we’re doing work

You can see this bias everywhere.

Someone who's trying to lose weight might opt for a tactical action without considering other variables. They decide to go for a walk every day, expecting their weight to drop, but their carb consumption has increased proportionally. Nothing changes.

Someone wanting a promotion might stay late at work, hoping that their boss will notice (and favor them). While they’re doing that, another colleague is strategizing and figuring out how he can create more profit for the company in his current role. He works the same amount of hours, and gets the promotion for obvious reasons.

A married couple keep fighting. They are on the brink of divorce. The husband figures that if he buys her flowers every week (tactical), then that will fix things. Of course it doesn’t, because there are deep issues that haven’t been resolved (and won’t be resolved through tactics). The marriage dissolves.

Tactical vs. Strategical

Tactics are specific, simple actions/behaviours.

Strategies are multi-faceted, holistic, and have complexity.

Some problems in life don't need a strategic approach. You can get by just using tactics. Bad dental hygeine? Brush and floss every day. You don’t need to put together a strategic plan for that.

Other problems need strategy and tactics.

For these problems, the tactical approach alone doesn't work.

Why tactical solutions rarely work for strategic problems

Let’s say you want to run a marathon.

You hated running in high school, and you haven’t done it since.

You figure that it’s as easy as just getting out there and running. Just run every day. Do it.

Day one: you run, but you run WAY too fast and get tired less than a mile in. You walk back home and assume it’ll be easier the next day.

Day two: you go for another run, but again, you run too fast. You run slightly farther than yesterday, but you’re still disappointed.

Maybe it’s your shoes. They are kinda old anyway.

You buy some new shoes and go for a run on the third day. Now your feet hurt. And you still can’t hit one mile.

The tactical solution (just run every day) hasn’t worked. It hasn’t considered human physiology, aerobic base building, or the science of running.

And that’s the core problem with tactical solutions: they are tactical. They are not designed to be all-encompassing solutions. They need to “plug in” to a bigger system (the strategy).

If you have a goal to run a marathon, you focus on strategy first and then tactics:

  • You follow a marathon training plan from an expert.
  • You start slow, building up your aerobic base and mileage.
  • You keep patient.
  • You eat well.
  • You sleep well.
  • You don’t overtrain.
  • You incorporate some speed work.
  • You schedule your runs so you won’t miss them.

At the end of the day, the core tactic is “run consistently.” But as you can see, there’s a foundational strategy underneath that tactic.

How to take the strategic approach

If you’re dealing with any sort of complex or major problem, chances are you need a strategic solution.

Of course, every problem is different, and there’s no one blueprint for dealing with them the same.

However, there are principles that can guide your thinking and planning when taking the strategic approach.

Step 1: What is the real problem?

Let’s say that you feel lazy and want to be more productive.

Maybe that’s the real problem: you're lazy.

But it might be that you’re way too hard on yourself. When you look back at the work you’ve done over the past few months, you see that it’s a lot.

Or it could be that you have a false notion of what productivity is (see: Gary Vaynerchuk). You think you need to be hustling 12 hours a day.

If you don’t step back to see the problem for what it really is (or isn’t), then you risk implementing a strategic and tactical solution that drives you towards solving the wrong problem or a problem that doesn’t even exist.

Step 2: How did I get here?

The easiest way to find a strategic solution is to reverse-engineer what led you to the problem.

If you used to be healthy and fit, and now you’re not, then there are actions that led to you gaining weight. Figure out what those are.

If you don’t, you run the risk of creating a strategy that doesn’t factor in the real cause of weight gain.

You might think, “Well, I gained weight because I started eating icecream 3 nights per week.”

And that’s true.

But when you reverse engineer the problem, you remember that you started your icecream eating habit when you felt stressed at work. You would stop by the store on your way home and buy icecream a few times per week so you could eat away the stress.

Once you realize this, you factor stress into your strategic plan to lose weight. Maybe you’re not stressed at the moment, but you know there’s a lot of work coming up, so you need a plan to deal with that. Tactics are no match for deeply-wired habits.

Step 3: Entertain complexity, then simplify

Most problems have layers and levels of complexity that aren’t always obvious.

If you’re unproductive, it could be that you’re lazy. That’s the simple answer.

But it could also be due to other reasons:

  • You’re not sleeping well because you live in the city and sirens wake you up at night. Your ability to concentrate and motivate yourself is significantly lowered as a result.
  • You live right next to a McDonalds. Naturally you eat a lot of McDs. You kill your energy levels.
  • You spend too much time playing video games or watching porn and mess up your dopamine regulation. Doing productive work just doesn’t excite you anymore.
  • Your girl is mad at you and you’re worried about the future of the relationship. You can’t focus.

Now, that’s a complex issue. It’s good to consider all these layers and factors.

But here’s the problem: you can’t fix all of these. There’s no realistic strategic solution that enables you to be more productive by fixing these problems. At least not all at once.

And that’s why you need to start by considering the complexity of the situation, and then simplifying it.

You find the one thing that impacts your productivity the most.  Then you design your strategy and tactics around that. Once you've solved it, you move on to the next problem, and so on.

Maybe it’s sleep. Instead of your strategy being complex and trying to solve all the above problems, you boil it down to:

Develop a healthy sleep routine by going to bed earlier and waking up earlier. Reduce the time it takes me to get to sleep, and reduce the frequency of awake periods during the night. Then, focus on improving the quality of my sleep once the length is in a good place.

That’s a good strategy. And that’s the 3-step process finished.

Of course, the question now becomes: “How do I implement the strategy?”

Moving From Strategy to Tactics

Tactics plug into the wider strategy.

Once you’ve finished the 3-step process I’ve outlined above, you need to find a tactic (or tactics) to plug into the strategy.

Again, let’s take the example of sleep. There are several factors affecting your ability to get a good sleep, and you know you can’t fix them all at once.

You use strategic thinking to identify what you think is the most potent tactic to start fixing this problem. It might be simply waking up at the same time every day, instead of sleeping in which causes you to stay up even later the next day.

Strategy = “I’ve identified the most important thing I need to do”

Tactic = “This is the important thing I need to do”

The more complex the strategy and problem, the more tactics you may need to put in place. But keep in mind that the purpose of the strategic thinking is to simplify the problem so you don’t need to throw a bunch of tactics at the wall.

Conclusion

We frequently find ourselves dealing with problems, many of which need a strategic solution.

Next time you find yourself dealing with such a problem, take a moment to slow down. Consider all aspects. Question your assumptions. Don’t blindly leap to the tactical solution that makes you feel like you’re making progress (but in practice, never lasts).

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