How to Bridge the Gap Between Tactics and Strategy

3 ways to get ahead of risk

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Credit: Sebastiaan ter Burg

One of the first big consulting projects my firm worked on looked at how Hurricane Sandy affected New York City and its surroundings.

The problems that Sandy caused were remarkably complex and intertwined — from gas shortages and closed hospitals to transit systems destroyed by flooding.

While the city and surrounding states could respond effectively to isolated challenges (getting food and water to people whose homes had been damaged, for example), most solutions required multiple things to go right at the same time.

Power restoration, for instance, required that linemen be dispatched to the right place, but clearing debris needed to be coordinated and done first. Often, that didn’t happen, so linemen drove to site after site without actually being able to turn the electricity back on.

The same kinds of catch-22s contributed to fuel shortages, too. Mass transit failures and infrastructure problems (a shutdown pipeline, offline refineries) affected the workers tasked with restoring operations.

Those are just two examples. Across the region, there were many system problems at play.

What struck me then (and has stayed with me) is the gap between a tactical response and the ability to meet an overall strategic objective.

We are, in broad strokes, pretty good at tactical responses. Linemen restore power. Workers operate refineries. Doctors intubate patients. The people who do these things practice them, sometimes every day.

But solving big strategic problems requires us to work across boundaries — team, division, organization, and even governmental boundaries.

And boundaries are a big source of misunderstanding, sloppy thinking, and, therefore, risk — something that shows up a lot in András and my research.

Here are three things I think about to try and get ahead of these kinds of risks on a project.

1. Ask how many things need to go right

When I’m working with leaders, one of the questions I routinely ask is “How many things need to go right for this project to succeed?”

It’s a simple question, but it can steer your attention to the challenges caused by complexity.

2. Slow it down

Readers of Meltdown will know that tight coupling exacerbates complexity. Tight coupling is a lack of slack in the system, a lack of ability to respond to problems.

Sometimes tight coupling is driven by reality — needing to get power restored as quickly as possible after a hurricane is an example.

If that’s the case, acknowledge it and rank your priorities. What will you work on first? What solutions will help you make the most progress?

But, many times, tight coupling is imposed by pressure coming from somewhere, often a senior leader in the organization. That pressure can translate to stress and tension in our work with other groups. As a result, we can start a drive toward solutions before we even let our partners know that there’s a challenge to think about.

Instead, remember that different groups will start at different places. People require space to understand the problem and think creatively. So, as much as you can, slow things down to allow for divergent thinking.

3. Practice

Some groups practice with simulations — running wargames that incorporate people from other organizations. And, while these can be useful, they have a lot of drawbacks. They interrupt normal work. They’re usually expensive. And they’re necessarily limited by the imaginations of the people who run them.
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​Instead, practice by working on bite-sized chunks of a bigger problem. Do you want to solve a complex problem? First, work with a group on a less ambitious challenge — or to solve a complex problem in one team or facility.
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​Even if the solution isn’t transformational, it will both make things better and build your problem solving capacity. That experience can then be used to learn and guide the process moving forward.

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Teams often occupy the space between day-to-day tactics and overall strategy. How do you invest in yours?

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Written by

Host of The Breakdown™ podcast. Co-author of MELTDOWN, a book on why our systems fail & what we can do about it. A lot, it turns out. http://bit.ly/1-meltdown

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