Strategy and Tactics

Often, one will hear someone in the workplace telling someone else to think or act “strategically” — when what they really mean is “be smarter.”

Like the term “leadership,” it is a shorthand for a larger idea — but for most people this idea is ill-defined.

What is “strategy?”

I learned strategic planning from one of the people who helped develop our modern understanding of its application to business (he was at GE under Reg Jones). While strategic planning has changed many times since it was first elaborated in the late 70’s, this definition from my mentor always sticks with me:

“Strategy is a decisive allocation of resources.”

In other words, a strategy is something that, if you pursue it, other avenues are foreclosed. Many different tactics, on the other hand, could be used in the pursuit of a particular strategy.

In most cases, I’ve found that the answer to this question depends on the size of the theater. What is a tactic when looked at from one level can be a strategy at another level.

As an example, a company might have a strategy to use social media as its primary marketing communications tool. It would use various tactics to achieve that: blog comments, Facebook pages, Twitter, and so forth.

However, depending on the size of the theater you are looking at, a tactic can become a strategy. Just thinking about the fictitious company’s “social media” strategy, imagine the marketing department that is charged with implementing this. The fact that the overall thrust is social media will now be a given, just a parameter.

The strategic decisions at this level really will center on which tool to use and how strongly to bet on it. And then, even more granularly, there can be questions of strategy within each tool — it is possible to have a “Twitter strategy” and a “Facebook strategy.”

The key is always the decisiveness of the moves. Strategy, in whatever theater, is always decisive.

(Adapted from an earlier post.)

My Approach to Annual Review and Reflection, 2021-2022

As the year ends, and the new one begins, many people reflect upon and review their past year, and think about how they wish to act moving forward. Some call it “making resolutions,” some “setting intentions.” People do it all different ways.

Here is the way I have been ending each year since 2015. It is an approach that has served me well. I typically go over my review with my spiritual adviser and sometimes I share it with my spouse.

Aspirations (Virtues and Defects)

This, for me, is the most important. I reflect on my behavior over the past year, think about where I fell short and what patterns suggest themselves. Which defects of character were most bedeviling? I think about what the corresponding virtues might be. These become the guideposts for how I want to behave overall in the coming year. This list rarely changes from year to year. For the past few years, my list has been:

Humility (vs Pride)
Generosity (vs Selfishness)
Acceptance (vs Self-Pity)
Diligence (vs Sloth)
Tolerance (vs Judgment)

It was two years ago that I added the last item in the list. Before that, the list had been stable for many years.

Areas of Focus (Plans, Results, Plans)

I next look across the key focus areas of my life: Faith, Family, Work, Health, etc. For each, I had set plans in the previous year. I write down my results as I reflect on the past year. Did I meet my goals? Considering this, I then set out plans for the upcoming year.

Here is an example:

  • Body (health & fitness)
    • Plans 2021: Follow doctor’s orders, reduce cholesterol. Continue running — 5 mile routine.
    • Results 2021: Stasis. Periodic yoga, periodic lifting. Struggled to lose weight. Stayed on track with medical appts.
    • Plans 2022:
      • Improve fitness routine, focusing on consistency
      • Resume yoga
      • Achieve and maintain body weight below 200 lbs (185-190 ideal)

This gives me a roadmap to follow, as I check in periodically throughout the year. The plans are not static, I revisit them and adjust where appropriate.

Then, at the end of the next year, the last bullet (Plans 2022) moves to the top, and I will add “Results 2022” and “Plans 2023.

Here is my full list of focus areas:

Faith
Family
Work
Community/Civic
Body (Health & Fitness)
Mind (Learning & Creativity)
Finances
Home (Dwelling)

What are your focus areas? How do you approach year-end reviews?

David Mathews on Deliberative Democratic Politics

David Mathews, longtime president and CEO of the Kettering Foundation, was interviewed recently by AL.com. In a brief passage, he gives perhaps the best and most concentrated description of deliberative democratic politics I have seen.

For those who have heard Dr. Mathews describe various aspects of democracy — its origins, how it can be seen as an ecology, the importance of seeing the tensions between things held deeply valuable — this may sound familiar. But in just a few paragraphs, much is conveyed.

Below is a brief passage (left) with commentary from me (right):

What we call democracy is really an accumulation of survival lessons over centuries.Democracy as emergent, organic (vs. built).
We learned that we had to come together to be safe and be successful.Origin of collective security as a key thing held valuable.
We learned that we had to be free to do what we felt like we needed to do.Origin of freedom to act as a key thing held valuable.
We learned that we couldn’t really work together unless we divided what we had produced equitably amongst all the people. Because if we didn’t, they’d leave the tribe and next time we went out to bring down a big chunk of protein with four hooves, they weren’t the meal, we were the meal, because we were too small and frail.Origin of being treated fairly as a key thing held valuable.
And most of all, we learned that we had to have some measure of control over what was happening to us to get all the other things that we want.Control over future as overarching thing held valuable.
When people make a political decision, what they do is they sit down and they look at the things they might do, and they weigh them against the things that are deeply important: Is doing this going to make me safe or unsafe?Weighing trade-offs (deliberation) as core to collective democratic life.

Building a New Life on the Ashes of Collapse: 2,500 Daily Letters

Some of my friends know that some years ago, in a deep spiritual crisis and in anguish, I began trying a new practice. I wanted to be serious about my inner spiritual life, to see if it would help me. I am not religious, but felt called to do this.

Now, each morning, I do the same thing I began back then. I rise, I sit on my sofa, I subvocalize a set prayer, I read a few pieces of spiritual literature, and I write a brief letter to God.

Since early January 2015, I have done this every morning, without fail. After a couple of years, I started posting each letter, mostly in order to have a record but also just in case anyone might find them helpful.

This morning I wrote Letter #2,500.

Letter 2,500

Doing something daily for so long may seem daunting but in reality it is simple. I set the bar for myself very low: the letter simply has to exist. It can be as short as necessary. The letter is just a mechanism to make sure I am really doing my practice, there is no magic about writing it down, nor its form. It could just as easily be an “X” marked on a calendar.

Doing this on a daily basis, without fail, has changed my life. I am convinced that any consistent spiritual practice can yield similar benefits for anyone. It does not have to be “religious” and does not have to be literally daily nor persisted in for years and years. The benefits come very quickly (for me things began to shift within a few weeks).

If you are searching for a regular spiritual practice, you might try picking something easy that you can do daily, and seeing what happens when you try it for a week or two. That is how I started.

If you are curious, or have your own practice to share, or just want to chat, please feel free to drop me a line.

(At the site you can sign up for the daily email for free. I would love it if you sign up, just because it provides a nice sense of community.)

The President and the Poet

Today, Joseph R. Biden was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States of America, in a ceremony remarkable for both its singularity and for its normalcy.

There were no crowds, and the people were distanced, wearing masks. Onlookers told to stay home. There was a tension in the air, barricades on the streets, for just a few weeks ago rioters had stormed the Capitol. Yet after four years of unusually combative politics, where the very rules of engagement and facts on the ground were contested and fought bitterly, the ceremony unfolded as many had before it.

President Biden spoke of unity, and promised to govern for all, continuing a tradition of distinguishing governance from campaigning.

A very young poet, 22-year-old Amanda Gorman, recited her work “The HIll We Climb,” continuing the tradition begun by Robert Frost of delivering an inaugural poem.

The two had different things to say about democracy. “Democracy is fragile,” said the President. “Democracy . . . can never be permanently defeated,” said the poet.

Who is right? Must we choose?

The President is correct, that democracy as a mechanism of governance is remarkably fragile and, indeed, rare. The United States represents the longest-running continuing effort at self-rule and there is nothing that dictates our system of government will always survive.

The poet, too, is correct. If democracy is understood to be the urge toward self-determination, the human impulse to collectively decide our own fate — then indeed it can never be permanently defeated. It is an impulse as old as humanity, long predating the very concept of formal government. Even under brutal conditions, I have known friends to grow and tend their own local democratic communities.

We must continue to pursue a more perfect Union, and we must guard against the loss of our remarkable governmental structures which have proven to be so inspiring.

Perhaps a way forward to strengthen this precarious moment is known by the young poet, who says today “there is always light, . . . if only we’re brave enough to be it.”

A Productive Year: New Materials for Deliberative Conversation

2020 has been a challenging year, on so many fronts. It is gratifying to be able to report that the group I work with at the Kettering Foundation and the National Issues Forums Institute has been able to rise to the challenge. We worked as never before, and the team were able to produce needed materials that respond to the moment, all throughout the year.

Here is what we published this year, in reverse chronological order.

Youth and Opportunity: What Should We Do for Future Generations to Thrive?
(December 2020)

What should we do to address unprecedented challenges that may hinder future generations from leading successful and economically secure lives?

This guide raises crucial questions for which there are no easy answers.

  • Will the next generation, like those before it, be able to build an economically secure future, or will it face too many unprecedented challenges that undercut its prospects?
  • Should present-day priorities be more important than our obligations to future generations?
  • Is the next generation receiving the education and support it needs to succeed?
  • Are there disparities that we should be addressing today to enable future generations to prosper tomorrow?

Each issue guide comes with an introductory video that lays out the topic and introduces the options for deliberation. I am especially proud of the video work this team was able to do this year, under COVID-19 restrictions and with great care. This one, the most recent, is particularly good:


Continue reading A Productive Year: New Materials for Deliberative Conversation