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The difference between strategic and tactical work

One of the most transformative ideas I help business owners understand is the distinction between working on your business and working in it. But what does that really mean? Put simply, it’s the difference between strategic and tactical work.

Many business owners confuse strategic and tactical work. It’s not uncommon to hear our EMyth Clients—owners of successful businesses—say something like, “But I do strategic work. I hire all my staff myself,” “I do all the sales,” orI’m the project lead on our major jobs.” And we understand the confusion. If the work they’re doing day to day is forwarding their business, yielding results and allowing them to hit goals, then it must be strategic. Right?

Wrong.

This mistaken belief is incredibly problematic. It’s what fuels a pattern of business owners getting bogged down (again) in tactical work—preventing them from working on their business in any forward-thinking, productive way. They end up stuck, confused as to why nothing is moving forward. 

Sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone. We spend a lot of time helping our clients differentiate between the strategic and the tactical, and learning where (and where not) to focus their energy. 

In short, strategic work focuses on output—defining the results you want to achieve, then establishing the plan, processes and systems to reach them. Tactical work focuses on input—the elements that go into that plan to make it happen. Tactical work doesn’t define the process or system, but rather follows the process or systems to support the daily operations of your business, and yield specific results. It’s work that can or could be done by following a manual, for which you can establish written procedures. 

Let’s look at an example of this in action. One of my clients had always been actively involved in his own sales department. In fact, for the most part he was the sales department. When he started building his org chart, it became clear that he needed to delegate the tactical work of making sales—something that was taking up too much of his time.

“But that’s not tactical,” he said. “I’m our top salesperson. If I’m making sales, that revenue is feeding my strategic objective. How is that not strategic work?” 

“Because you’re not planning a financial forecast for what results you want to hit—you’re out producing the results.”

As the leader of his business, his role was to define the revenue goals and the path to achieve them. And this included creating an org chart with the right people in place to perform that sales role that he’d been owning. 

In a well-defined org chart, there should be a balanced split between strategic and tactical work. A mature business model organizes the tactical and strategic work. The bottom of the chart should account for 90% of the tactical work of your business, the middle should be a 50/50 split, while the top of the org chart is the inverse. The leadership level should be doing 90% of the strategic work—the forecasting, future planning, critical thinking and problem solving. This is work you do to:

  • Transform the day-to-day operations from being work only you can do to something you can delegate.
  • Define, measure and track the results you want.
  • Further your vision in a tangible way.

Strategic work can seem unstructured because it doesn’t feel repetitive or cyclical. But just like tactical work, strategic work has systems and patterns associated with it. They’re simply more expansive patterns that are sustained over longer periods of time. 

Take for example your annual planning system. Each year—ideally before December 31—you develop your annual plan for the following year. Then, check in quarterly on your current plan to quantify where your business is at so far in the year, and adjust and re-execute a new plan if needed. This pattern of creating, revisiting and adjusting your annual plan is repeated work, but because it’s a longer pattern than daily or weekly tactical work, it’s harder to maintain. To be successful, build triggers into your calendar that remind you when it’s time to do that strategic work. Over time, this cadence will begin to feel more systematized. 

Remember, it’s those long gaps that allow you to start creating a new balance between work and life, one that integrates all the personal objectives you’ve been attempting to accomplish but haven’t yet had the time for. 

To run a business that doesn’t depend on you, you need to move closer to not owning any tactical work. (Though it’s okay to do some if you truly enjoy it. Just plan it into your schedule.) To make the transition, start by blocking out time every day to do this work, and create a physical space where you can concentrate. Take this time to understand and develop the potential of your business—to dream, plan, prepare and think about efficiencies. Your strategic work time should not only lead you to discovery, it should guide you in the tactical work you need to complete in order to achieve new objectives.

If you’d like support to better understand the strategic work of your business, we’re ready to work with you.

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Rachel Clark

Written by Rachel Clark

Rachel has worked as an EMyth Coach for over a decade. She's transformed her career as a business coach into one owning her own business, Synergy Business Coaching. Through her work, she helps owners build the skills they need to create their own success. Learn more about Rachel here.

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