Setting Strategic Direction: Vision, Strategy, and Tactics

by Stever Robbins

Defining and Using The Three Tools of Leadership

You’re so proud of your new vision statement. It sounds nice. Inspiring, even. But the vision is useless unless it can direct action.

Your vision lays out a destination; your destination guides your strategy; and strategy chooses action. It’s action that leads to success. In those moments of action, having clear direction is crucial for building momentum. If your organization is like most, you spent weeks debating every word crafting your vision, mission, strategy, and goals. But no matter how lofty, if they aren’t created in a way that provides direction, those statements are little more than high-priced indulgences.

Every company means something different by the words “vision” and “strategy.” One person insists that “Provide our customers the highest possible quality widgets” is a vision. A friend takes one look and assures him, “That’s a strategy.” Here are some useful definitions that will help you decide if you’ve set a direction that can truly get traction.

Envisioning the future

Vision is timeless. It’s based on who/what you want to do. It’s why you’ve got an organization in the first place. It must be specific enough that everyone can use it to decide if their work is moving the company forward. Progress towards the vision must be measurable. A vision is independent of specific competition, and while it may mention the customer, it must guide even someone who doesn’t know the customers’ mind. The best visions imply whom the company serves, what it provides, and what distinguishes it from other companies providing the same products and services. Vision sets the broad direction. It says, “Go west, young man.”

Wrong: We will provide exceptional products and services that our customers value.

This vision requires knowing the customers’ mind in order to understand what the company provides. It doesn’t distinguish what is unique about the company, since presumably everyone in the market produces something customers value.

Right: We will help boat owners everywhere navigate new seas with geographically based directional products and services.

This vision tells us the market, the product (navigation products and services), the distinguisher (geographically based), and the progress measurement (delight).

Some organizations may call this a mission statement, rather than a vision. Or, they may have both a vision and a mission, with the vision expressing the ideal world or company, and the mission expressing the company’s purpose. For our purposes, they’re the same. A mission statement rounds out the vision. Together, they give timeless, overarching principles chosen by the company that express the company’s reason for being.

The strategy thing

Strategy links the destination (vision) with current reality. Strategy applies to the whole company, and answers the question “How will we reach our vision, given current market conditions, competitive scenario, regulatory environment, etc.?” Strategy is narrower than vision, but broad enough to guide companywide organization structure, hiring, capabilities that must be developed, and so on. Strategy says, “We’re going west, but we ran into this grand canyon. We can go around to the north or south. Let’s choose south.”

For example, a company may have a vision to “provide scientifically proven technology to solve the medical needs of consumers and hospitals.” In the 1950s, the strategy may be doing in-house research, hiring and developing scientists, and a compensation program based on discovery. In the 1990s, the same company may have a strategy of acquiring small drug-making companies and buying and protecting patents from other companies. Both strategies will reach the vision, but they are appropriate for different competitive environments, and they have different organization structures, different financing options, and different operational characteristics.

You know you have a strategy if you chose your current path from many alternatives, all of which would have reached your vision, each of which would have required hiring different people and building different systems. If you didn’t consider many alternatives, or you didn’t choose your alternative considering your competition, your vision, and your current market conditions, then you probably have a tactic, not a strategy. If you can execute your strategy with your current people, reward systems, and organization structure, then it’s not a strategy, it’s a tactic.

The tactics

Tactics are limited in scope, typically just to a part of the company. They’re shorter term than a strategy. They involve executing given the existing capabilities and resources of the company. Unlike strategy, tactics generally work within the current organization structure, rather than changing the organization. Tactics say, “We’re on the south path. Let’s travel two miles today.” Your tactics probably won’t work unless they’re generated from a strategy that lays out a consistent philosophy for how your company will compete/win/attract customers in today’s market.

Your “moments of truth” are those moments in time when you build traction and momentum. For example, a moment of truth in creating a quality-driven organization might be when the CEO refuses to ship a poor-quality product, even though it will hurt quarterly numbers. Moments of truth always happen during a tactical action. That’s why you need a vision and strategy—without them, people won’t have the guidance to ensure they can move the company forward in that moment.

Your strategy also helps you find your moments of truth. If your strategy involves locking up important distributor relationships, your moments will involve reputation and relationship building, creating the perception of value to the distributors, and establishing negotiating leverage to capture an exclusive relationship. If your strategy is to be a low-cost provider, moments of truth might be times when opportunities for efficiencies arise, or incidents where you can encourage a “continuous improvement” mindset in your team.

At the end of the day, your vision and strategy only exist to drive tactics. And often, the most significant tactics are those moments of truth whose effects are far-reaching. When your vision sets direction and your strategy ties it to your current situation, they provide a compass for everyone in your organization to follow for years to come.

Summary of Vision, Strategy, and Tactics

Description Determines
Vision Timeless. Internally generated. Specific enough to know what to say “No” to. Major markets.

Major uniqueness/skill/advantage.

Possible strategies.

Strategy Specific to time, competitors, market conditions. Answers the question, “How do we achieve our vision in the current market, regulatory, and competitive environment?” Market segments to pursue.

Which relationships to pursue (distributors, complementors, customers).

Organization structure and priorities.

Tactic Goal, typically < 1 year, to be achieved with existing resources, market structures, etc. Day-to-day actions to take.
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One Response to Setting Strategic Direction: Vision, Strategy, and Tactics

  1. Pingback: Advanced Entrepreneurship: How to Approach Strategy | Stever Robbins, Get-it-Done Guy

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