Asking questions in the right order improves problem solving. Do we know what we want? How do we want to do it? What works for us? Are we doing things right?
This is a long-form discussion of the following Tweet, which discusses my mental model on Direction, Strategy, Tactics, and Execution:
This mental model (direction, strategy, tactics, execution) maps the boundaries between different kinds of thinking. From a traditional organization perspective, your CEO would be the one to set a direction for the company, your middle management would be involved in designing and choosing strategies that they think can be effective in achieving your objectives as well as what tactics will work well for the current team composition and skills available, and finally all employees would have a specific responsibility for execution.
These concepts translate in different ways in different kinds of organizations (e.g. a family, an intimate relationship, a competitive e-sports gamer group), but either way, this is a map.
Diclaimer: This mental model lifts concepts heavily from Human Centered Design, which has the primary principles of desirability, feasibility, and viability (or sustainability).
Direction talks about what is desired.
- In a software development company, this would be set by your CEO, or your stakeholders, board of directors, investors, or maybe your users.
- In a family, this may be what the parents choose for the family unit.
- In a healthy relationship, direction is chosen collaboratively people, with frequent check-ins and consulting whether things are acceptable for each other.
- In toxic relationships, there may be frequent occurrences where one (or more) people in the relationship keep sacrificing or giving up some direction (some goal they want for themselves, or a set of values that shouldn’t be crossed) to either retain control of the relationship or to ‘protect the peace’ of the relationship.
- In general relationships, this would be being clear on what you expect from each other; expectations being where you see yourself going vs. where the other person sees themselves going.
There are many reasons why it is difficult to figure out one’s direction. Sometimes, people may not even know what it is they want.
Higher order thinking: What strategies are optimal based on big picture analysis, and what stage you are currently in (Multi-stage strategy planning)?
Contextualization: Given who you are (or who your team is), and what advantages and disadvantages you know of, what’s the best way to go about your objective?
Whatever it is you are trying to do, after you are able to make it work are you able to make sure it is correct?
On making mistakes, feedback, and learning
My friend Vilson asked a really nice question on this mental model.
Varying kinds of reflection at different levels
I agree- reflection is a really important aspect. It’s a core component of growth- which is my favorite value and growth is naturally iterative and feedback oriented.
Reflection can be done at any of these stages- but often times people are only doing retros/reflections on execution…They struggle to differentiate these four parts and think reflection is isolated only on “how could we have executed that better?” when reflection could be framed as:
1. Direction – Did we choose our direction wisely? Was it really what I wanted?
2. Strategy – Did I spend enough time coming up with a good plan to achieve my goals? What makes a good strategy?
3. Tactics – Was the direction and strategy correct, but the tactics wrong? What caused friction in the tactics we tried to apply?
4. Execution – What did we do wrong and how can we do it better?
What does bad reflection look like?
Many people struggle to do effective retros on tactics, strategy, and direction because they laser-focus on reflecting on execution only.
Here’s an example:
An old time-y business owner is hesitant to explore newer, riskier technologies or products. Instead, he is committed to his existing working system (probably because of the sunk-cost fallacy). It may have been successful at smaller scales, but is currently inefficient at their current size and desired scale. In this scenario, the system design fundamentally prevents him from achieving his goals, because he does not want to change his strategy.
The owner may instead be heavily invested in optimizing and learning at the execution level. They may be focused on measurements (key metrics, OKRs, KPIs) despite the whole system’s capability being bounded by the current strategy. A clear example would be trying to run a clothes store with pen and paper in 2021 but wanting to reach 10M monthly customers.
The business owner might be closed to the idea of revising their strategy because of feelings rooted in uncertainty. So how might we respond to this to get results? Answer uncertainty with clarity and knowledge, and provide a broad set of options to a person who feels like they’re in a dead end.
A nagging voice might say: “I’m too old to have to learn new things in this new decade”. This shuts down the opportunity to design a good system that addresses root causes of problems. In their mind, there is a fog due to the uncertainty, fear, and an often insidious focus on constraints and personal limitations.
What could it be like instead?
If a business owner can be equipped with all the information necessary to make an objectively better option, they can achieve more for a lot less cost. Being able to think about these different concepts separately is a challenging task done alone, so a little consulting advice helps.
Using this mental model focuses you on finding out exactly what you want (e.g. deliver good quality clothes to the Metro), thinking about how to sustainability achieve that (design an efficient, modern system that focuses on logistics and customer service), and buy you space to think clearly how to execute it later- by abstracting feasibility for a later discussion (e.g. get younger competent adults, outsource the products, but focus on logistics, etc).
Life is complex; this breaks down the problem into separate logical steps.
Knowing what to reflect on
This is why we have this map. It challenges us to think broader- You have options! You have teammates! You can ask for help ! Maybe just get somebody else to do it! We forget that sometimes and focus solely on “I don’t know” and “I’m not good at X, or Y”, and we’re like elephants who’ve learned that fiber ropes can keep us tied down, even in adulthood.
This mental model (direction, strategy, tactics, execution) is intended to map the boundaries of these concepts so that people can perform abstraction at the conceptual level.
Fundamentally this mental model is a problem solving tool.
It gives you the ability to zoom in on important details, and zoom out to see the big picture. This is a critical skill, especially when you need to be able to present coherent ideas to people who are trying to understand themselves, their problems, and their goals.
You can use this map as a problem solving tool that gives clarity into prioritization. It can buy you the confidence, through logical conclusion, to be able to say “let’s not think about what you want to put on the website and what color to use (execution) yet; let’s first talk about what you value and what exactly you want to achieve (direction). I want to make sure that what you’re proposing we do, a blog site (execution), really does get you what you want (sales? traffic?)”.
It’s a reasonable way to focus people’s attention, which is a valuable scarce resource.
Do you know why talking about and correcting each other’s mistakes in relationship is really challenging? It’s often times because people want different things (direction), want to do things differently (strategy), or requests aren’t contextualized to what works for each other (tactics).
Alignment is key. Use this map. Find each other, be kind, and work together to get what you both want.
How did you pick up on this mental model?
I found myself devising this map when I was struggling to understand what was important, when I was faced with a challenging situation. I faced the question: “How can I be a better human, wise, clever, and hardworking” and this mental model was my answer.
If you enjoyed this article, or have questions, please let me know your thoughts below! I’d love to continue talking about these things, and continuously updating my maps and mental models. That’s the whole point of growing.
Til next time!