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Direction, Strategy, Tactics, and Execution

woman looking at the map

Abstracting problem solving into four different levels enables you to categorically assess which scope is the most appropriate for your analysis.

A policeman sees a drunk man searching for something under a streetlight and asks what the drunk has lost. He says he lost his keys and they both look under the streetlight together. After a few minutes the policeman asks if he is sure he lost them here, and the drunk replies, no, and that he lost them in the park. The policeman asks why he is searching here, and the drunk replies, “this is where the light is”.

 David H. Freedman (2010). Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing UsLittle, Brown and CompanyISBN 978-0-316-02378-8 – via Google Books.

In the above story, the drunk man was optimizing at the execution scope: It was easier to look for things under the light. However, at the direction scope, his search space literally does not have the thing he is looking for.

In this blog post, we’ll discuss:

  1. The four scopes of analysis
  2. How to assess what scope the problem is at
  3. How to use this mental model, and simple ways to shift-gears to a desired scope

Summary

In general, this mental model answers the following questions:

  • Direction: “Do we know what we want?”
  • Strategy: “Given what we want and our values, how do we optimize achieving those objectives?”
  • Tactics: “How might we contextualize the strategy into something concrete that works for us?”
  • Execution: “In the smaller units of processes, are we doing a single process effectively?”

Counter examples and misusage

Here are common examples where improperly optimizing at the wrong scope can introduce incredibly unnecessary delays and wastage:

  • Execution scope: A programmer wants to type faster rather than learn to use keyboard shortcuts.
  • Tactics scope: A senior developer forces a junior developer to adopt their personal preferences rather than help with exploring the junior developer’s own preferences.
  • Strategy scope: A CTO decides that hiring more engineers is the solution to achieving more engineering output, rather than seek to understand delays and inefficiencies in their current system (see: root cause analysis).
  • Direction scope: A product owner, struggling to push back and set boundaries, concedes and relents to the different suggestions and requests of customers without considering the plans and directions of internal stakeholders, investors, CEO.

If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend that you check out Human Centered Design promote principles of desirability, feasibility, and viability (or sustainability). It has similar veins of thinking: why consider feasibility (or execution) if it is not desirable (direction)?

The four scopes of analysis

First, we discuss the differences of the different scopes.

Direction

Direction talks about what is desired and which closely ties into how we decide what has value. Based on what is desired, this translates into an individual or an organization’s objectives.

  • In a software development company, direction is set by your CEO, or your stakeholders, board of directors, investors, and/or your users.
  • In a family, direction may be what the parents desire for the children such as the type of education they will have access to, or what kinds of out-of-school activities they would support.
  • In a healthy relationship, direction is explicitly communicated, fairly negotiated, and responsibly collaborated on by adults.
  • In toxic relationships:
    • Neither individual takes ownership for the responsibility of understanding what they themselves desire, or they don’t allocate time for it.
    • Because individuals struggle to understand what they want, they are unable to explicitly communicate those desires.
    • One individual might sacrifice or give up a certain boundary (that protects something they value) out of fear, or to either retain control of the relationship, or to ‘protect the peace’ of the relationship.
  • In friendships, direction is knowing what you love doing with a certain set of friends, communicating clearly what you expect from each other.

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 which is not altogether wrong. There is a difference between wandering and dawdling.

Strategy

Effective strategy is about collecting tools and options and knowing the pros and cons of their usage, enabling you to weigh which path would accomplish your goals effectively and efficiently.

To be able to effectively strategize, one needs to have a good grasp of (a) what they value and (b) what they want (i.e. direction). Without those two components, one lacks the necessary ingredients to weigh the pros and cons of different tools.

If your direction is to learn and grow, a common strategy is to keep reading. This allows you to keep collecting different strategies and tools that you can refer back to in your toolkit when new problems arrive. In fact, this is not limited to formal reading- because there are things that you learn in games that you transfer and apply into your own personal and professional life.

Tactics

Tactics is about strapping up and contextualizing the selected strategies. Without tactics, there is no translation from the abstract (direction, strategy) into the concrete. That translation must be contextualized to an individual level.

In the previous example of learning and growing being a person’s direction, the strategy of keep reading would not be as effective for someone who has disabilities (e.g. blindness). In that case, the strategy of “keep reading” must be re-contextualized into that which is appropriate to a person with blindness. Instead of reading- they must instead immerse themselves in the right communities, and listen to people’s stories. That becomes a tactical way of absorption and exposure, which is the fundamental objective of reading.

Not all characteristics (i.e. blindness) are explicit and easy to determine. A critical aspect of being able to translate abstract strategies into something you can tactically use is understanding oneself. At an individual level, this requires an individual to deeply introspect and understand oneself. At a team or organizational level, this requires the group to reflect on what values they believe in and what directions they have for themselves.

Leaders are those that are able to facilitate the discovery of one’s values and directions, both at an individual and at an organizational level, and translate them into tactical, actionable concepts.

Execution

This is the simplest of the four scopes. This is simply whether or not, given a certain task, you are able to make it work, to do it correctly, and later- to know how to optimize.

Assessing the scope of the problem

Fundamentally this mental model is a problem solving tool. This section will later be populated with case studies where this mental model is used in varying contexts, and you’ll be able to pick and choose which ones are relevant to you.

Admittedly, this blog post currently lacks the section where I describe how to assess the scope of the problem. Unfortunately I’m tired- and that happens. To some extent, for now- this is a form of doing a shitty job. And this is okay.

Darren

Professional work

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? conversions?)”.

It’s a reasonable way to focus people’s attention, which is a valuable scarce resource.

Relationships

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).

Try to avoid arguing at the execution level (e.g. “You left the toilet seat up!”) and rather talk about big rocks that align at direction level (e.g. “I don’t want you to feel like a second class person in your own home.”).

Alignment is key. Find each other, be slow to speak and listen carefully. 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!

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