The levels of strategy

As a business analyst I spend a lot of time talking to people. But not all people talk in the same ‘language’, on the same level, and with the same idea on what is being discussed.

This is especially problematic in big organisations. After having quite a few meetings that just went in circles, or ended in absolute frustration, I quickly learned to differentiate strategic levels of thinking, as to make my interactions more effective. In most situations, it is fairly easy to discern the following three levels of thinking and planning.

Strategic

Strategic planning is an organisation’s process of defining its long-term strategy, or direction, and making decisions on allocating its resources to pursue this strategy. Generally, strategic planning deals with the whole business, rather than just an isolated part of it unit.

Examples of strategists are High level managers, Architects and Business analysts. Typically strategic choices have a horizon of look at three to five years, although some extend their vision even to 20 years (very long term). Because of the time horizon and the nature of the questions dealt with, mishaps potentially occurring during the execution of a strategic plan are affected by significant uncertainties and therefore may lie very remotely out of the control of management (war, geopolitical shocks, etc.). Those mishaps, in conjunction to with their potential consequences are called “strategic risks”. Untapped opportunities can also be seen as strategic risks.

Tactical

Tactical planning is short range planning emphasising the current operations of various parts of the organisation. Short Range is generally defined as a period of time extending about one year or less in the future. Managers use tactical planning to outline what the various parts of the organisation must do for the organisation to be successful at some point one year or less into the future. Tactical plans are usually developed in the areas of production, marketing, personnel, finance and plant facilities. Because of the time horizon and the nature of the questions dealt with, mishaps potentially occurring during the execution of a tactical plan should be covered by moderate uncertainties and may lie closer to the control of management (next year shipping prices, energy consumption, but not a catastrophic black-out, etc.) than strategic ones. Those mishaps, in conjunction to their potential consequences are called “tactical risks”. Examples of tacticians are Product Owners, team managers, and Scrum masters.

Operational

Operational planning is the process of linking strategic goals and objectives to tactical goals and objectives. It describes milestones, conditions for success and explains how, or what portion of, a strategic plan will be put into operation during a given operational period. This period, in development teams, is usually defined as a sprint (usually two or three weeks). The technical team members are the ones who, together with their Product Owner create the operational planning.

Conclusion

When you keep in mind the various levels of planning, and who is doing it, it becomes easier to communicate between levels. A strategist has little time for or understanding for operational matters and vice-versa. A way of mitigating confusing is to make sure that, at the start of a planning session, it is made clear on what level the session will be. That way the discussion leader can quickly scale responses to the required level. Another way is to make sure you only have representatives of one level in the discussion. That way every confusion is avoided as everyone will be talking on the same level.

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