I am a Digital Strategist! Tactical versus Strategic Thinking

Digital Strategy has a slippery definition. A lot of people consider themselves strategic thinkers, myself included. But I recently finished a digital strategy project and experienced a whole range of emotions starting with confidence, lolling in utter desperation and finally finishing on a triumphant high note. I was saved by understanding the difference between strategic and tactical thinking. Here’s how it went down.

As a project manager, I am forced to be tactical thinker the majority of the time. Tactics are task based, they are the how and when and the who. Tactical thinking is prioritization, it is assignment, it is management and it can be very complex. Tactical thinking is based in what we have now and how we will get it done into the future. It is the arrangement of real and tangible things. Tactical thinking is neither harder nor easier than strategic thinking. Tactical thinking requires clarity of understanding of time and resources, and details.

The role of the digital strategist is to tinker with the possible and the intangible. Don’t get strategy conflated with creativity. Both strategic and tactical thinking require creativity. Strategic thinking is about the why and the how come and the what if. It is future oriented based on data – what could we do based on what we have now? Strategic thinking is less concerned with the ability to complete a task in the real world, the goals are to define what should happen or what could happen with more resources or money or technology. Strategic thinking requires the ability to look at a bunch of data and come up with some insights on what could happen.

Both types of thinking require the ability to take a million details and connect them together in a feasible and logical story. The difference is that tactical thinking should be reductionist and strategic should be inductive. Tactical thinking takes the concrete details and organizes and condenses them, and cleans them up. For instance, a project manager starts a project and needs to create a project plan. They ask questions like “How do we get from A to B?” and “Who needs to do what?”. As they put the details and tasks together they simplify and create order. A strategist, on the other hand, collects data from research, experts, clients, customers and weaves a story. They grow and develop insights from the data. For instance, in the project I recently worked on, we took data from disparate sources and hit upon not only marketing assets and strategies that were missing, but thought of fresh new ideas based off of best practices, new technology and plain old creative thinking. We asked questions like “Why are customers happy or dissatisfied?” “What are our competitors doing better than us?” and “What are new technologies or techniques we can take advantage of?”. As we put the details together we evolved new ideas and proposals.

That being said, project managers do have to be strategic sometimes. Think about times when a client is being difficult and you can’t figure out why. You do research and talk to your sources. Maybe you learn they are frustrated with something, and you have to develop a communications strategy to guide your team’s conversations in the right direction. Or maybe the project is loosely defined and you need to think creatively about what to provide based on the client’s actual needs. This requires strategic thinking – the what if. Strategists have to be tactical too. Their ideas are expected to be creative but must be based in reality. If a strategist suggested we shine an advertisement on the moon and it would only cost $8B, there would clearly be a lack of tactical thinking. The strategist needs to consider priorities, and feasible budgets when proposing ideas. This requires tactical thinking – the how.

In my case, the project lifecycle started with confidence. I know digital and I know new technologies and ideas. I have written tons of papers in grad school. As the project progressed, I realized I was in over my head. Being both a Project Manager and a Digital Strategist is like having a dual personality. You can’t create order and chaos at the same time, and I would never recommend it for any project. What eventually became my lifeboat was the understanding of this duality of types of thinking. I split my time and my focus to be strategic during some parts of the day, and tactical others. This meant that as a strategist I needed a different environment and different styles. My strategy thinking tended to be out of the office, and on paper, often with my email off. My tactical thinking was at my desk with music, answering emails and chatting and looking at project plans and office documents. Tactical thinking requires focus and concentration, strategic thinking requires releasing and ideating.

I would never recommend playing more than one role in a digital project, especially one that requires 2 different types of thinking. But then again, it happens. It was helpful to me to understand these two mental modes and be able to split my day to tackle the work leading to great insights for both types of work.

About Dana

Dana Mandolesi is one cool chick who lives in San Francisco and knows lots about sociology and how people interact with technology. This has led her in all sorts of directions, especially helping companies harness the glory of the web through research, product development and strategy. She has a great love for technology and tries to integrate it into all sorts of things she does.
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