Confessions of an IT Director

Strategic AND Tactical AND Operational AND Executional

Confession: I try to write on Wednesdays, but I didn’t yesterday. Truth be told, my professional life lately has been a lot like the photo above… no way that dude is going to catch all of those. I also can’t tell, but they look like billiard balls, which means that if any hit him on the way down, they’re going to hurt. What an apt pic. (I stole it from here)

I have my MBA, not because I was a glutton for punishment and wanted more schooling, but I believe (and had been told) that it was the gold star for positions I want (and continue to want) to attain in my career… and throughout my academic schooling (and my professional schooling, ie, the things I learn on the job every day) you hear the terms “strategic” and “tactical”. 

  • Strategy defines your long-term goals and how you’re planning to achieve them. In other words, your strategy gives you the path you need toward achieving your organization’s mission.
  • Tactics are much more concrete and are often oriented toward smaller steps and a shorter time frame along the way. They involve best practices, specific plans, resources, etc. They’re also called “initiatives.”

I was able to locate that explanation (and countless others) in a 5 second search… So there’s plenty of the “business school” explanations out there. Strangely enough, however, while there’s lots of info out there about being strategic versus tactical, there isn’t much (if anything… still searching) about being both strategic AND tactical. 

I don’t want to be so egotistical to think that the only sector that has to be both strategic and tactical simultaneously is IT, but I’m hard pressed to think of another function that has the same burden. You see, if you do your research, everything is about “drawing the line between strategic and tactical” or “the importance of being strategic vs. tactical”. It’s always “or”, never “and”.

This is one of my chief disappointments with academics. I worked for an academic institution for a while, and I observed a large disconnect between what academics taught things should be like, and what things were actually like. In George Bernard Shaw’s Maxims for Revolutionists, there is a quote that has become a social idiom, “He who can does; he who cannot, teaches.” It was a nice throwaway witticism that has become a way to denigrate teachers. I don’t think the quote is exceptionally fair, because I’ve had lots of brilliant-minded people who had “done”, but couldn’t teach for beans. However, Shaw isn’t wrong, either, because I’ve also had and met many academics who know how something is done by the book, but can’t put it into practice. I digress.

I posted on my LinkedIn a while back that it feels like the IT space is becoming more generalized again. When I started in this career, it was largely a generalist space. The IT guy did your audio/visual, your printers, your computers, your troubleshooting, your website, security, servers, networking, development, wrote code, and programmed your phones. Then it got super specialized… you had a security officer, dedicated helpdesk techs, a network admin, a storage admin, printer guy, web development guy, programmers, coders, telecom admins, etc… the IT department blew up in size. Now, perhaps with the adoption of the cloud (it’s just someone else’s computer), it’s getting more generalized again. You have less staff that can handle more as platforms are consolidated, data centers are virtualized and offloaded, and tools become single-panes of glass for management.  

I love this photo

But, it seems like while the expectation from IT is that less will be able to handle more, the business still expects results as if there are specialized assets in the field. 

So the question remains (and the entire point of this post)… how is one supposed to be Strategic AND Tactical? Expanding that conundrum… with little to no assets and no bandwidth, how are we to be Strategic and Tactical and Operational and Executional simultaneously? It’s very difficult, and I find myself navigating the latter two categories more often than not, perusing the Operational and Executional aspects of my day-to-day than in the former (Strategic and Tactical). I’ve heard it described so many ways, firefighting, being too busy fighting alligators to drain the swamp, etc… but it’s all true. 

This week I got chastised for neglecting my duties to be strategic and tactical, and I had let management reports, project plans, updates, and status reports slide to not-great levels. At first my response was a defensive one, thinking, “How on earth am I supposed to do all of this by myself?” My wife (and primary support) keeps telling me, “You can only do what you can do”, and I’ve tried very hard to take that to heart. It isn’t a platitude, but an accurate representation of the situation. If I’m to change the culture about IT, and IT folks in general, I need to start by level-setting expectations and creating boundaries. How can you be simultaneously strategic, tactical, operational, and executional? By doing them all in very small doses. I’m beginning to experiment with removing a majority of the billiard balls that I’m juggling. Last post I talked about denying the call (you can read it HERE), and surprisingly, it didn’t come back to haunt me. So I’m implementing changes, making moves. Here are three things that I’m trying to do daily:

  1. List. List. List. I come into work and I list out a few tasks that I need to accomplish that day. Make sure that there are tasks that encompass all the categories talked about above. A strategic task, a tactical task, operational tasks, and executional tasks.
  2. Transparency: In listing the “tasks” – I publish it so that people can see what it is I’m doing. Much of the disconnect comes from the business not understanding what I do, so there’s apprehension that I’m not accomplishing what it is I’m supposed to be accomplishing. Publishing the tasks where people can see them usually has gets the response of, “Oh…” when people look at it.
  3. Saying “No.” This is arguably the most difficult part, because it goes against everything I’m supposed to be doing, but it’s okay to say “No” to people. People adapt and can find their own solutions to things, which ends up being okay, at least in the interim. 

Being more organized and making sure I prioritize something from all of the buckets (strategic, tactical, operational, and executional) daily is checking the boxes. Is it sustainable? Probably not… there will be days where the fires are too great and I can’t do anything else. But the idea is, if I can spend more time on the first couple buckets, there will be less of the last two to have to deal with. Maybe then the fires can go from a 5-alarm forest fire to some dude who put too much lighter fluid on their barbeque. Or a candle I can blow out. One can dream.

Random Musings:

If there’s a picture to sum up what my experience has been lately, this is it. This was left (unopened, shrink-wrapped, new-in-box) on my desk this week. I really need to do a better job of explaining and showing the organization what it is I do for it. Meanwhile, I’ll be looking for something to do with all these 3.5” floppy disks.

My wonderful wife has started an amazon business – so if you’re in the market for what she has to sell, check it out! Her new brand (Mop Knot Hair) is taking off! See that link for more details! 

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