Leadership

Strategic thinking for tactical techs

Strategic thinking is not the exclusive domain of managers and executives. It takes a real talent to see things outside of the normal daily routine. Tactical procedures can use a strategic review every once in a while. The employee who is closest to the tactical task should be the one most able to suggest a new strategic direction.

As the IT Manager for a small business, I get to wear many hats. I perform a multitude of functions that would ordinarily be delegated to the staff in a larger company. Because most of those functions are tactical, I find that I spend very little time in strategic planning. In fact, unless I make the extra effort, it only happens once a year at budget time when I get to request funding for next year's upgrades and replacements.

Strategic vs. Tactical activities

In case you don't know the difference between strategic and tactical tasks, let me provide a quick overview. Tactical tasks are those that you probably do most every day. In my case, it is responding to co-worker requests for assistance, ensuring that the nightly backup was successful, writing a custom report in Crystal Reports, purchasing the toner supplies for all the printers or replacing a burned out video card.

Strategic tasks include a planning meeting with other managers to discuss ways to more effectively use the IT tools already in place. It could also be writing a proposal to management for a new technical system that will improve company-wide productivity. Another example would be preparing the annual budget for capital expenditures. The budget would include several new initiatives that have been discussed during the year.

Need for more strategic planning

It is very easy to come to work and spend the whole day taking care of user requests for assistance. If you have time, you may even be proactive in visiting your co-workers to ensure that their experience with the company technology is productive. Of course, if you work in a larger organization, that may be your exclusive job function. Help desk, desktop support or desk side support are typically all tactical jobs.

It may appear that strategic tasks are something that only a manager would do. Not so. I contend that even the lowly help desk employee or code monkey can and should engage in strategic thinking and planning. In fact, if you don't engage in strategic activities, you are cutting yourself short in your career development. An employee who is satisfied to only perform daily tactical job activities shows no initiative or ambition.

Company culture should encourage strategic thinking

It is a short-sighted company that does not accept strategic suggestions from their employees. I can't imagine working for a company that told the employees to only do their defined job and to never make any suggestions on how it might be completed more effectively. Perhaps they don't express it, but it can be implied and communicated by poor middle or upper managers who dismiss or ignore suggestions.

Perhaps a middle manager may discourage strategic thinking of front-line employees when the response to a suggestion is to say, "That would never work. Don't you realize the costs involved and how that would affect the other departments?" A better response might be, "What a great idea! Let me see if I understand how we could make it work." The ramifications of the suggestion are then discussed and documented.

Real-world implementation of a strategy culture

I know, the scenario I described in the paragraph above is probably not real world for most techs. Even though it is idealistic, I can tell you from personal experience that it can and does work. All it takes is an atmosphere of trust and acceptance. Instead of feeling threatened by a suggestion from a junior-level tech, stop and ask yourself, "Why do we do things that way? Why wouldn't it work to try it this new way?"

If you are in a junior position, look for ways that your job can be done easier, faster and more effectively. If you are in a position to do so, research and suggest new technology that will help. For example, if a new piece of software will make it easier to track something that you are doing manually or in a spreadsheet, suggest it to the boss. You will find out very quickly if your manager is a strategic or tactical thinker.

5 comments
gynt.schoeman
gynt.schoeman

Your definition of the above is somewhat disturbing, I am continuously told that the IT function is operational; the function I perform is completely strategic as per your definition. Although I agree with you ??? the problem is not everyone does. I have no problem accepting the proposals from technical staff and suggest some myself, when business is improved and cost savings are realised the organisation benefits. Now all we need to do is convince the rest of the organisation. So my advice is: Persevere, and when you find the company described in the ???Company culture should encourage strategic thinking??? section, stay there and allow yourself to succeed.

tmalonemcse
tmalonemcse

This may be a radical departure from the way most companies operate, but what would happen if the junior or front-line employees were encouraged to make suggestions on strategies for productivity? Read more about my idea in this post: http://blogs.techrepublic.com.com/techofalltrades/?p=140 What do you think? Would it ever fly in your company or do you already do things that way?

tmalonemcse
tmalonemcse

I would take it one step further. Yes, the IT function can and does fall under operations in most businesses. That's why I have reported to Operations Managers or Accounting Managers most of my career. I contend that the IT function has become mission critical to most businesses today. By your title I see that you are an IT Manager like me. In a larger company, the IT Manager does indeed perform a more strategic role. That's a good sign. It means the IT Manager is successful in delegating the operational or tactical tasks and focusing on providing direction for the IT staff. In fact, that's why we have the position of CIO in the larger companies, which is almost all strategic. It is only in the smaller companies that we IT Managers do so much hands on activity of day-to-day operations stuff. That's why it gets so easy to neglect strategic planning. I am not convinced that the IT function gets the proper respect it deserves in a small company that is growing. It is a matter of education for the owners and executives. They still see the computer guys as "just taking care of the computers." They forget to include us in their expansion plans and then wonder why we need new servers. The point of my post is that in small companies it is hard for the IT staff to fulfill that very important function of planing and advising management of the need for strategic investments. Why? It is because the growing small business managers forget to advise the computer staff of their needs. It's a two-way street that is often overlooked or ignored through ignorance. Perhaps my post was more a thought exercise of my own exploration. I need to be be more proactive in working with upper management to ensure that they are properly educated as to why we lowly computer guys need to be included in their expansion plans. It's a step up in thinking for me which I am trying to implement - thus the post I shared. You are indeed a lucky individual where you can function as an IT Manager in a purely strategic role. That indicates you must have a well-trained staff doing the day to day stuff while you advise management of what needs to be done to keep up with their business growth plans. Did I read this correctly or completely miss the point of your comment?

WiseITOne
WiseITOne

I just came on in this company and I have been doing both tactics and strategies. I absolutly love this job and agree that if you haven't found the company that lets you grow then you should find the exit door soon so you can "be all you can be". I think the BEST case scenario is a newer company. I have found that they are less tied to the "old ways" and "tradition" and willing to attempt new strategies in a prudent manner...not the "lets see if this sticks" methodology.

cpsubscription
cpsubscription

I believe its partly to do with the environment of the company and the management style of the supervisor. We/I do encourage ideas from the colleagues, since they are the ones in the trenches everyday and they are the ones that should be looking for repetitive, mundane, inefficient areas of the business to focus on. I encourage my colleagues to bring ideas to me to discuss. As long as they don't try to use a higher level meeting (with other more senior managers) to present their idea (eg. in order to undermine your authority) it should be ok. Two heads are better than one. Four or five might even be better....