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.

Editor's Picks