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  • Tom Birchard

Objectives, Strategies, and Tactics

Do you ever find yourself talking to someone in a business or other setting and it just feels like what you’re saying isn’t sticking, and possibly vice versa? Perhaps it feels like you’re talking right past each other. Or maybe your words are making contact with the other person, but they end up taking things in a very different direction than you intended.

I’ve experienced this countless times and for a while I couldn’t figure out what was going on. Then while listening to a podcast during a run where Peter Attia interviews economist and author Steve Levitt, they said something that really clicked. They discussed the hierarchy of objectives, strategies, and tactics. Levitt explained that people often find themselves discussing or debating tactics, taking for granted that they are aligned on the strategy or perhaps even the overall objective trying to be accomplished.

This got me thinking what are some ways to leverage this knowledge for more effective and impactful communication. Below is what I came up with:

· Zoom Out – I think the most effective thing you can do day-to-day when it feels like there’s misalignment is to “zoom out.” For example, say I’m trying to justify a teambuilding event and am having a hard time getting on the same page as my boss. It could be that after zooming out my top objective is employee engagement and positioning our team for success in the medium and long-term. His primary objective could be the financial results for that quarter or year and until we acknowledge that disconnect, we’d never be able to get on the same page on a tactic like a teambuilding event. The same strategy of zooming out can apply to relationships, parenting, and other non-business areas of life.

· Invest Time Early in Alignment – Another approach to minimize time spent talking past each other is to invest time early in ensuring alignment of objectives and strategies. This is difficult, time-consuming work. Compared to the day-to-day firefighting that many jobs entail, it may feel like a waste of time and energy and certainly won’t provide instant gratification. I’ve seen this happen often in the cascading of performance objectives at work, and it can become an exercise in just “pencil-whipping” to check a box. I think prioritizing the objectives is critical as well because inevitably there will be tradeoffs between them. I remember reading that in project management there’s a 3-legged stool of 1) cost 2) time and 3) quality. You generally can’t have all 3 so you have to prioritize them, so aligning on the objectives and the relative ranking of each is critical so that the tactical discussions later on are fundamentally united.

· Choose People with Similar Objectives – This is certainly the most extreme of the methods I’m suggesting, but if all else fails you might need to choose to associate and work with people who have similar fundamental values and objectives. When investing that time early in trying to gain alignment, it may start to feel like an exercise in futility and the path of least resistance is to just agree and figure you’ll work out the details later. That rarely works. Therefore you may need to find new people who innately have objectives similar to yours. A simple example could be the relative time horizon you’re operating within. Naval Ravikant has a phrase, “long-term games with long-term people.” If one person is totally focused on success over the next 3-5 years and the other is relentlessly focused on hitting the quarter at all costs, alignment of objectives may be impossible to attain. Neither approach is inherently right or wrong, but if you have the ability to choose who you associate or work with, choose those with comparable objectives and values.

Has anyone else seen this dynamic of debating tactics without recognizing basic misalignment of strategies and objectives? If so any other techniques you’ve found useful in overcoming this? Thanks for reading!

Here are some recommendations from the last 2 weeks:

· Article - The Limits of Investing Sanity by Morgan Housel – Housel is one of my favorite writers when it comes to investing and specifically the psychology of finance. This is an entertaining and insightful read in the midst of some seemingly irrational things happening in the markets

· BookHow to Avoid a Climate Disaster by Bill Gates – Working for a company that has committed to reduce 1 Gigaton of carbon emissions from our customers’ footprint by 2030, I’m embarrassed how little I really knew about climate change. This is an informative book that starts with the basics, and then gets into possible solutions. As a problem solver by nature, this is a fascinating one to ponder given the facets of technology, policy, personal choice, and global coordination

· ArticleSlowing Down Time in Organizations – This won’t be for everyone, but it’s one of the best articles I’ve ever read on organization design and how to create space for proactive thinking and innovation

· QuoteClear thinking becomes clear writing, one can’t exist without the other. By William Zinsser

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