If I had to choose one quality that separates effective institutions from the less effective, it would be an unwavering commitment to strategic thinking. Colleges and universities that focus on strategy tend to be more successful. In sharp contrast, those too concerned with tactics tend to be reactive—and dramatically less successful. In fact, from my casual observations over the years, it seems many institutions are on the verge of “death by thousand tactics”.

As I look toward my own goals for the new year, I resolve to become an even better evangelist for the quiet power of strategy. That resolution begins here. Let’s explore why clear, focused strategy should drive every decision your teams make (and perhaps more importantly, why a hyper-focus on tactics can be fatal).

Vision, Strategy, and Tactics

Words matter. Far too often, the terms vision, strategy, and tactics are grouped together in long and abstract sentences about building a better future. But in that collective use, meanings are blurred and blended. Let’s start by defining each term clearly:

Vision: Clear and concise, an institution’s vision is its philosophical stake in the ground—its reason for being. Vision isn’t subject to the whims of fashion; it’s the immovable, centering idea upon which strategy and tactics are built.

Strategy: Strategy answers the fundamental question, “How do we achieve our vision?” It’s the long-term plan or plans used to turn vision into reality. Slightly more flexible that vision, strategy, should evolve only after careful consideration (usually in response to significant internal or external changes).

Tactics: Tactics put strategy in motion through specific sets of ideas, actions, schedules, and events. Far more flexible than vision or strategy, tactics are designed to be adaptive, responsive, and dynamic (and therein lies the problem, which we’ll discuss next).

The Danger of Too Many Tactics

While tactics are a crucial part of a living, breathing strategy, they can also kill it. Unchecked and unfocused, tactics can bleed resources, dilute institutional and departmental effectiveness, and leave your staff without an effective filter. When that happens, every tactic seems reasonable and all tactics seem worthy of pursuit.

Piling on tactics is tempting because they’re easy to create, it feels great when they work, and we’re constantly watching what everyone else is up to and trying to copy their success. But what good is a winning tactic if it’s not aligned with our strategy? It’s like buying something we really don’t need just because it’s on sale. Is it a bargain, or a burden?

Strategy Stops the Bleeding

Here’s a great mantra for 2018: My strategy is my touchstone. Tactics that don’t serve your touchstone are glorified busy-work that bleeds budgets, time, and talents dry. That’s why your approach to switching or adding tactics must itself be tactical.

Before making any changes, ask yourself, “Is this tactic strategically-focused?” “Is it supported by objective data?“ “Are we doing this from a position of power or panic?” “Is our strategy still clear and is it being communicated well?” Let the answers serve as a guidepost that strengthens your strategy and stops the slow bleed of too many tactics.

At Stamats, we help colleges and universities across the country develop strategies that are rooted in research and driven by innovative and tactical thinking. For more information on how we can help move your strategy forward in 2018, please call me directly at 319-861-5054 or email sabra.fiala@stamats.com.

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