I have worked for and with many organizations, or “orgs” in my life. And there is an organizing principle to the bigger ones. The principle is a hierarchy of values really, and it goes like this. All orgs need:
- A vision, to act as a strong positive motivator, and a banner to march under.
- A strategy, to organize disparate people in a specific way, and get them moving together, because they are in a three-legged race.
- Tactics, to guide every-day execution and “doing stuff”
This is a hierarchy, with vision at the top. To understand why it’s a hierarchy though, we need to look at the function of each.
The idea of “vision” is a useful myth. It hearkens to seeing something that other people can’t see. We do not mean a physical thing, and we do not refer to eyesight. A vision is really a story, and stories connect with people emotionally.
Let’s look at SpaceX’s vision, because it’s big, and easy to understand, and attractive for many people.
The company was founded in 2002 to revolutionize space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.https://www.spacex.com/about
That last part is implying a story: people will one day lift off of Earth and live on other planets. If that doesn’t have any emotional impact for you, I say you’re not paying attention.
The magic of stories are twofold: they motivate humans emotionally, and they provide constraints. Some things go with the story, and others don’t. In big orgs, these “invisible constraints of the vision” are really crucial. Looking at SpaceX’s vision, if I want to start a sub-org to go improve heat shielding for rockets, that goes with the story. If I want to sub-org to manufacture weapons, that does not go with the story.
For a story to work, it has to be cohesive. The story of “one day, humans will live on other planets, and also, will have discount athletic footwear” will not work as a vision. If it doesn’t make sense, it loses its central purpose for existing: emotional impact & constraint.
Orgs can’t enumerate the infinite number of things which are bad ideas. But they can put in place a vision to motivate people towards the good, and implicitly shut off any number of irrelevant or bad paths.
Vision is the least specific thing you can imagine though. Which is why it is at the top. It answers why we care. And when it is done right, there is only ever one of them.
This part talks about how to coordinate all of the different resources of many sub-orgs. Of course there’s a lot to this, but let’s look at SpaceX one more time and boil it down to a single sentence that captures it:
SpaceX designs, manufactures and launches advanced rockets and spacecraft.https://www.spacex.com/about
This implies that they need organizations to design, manufacture, and launch. This may seem obvious, but it didn’t have to be that way. To get to Mars, they could have formed an investment group to channel money into others to do the work. Or they could have tried for space elevators (or otherwise some other technology) rather than rockets as an initial strategy. They chose this.
Very notable about strategies: there may be several, or many of them. SpaceX has one vision, but several strategies; at a minimum, advanced rockets and spacecraft.
Without this strategic piece, you have major problems:
- You don’t know which sub-orgs are needed to do something
- You don’t know how they should communicate
Adapting XKCD, if you are a space company, and you do not have a clear strategy, you are having a bad problem and you will not go to space today.
This is where every-day execution lives. It’s where most of us spend our entire lives, whether we’re working for orgs, or just participating and helping them.
Tactics are like your typical newspaper story, they answer the who, what, when, where, how of doing something. And they fan out. What I mean by that is that for every strategy an org has, it probably has 20 or more tactics that it uses to accomplish that strategy.
A form of tactical hell occurs when strategy is missing: lots of people running around doing stuff, working hard, investing sincere effort, but all amounting to nothing. It’s not that their tactics are bad, it’s that a strategy is missing.
Why a Hierarchy
When considering these three things, they’re often viewed as a pyramid, or a hierarchy, with vision on top. But don’t just accept that. Why is that the proper ordering? In a nutshell: because there is a single, unified vision, which seeks to constrain a small set of strategies selected, which in turn seeks to organize the work of myriad tactics and people.
This hierarchy of values is not the same thing as top-down control. The values expressed by these three levels are a separate issue from how they are chosen, which can be a collective decision by a group, or can be driven by fiat.
With general descriptions out of the way, the failure modes for orgs then become easier to spot:
- Overall: If at one of the three levels, you don’t have that thing (i.e. you lack a strategy) – then smart, well-meaning people will invent their own. This will happen multiple times, and you will have the new problem of connecting / disentangling the options.
- Missing Vision: If it’s missing, then you have no constraint at all, and there are no wrong answers. If you don’t know where you’re going, then any road will do.
- Missing Strategy: if it’s missing, then people will be stuck in tactical hell. The evidence of this is lots of work, lots of action, people putting in sincere hard work, but no results being produced.
- Missing Tactics: another way of putting this is that “we don’t learn from our mistakes” or that “our wins aren’t repeatable”. You end up with individual personalities dominating execution, and you get things done by “knowing a guy”.
- Stated vs. Actual: a major failure mode is to have 2 visions, or multiple competing strategies. This most often arises when you have a known, written, agreed upon strategy (for example) but everybody knows how it really works. While there might be specific politics that caused the situation, if you understand the hierarchy of values, then you’ll see that having 2 visions is not really distinguishable from having no vision at all, because it fails the “cohesive” test described above.
- Inversions: Sometimes people ask, “what happens if tactics start to drive strategy?” This can occur, but really is not worth examining separately; because if there is an inversion, and the lower level (tactics) is not driven by the higher level (strategy) – that is functionally equivalent to not having a strategy.