Tag Archives: tactics

Strategic Advice for the McCain-Palin Campaign

I am always on the lookout for examples in the news of challenges that people have aligning strategy and tactics, because quality management based on a plan that’s not aligned with the strategy is bound to fail. I found one of these examples this morning in the Washington Post, encouraging the Republican ticket to shift its strategy:

In these last days before the vote, Republicans need to face some strategic realities. Our resources are limited, and our message is failing. We cannot fight on all fronts. We are cannibalizing races that we must win and probably can win in order to help a national campaign that is almost certainly lost. In these final 10 days, our goal should be: senators first.

Whether this is the right way to go or not for McCain and Palin, I was struck by the timeless statement: Our resources are limited, and our message is failing. We cannot fight on all fronts. This battle scenario is not unique to a political campaign – there are people in many companies who might feel the same way, particularly in the midst of a financial crisis. For every person that wants to focus those resources, there will be another whose position is to press forward – just do what we can, don’t adjust the strategy, just stay the course.

[I’ll need to follow up on this topic (tonight maybe) to find some gems from the strategic management literature that provide advice in this situation. There is plenty to choose from.]

What Obama and McCain can learn from Michael Porter

On September 26, in the first Presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain, the candidates discussed the perceived success or failure of the war in Iraq. McCain vigorously promoted his feeling that the troop surge was a success, while Obama focused on the rationale behind invading in the first place – claiming that the tactics may be working, but the bigger picture, the strategy – was misplaced. McCain launched back with a criticism: “I’m afraid Senator Obama doesn’t understand the difference between a tactic and a strategy.”

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” — Sun Tzu, Chinese General, 500 B.C.

Pundits have questioned whether either of the candidates really knows the difference between strategy and tactics, despite some evidence to the contrary. In politics, the distinction between strategy and tactics is compounded by the fact that the military defines strategy in a very specific context where the concepts of policy and strategy can easily be entangled.

But politics aside… do you know the difference? And do you know why you should care?

The answer lies in a 1996 article in Harvard Business Review by Michael Porter entitled “What is Strategy?” – one of the classic articles in management. He argues that there is a fundamental difference between strategy, which involves striking a contrast between yourself and your competitors, and operational effectiveness, which means “performing similar activities better than rivals perform them.” All of the pillars of managing quality and productivity fall into this latter category, which explains why executives have, according to Porter, struggled to translate those operational improvements into sustainable profitability.

“Improving operational effectiveness is a necessary part of management, but it is not strategy… The operational agenda is the proper place for constant change, flexibility, and relentless efforts to achieve best practice. In contrast, the strategic agenda is the right place for defining a unique position, making clear trade-offs, and tightening fit… strategic continuity, in fact, should make an organization’s continual improvement more effective.”

Using this frame of reference, a country’s foreign policy is more akin to its strategy than war plans or their means of execution.

Why should you care? Because fighting the good fight of operational effectiveness will not necessarily win you the strategic war. Figuring out what you do uniquely, how and why you do it uncommonly well, and understanding how to align your capabilities with your mission is the secret to success. Are either of the candidates meeting these criteria? It’s your call.


Porter, M. (1996). What is strategy? Harvard Business Review, November-December 1996, 61-78.