Tactical vs Strategic thinking – Systems Engineer style

Tactical vs Strategic thinking

Let me attempt to delineate the two, in context of IT and specifically Infrastructure (because without that, these are just buzz-words that are being tossed around).

Tactical – This calls for quick thinking, quick-fixing type of mentality — for e.g., when we need to fix things that are broken quickly, or how to avert an impending disaster just this one time – essentially bandaids, repairs, and so on.

Strategic – This calls for vision, of looking at the complete picture and devising multiple responses (each as a failsafe for another possibly) to address as many things as possible that might affect your infrastructure and operations.

If any of you are chess players, you will know what I mean. A good chess player will evaluate the board, think ahead 5-7 moves, factoring in the various moves/counter-moves possible and then take a step. That is strategic thinking. A tactical player will play the game a move at a time (or at best a couple of moves ahead). He might save his piece for that moment (i.e. avert immediate damage), but he will most likely set stage for defeat, if he is playing a strategic opponent.

Some of the readers might be thinking that this is all great for talking, but how does this translate to the role of a Systems Engineer/Administrator? Surely, managing IT infrastructure is not a game of chess?

To that, my response is – But it is!

We, by virtue of our trade have taken on a big responsibility. We provision, manage and service the infrastructure that our respective organizations depend on (and perhaps a huge part of the organization’s revenue stream depends on it). So, it is our job (as individuals as well as a collective within each organization) to be able to foresee potential pitfalls, constantly evaluate what we are doing well and what we aren’t (be it process related, or technology related) and devise plans to address any issues that might crop up.

In some organizations, the management team would like to consider the “strategic” activities to be their role. But the fact is, good managers will always take the counsel of their teams in order to make successful and strategic decisions. Autocracy is not very conducive to successful decision making. Now, while I’m no management guru, I have worked in this industry for close to two decades and my opinions are based on my observations (And I will be happy to stand and defend my informal thesis with any Management Guru that would like to discuss this with me).

Moreover, most individuals in the management space have outdated knowledge of technology. They more than likely aren’t experts in any of the fields that their team supports and even if they had been experts in the past, they likely rely on vendors and VARs to  fill their knowledge gap. Now, we all know how reliable VARs and vendors can be to provide unbiased knowledge that will help with sound decision making.

But if you ask me that is not a weakness, but a strength. Managers (with a few exceptions) who are too close to technology tend to get bogged down in the minutiae of things, because they usually only look at it from the outside (as supervisors and not technicians). A good manager will necessarily include his/her team (or at least a few key individuals from the team) in their decision making process.

  • A manager I’ve had great pleasure of working with would take his team out every year for a 2-3 day planning session at the beginning of the year.
  • He would provide guidance of what the organizational goals were for the fiscal year (and what the business strategies were)
  • and then the team would brainstorm on what we would need to do to address the various components of infrastructure that we managed.
  • We would return back to the office at the end of the session with maybe 120-150 items on the board, categorized as small projects, large projects or tactical initiatives, divvy them up between the team members based on skills and interests
  • We would then, together with our manager, align these projects and tactical initiatives with the organizational goals and try and show how they help us help the organization, or help make a business case for cost savings, or increased efficiencies, and so on.
  • These would not only help us design our annual goals and objectives into measurable items, but also help the manager showcase what his team was doing to his manager(s) (and so on, up the food chain).

Strategic thinking is an art, but it is also a philosophical inclination, if you ask me. If we always assess a situation from not just the short-term effects in perspective, but look at what the cause is; evaluate whether it is an aberration or due to some flaw in process or whatever the reason might be. We can then, over time internalize this type of thinking, so that we can quickly look into the future and see what the implications of an event may be, and thereby take corrective actions or devise solutions to address this.

While it might seem that one-off solutions, workarounds and break-fixes are tactical, it is possible to have a strategy around using tactical solutions too. When you orchestrate a series of rules around where tactical thinking is applicable, you are in essence setting the stage for an over-arching strategy towards some end.

This is precisely what good chess players do – they strategize, practice, practice, practice. Then they do some more. Until they can recognize patterns and identify “the shape of things to come” almost effortlessly.

We, as IT professionals need to be able to discern patterns that affect our professional lives. These are patterns that are process-oriented, social or technological.

We have tools to look at the technological aspect – collect massive amounts of logs, run it through a tool such as Splunk or something similar, that will let us visualize the patterns easily.

The other two are harder – the hardest being social. To be aware of things as they transpire around us, in general, to be aware.

If you are interested, check this book out – The Art of Learning, by a brilliant chess player – Josh Waitzkin (the book and subsequent movie made on his life titled “Searching for Bobby Fischer”). The book of course doesn’t have anything to do with IT or infrastructure (it is about learning, chess and Tai Chi). But the underlying principles of the book resonated deeply with me in my quest to try and articulate my particular and peculiar philosophy that drives both my personal as well as my professional life.

As intelligent beings, we have the innate ability to look at and recognize patterns. The great 16th century Japanese swordsman – Miyamoto Musashi wrote in his famous book titled “Go Rin No Sho – The Book of Five Rings”  about how Rhythms are pervasive in everything (and while his overt focus was on Swordsmanship, there was a generic message in there as well) and how a good swordsman needs to recognize these rhythms (the rhythm of the battle, the rhythm of his opponent, and so on).

So I leave you with a quote from the Go Rin No Sho –

There is rhythm in everything, however, the rhythm in strategy, in particular, cannot be mastered without a great deal of hard practice.

Among the rhythms readily noticeable in our lives are the exquisite rhythms in dancing and accomplished pipe or string playing. Timing and rhythm are also involved in the military arts, shooting bows and guns, and riding horses. In all skills and abilities there is timing.

There is also rhythm in the Void.

There is a rhythm in the whole life of the warrior, in his thriving and declining, in his harmony and discord. Similarly, there is a rhythm in the Way of the merchant, of becoming rich and of losing one’s fortune, in the rise and fall of capital. All things entail rising and falling rhythm. You must be able to discern this. In strategy there are various considerations. From the outset you must attune to your opponent, then you must learn to disconcert him. It is crucial to know the applicable rhythm and the inapplicable rhythm, and from among the large and small rhythms and the fast and slow rhythms find the relevant rhythm. You must see the rhythm of distance, and the rhythm of reversal. This is the main thing in strategy. It is especially important to understand the rhythms of reversal; otherwise your strategy will be unreliable.

1 thought on “Tactical vs Strategic thinking – Systems Engineer style”

  1. Pingback: Tactical vs Strategic Thinking – Part II » realsysadmin.com

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