The answer is, "yes," if you focus on tactics before strategy.
It’s easy to lump marketing and sales together, especially if you know a little about each. The same is true for strategy and tactics. They’re both about action and getting stuff done. But, in reality, the two are opposites. Literally. Strategy is essentially a plan of action and a tactic is basically an action that’s carefully planned. This means strategy is to marketing what tactics is to sales. Marketing and strategy create demand and sales and tactics convert it. Ever heard the expression, cart before the horse? That is what’s in play here, especially if you think strategy and tactics are the same.
It’s hard to image pursuing actions without a plan. But, think about how many small businesses have little to no marketing efforts, let alone strategy. Or, maybe it’s really inconsistent. Many small businesses take action without a plan because it’s hard to focus on something without an immediate payoff. But beyond anecdote, the Small Business Administration (SBA) Office of Advocacy’s 2018 Frequently Asked Questions estimated 50% of small businesses fail after their fifth operating year. Why? The reasons vary but several stick out. CB Insights analyzed over 100 failed businesses and found that at least 5 out of the top 10 reasons are marketing-related, with another 2 or 3 being closely aligned. In short, it’s easy to suggest that many small businesses fail because of poor planning.
In a small business there’s no question it’s tough to find time to plan. Competing demands are everywhere and it often feels like success just to get through the day. Have you ever received that unexpectedly bad email at 6:49 p.m., which ratchets up the anxiety more than anything? Yeah, that one. It’s almost impossible to consider anything else until you can solve the problem. Yourself. As true as this may be, it is also very confining. There’s no good way out because your attention is given to the tyranny of the urgent. Gabrielle Oettingen studied fantasy and daydream research to better understand whether imagining the future led to action and/or successful performance. In Oettingen’s scholarly article, Future Thought And Behaviour Change, several self-regulation strategies showed how imagining a desired future can actually increase motivation and strengthen goal pursuit. This is also elaborated in Oettingen’s fantasy realization theory, which describes how making progress towards a goal affirms the expectation of goal attainment and vice versa. To put this idea into context for small businesses, strategy represents both the future and way to achieve it, while tactics are actions towards realizing the desired state. This means goal pursuit weakens without action. You actually decrease the likelihood of achieving your goal. Or, perhaps more to the point, as John Wooden famously said, “never mistake activity for achievement.” Coach Wooden’s model was built on proper planning (strategy) and its execution (tactics) with four components described in his book, Practical Modern Basketball, none of which exist without the plan (i.e., strategy).
As Coach Wooden showed us, strategy is the plan of action. It’s the reason strategy comes before tactics. Again, strategy is the plan of action, not the action of plan. And, just because activity may be high, doesn’t mean achievement follows suit, especially for something vague like sales. Remember, cart before the horse is way different than envisioning the future and pursuing it—putting the horse before the cart. There’s nothing to pursue if you’re unsure what the future holds. Once more, this is why strategy comes before tactics. Strategy imagines the future and ways to get there, while tactics are the actions that create progress towards the goal. A tactic simply desists without strategy or the action without a plan. In the words of management guru, Michael Porter, “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.” As Oettingen and Wooden’s work points, out the clearer your vision is, the more likely you are to achieve it. Otherwise, you’re either confusing activity with achievement, creating competing demands, setting yourself up for failure, or decreasing the likelihood of success. Small business owners know competing demands are inevitably constant and, to be successful, they must be minimized. This is precisely why strategy must serve as the plan for action to make complementary tactics the actions of the plan.
Creating the necessary attention, energy, time, and space to develop a proper strategy is easier so than done. There’s no doubt about it. But, having no plan for action is even more costly in the long run. At least prioritizing strategy ahead of tactics will help your small business better understand the world around it and how to fit within it. Then, it’s easier and more likely to mobilize effort around common goals towards the future, which ultimately increases the likelihood of achieving your desired future.
Get the Strategic Boost Template to create a manageable, actionable, and measurable work plan towards an objective and key results. You’ll envision the future, potential constraints, and roles and responsibilities with greater ease to ensure your activity actually leads to results. Then, ask yourself which is more costly, a plan for action or no plan for action? Your answer will determine whether your small business is sabotaging itself.