We’re well into the new year, and by now you certainly have some sense of what you want to accomplish in 2023. I know, because it seems like everyone has been forced to identify some goal, direction, or thought for the year. But setting up a goal, or “strategic objective,” is not the same thing as executing one. And none of this is a vision—which is where the North Star reference comes in. We are not taking on the vision monster today.
This season, I’ve been intrigued to watch how people approach goal setting and, more honestly, how many people do it poorly, myself included.
Recently I was engaged to work with a business on a large-scale strategic plan, something on a scale that the business had not attempted in living memory. It was a good, engaged group of people who had a lot of thoughts and were happy to contribute. Everyone worked hard on it, but when we finally sat back to look at what we’d accomplished, I was surprised to see that the overwhelming majority of what they came up with were tactics, not strategies. Things to do, not reasons to do them.
If you already know the distinction between these concepts, then bear with me as I re-explain them. Put simply, your strategy is your defined, large-scale goal: “I want to accomplish X by doing Y for the reason Z.”
Tactics, on the other hand, are the smaller steps of how you accomplish your strategy. If your strategy is where you want to be, then your tactics are the steps that get you there.
(Other consultants, please suppress the urge to send me hate mail. This is a working definition, not an in-depth analysis.)
As you look at your list of things that you want to accomplish this year, consider your objectives through this lens. Because what I often find is that when I sit down with people to discuss what they want to get done, the conversation becomes very tactical very quickly. And this isn’t just something that happens to people who don’t know any better—anyone can easily make this mistake.
Not too long ago I was in a session that was attended by a company principal, their leadership team, and an outside marketing firm. The goal of this meeting was to discuss the organization’s needs for the upcoming year.
Early on, the principal asked, “How do we do X?”, and, him being the principal, figuring out how to accomplish X immediately became the focus of the session. This tactical, granular discussion went on for about half an hour before a junior marketing individual spoke up.
“We’re here to talk about strategic goals for the year, right?”
Everyone agreed that yes, that was the objective of the session.
“So why did we spend the last 30 minutes talking about how to accomplish something that we haven’t established as a goal? Shouldn’t we be deciding if we want to do this, and if so, what we want to get done with it?”
The principal said, “Huh. Look at that. Yeah, we just went down a rabbit hole.” Thank goodness the junior marketer said something, because nobody else was going to tell the emperor that instead of setting his sights on the stars, he was just digging a ditch.
(Full disclosure: Yes, I was the hapless principal, yes, I should have known better, and yes, I’m very grateful that the junior marketing member spoke up.)
The North Star has become a popular metaphor for one guiding thing that you’re following (e.g., world domination, destroying competition, wiping out the last of House Stark, whatever floats your boat). But how can you avoid my mistake and make sure that you’re not confusing your North Star for a strategy?
I find that performing a gap analysis is helpful in this venture. Put simply, in a gap analysis you identify your current state (things as they are now) and your desired state (things as you’d like them to be in the future).
When making your current state list, you could record something like, “I spend six hours a week working on this task that has very little return.” Then on your desired state list, you could write down, “I want to spend an hour a week on this task for the same return.”
That’s it. Don’t overthink it, and don’t be afraid to go as small- or as large-scale as you want. Once you have both of your lists complete, pick one item for which you can identify a few ways to get from your current state to your desired state. That becomes your strategy, and those ways that you move from current state to desired state are your tactics.
Try this lens of analysis for yourself, and see if your North Star is just a dressed-up tactic. If all of your plans are hyper-granular without a guiding strategy, you’re only treading water and iterating, not growing. And who doesn’t want to grow in the new year?