Jacob Kaplan-Moss

Are You Stuck On Vision, Strategy, or Tactics?

When I joined Heroku in 2013, the organization was stuck. We’d made some mistakes, which led to bad press, and everything sort of stalled out. Engineers were writing code; designers were designing interfaces; product managers were scoping products – but very little made it out the door. We were stuck1.

When organizations are performing well, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. That’s the whole point of building teams: together we can accomplish more than if we work solo. But many organizations get stuck: suddenly, the whole becomes less than the sum of its parts! When this happens, it can be difficult to understand what’s going on: everyone can be working hard, and yet as a whole, the team just seems to be treading water.

When this happens, I’ve found a useful model for understanding what’s going on. I like to ask: is the organization stuck on vision, strategy, or tactics?

Defining Vision, Strategy, and Tactics

First, let me briefly define my terms:

  • Vision is the organization’s guiding principle, the “north star”, from which all of the other decisions descend. For example, Wikimedia’s vision is “imagine a world in which every human has free access to the sum of all human knowledge in their own language”2. This is a great vision: it’s simple, clear, and inspiring. It’s easy to assess if some course of action aligns with the vision or not.
  • Strategy is the plan and roadmap towards accomplishing some goal. At healthy organizations, these goals align with and further the vision. For example, fundraising is one of Wikimedia’s strategies: it’s one of the ways they achieve the “free access” part of their vision.

  • Tactics are the specific actions people take towards achieving one of their strategies. For example, the specific implementation of a green leafy background in the fundraising banner is a tactic.

Now that we’ve got the terms: what does being stuck on each look like?

Lack of Vision

What does it look like if an organization is struggling with a lack of vision?

  • Disagreements over what the organization “is” or “should be”. If you ask multiple people about the company mission, you get different answers.
  • Lack of decisiveness: the organization avoids making big decisions (e.g. starting large projects or making big capital investments), even when the cost of inaction is high.
  • Shipping new products/features is slow or difficult, or the organization stops shipping notable products at all.
  • The first 80% of a new feature gets implemented, but then the project stalls or is scrapped.
  • People are reassigned in inexplicable ways.
  • Frequent re-organizations. If the organization is growing quickly, re-orgs might be healthy, but otherwise if you’re re-organizing more than every few years something’s probably wrong.
  • Hiring becomes difficult: people can’t agree on job descriptions; arguments over the role itself bleed into decision meetings after reviews; job offers get stalled or yanked.

Lack of Strategy

What does an organization struggling with strategy look like?

  • Different (incompatible) technology choices3 used for different projects, without a clear understanding of why. For example, if your organization has applications deployed to AWS, GCP, and Azure: you probably lack a coherent operations strategy.
  • Projects are launched without clear timelines, milestones, or deliverables.
  • Projects or teams are over- or under-staffed relative to their workload or timelines.
  • Big “surprises” happen while projects are in-flight – e.g. discovering that major required features were missed in the original scope, or that there were major security/compliance/operational/performance characteristics that weren’t articulated until too late, and so forth.
  • The same technical arguments happen repeatedly. If every time a new product is launched, you revisit whether to use PostgreSQL or MySQL, you probably aren’t aligned on some aspects of technical strategy4.
  • Processes that should be easy and routine (e.g. rolling out security patches, releasing new versions of code, running tests) are difficult, time-consuming, error-prone, or skipped entirely.

Lack of Tactics → Lack of Execution

Unlike the others, it’s rare for an organization to struggle with a total lack of tactics. If there are disagreements about the steps to follow, it’s often actually a strategy or vision problem.

However, sometimes organizations have a clear vision and strategy, but do struggle to execute. This can be somewhat difficult to separate from strategy: if you see symptoms that look like execution issues, it’s always worth asking if this is a strategic issue instead. But failures to execute do happen, and they look like:

  • Communication breakdowns: decisions are made and progress is happening, but the right people aren’t informed. For example, engineering launches a new feature, but the support team isn’t informed and is surprised when they start seeing support tickets about the new feature.
  • Bugs, instability, or “rough edges”. The organization ships, but it’s just sort of bad: buggy, ugly, poorly documented, etc. If this happens repeatedly it might be strategy (e.g. around testing, QA, etc.) but it’s sometimes simply poor execution.
  • Missed deadlines. Again, repeated inability to meet timelines often means some sort of strategic breakdown. But if the work is clear and the timelines are reasonable, missed deadlines sometimes come down to just not doing the work.

Where do you go from here?

If your organization is stuck, I hope this rubric helps identify the level of the problem(s). Of course, identifying the problem is only the first step; solving it is much harder. But that’s another article or eight.

  1. Others who were there at the time know that I’m simplifying the situation, and omitting some nuance. But the bottom line is accurate: we were stuck. ↩︎

  2. This is the version of the vision that Sumana quoted to me this morning, from memory. That’s the power of a great vision: it sticks in your mind. Sumana remembers it almost verbatim. (Her version is slightly different from the canonical version linked above, but I prefer Sumana’s.) ↩︎

  3. This is probably true of other disciplines, but I don’t know other fields well enough to be sure. E.g. I’d guess that an organization with multiple design systems probably is struggling with a design strategy, but I don’t know enough about design to be confident. ↩︎

  4. Again, this is probably true of other disciplines beyond engineering. ↩︎