From strategy to implementation – The key step of tactical planning

There’s an avenue of academic inquiry about strategy that, honestly, I have trouble working up much interest in. These are the studies that explore whether strategies fail more often in substance (the strategy was just wrong) or execution (it didn’t really get done). I’m just not that interested. Unless a strategy gets implemented, it’s unbelievably hard to know whether it would work or not, because the world changes if a strategy actually gets implemented.

That said, the leap from strategy to execution is very tricky. One issue of course is that what masquerades as a strategy isn’t always all that strategic – many strategic statements are fuzzy and don’t do much to guide the organizational choices that are part of strategic management.

But even when the strategy itself is pretty clear, and reasonably on-point, the next step of translating it to some kind of more practical plan is legitimately tough. It can be complex, it requires projection of future scenarios, there are many moving parts. It’s stressful. It’s so very easy to just say, well, here’s something that I have to do for tomorrow, I’ll do that instead.

I refer to the process of turning high-level strategies into some kind of implementable plan as tactical planning (note: there is no international tribunal governing this nomenclature). What I mean by this is planning that looks at a multi-year timeframe, perhaps three to five years, as opposed to the annual operational planning and budgeting process. Looking beyond a single year enables us to think in terms of the larger, longer initiatives that need to happen to make real strategic change a reality.

I’m going to talk in this post about how the tactical planning process can be done, step by step. In a later post I’ll talk about how to avoid common pitfalls.

How do we translate strategies into realities? This is a process that’s highly idiosyncratic – it depends on the organization’s situation, health and capabilities. It also depends to some extent on the strategies chosen – do they represent an evolution, or more of a revolution? (The latter is easier in some respects, when it comes to tactical planning.)

However, it usually falls into three rough phases:

1. What could you do?

In this stage you are generating ideas. For each strategy, what do you need to do to make those ideas a reality?

I typically talk about developing tactics that can be conceptualized as projects or initiatives – something that an individual might own or manage, albeit with lots of input and possibly support. A single tactic might take a few months, or stretch out, perhaps in phases, over a few years.

Not all of these ideas will actually happen, but this is a phase more concerned with generating than winnowing ideas.

At this point, the board and/or senior management has set strategies, but it’s the people who would be implementing them who are most useful in generating ideas – these may be staff, or volunteers in a not-for-profit.

2. What might that look like?

In this phase, you’re making it specific. Each tactic needs to be described in terms that really help someone understand what’s involved – how big is it, what will it accomplish?

Then we need to talk about what it will really take to get it done:

  • Resources needed: Finances, but also, time, effort, political capital, etc.
  • Metrics for success: How will you know you did it? How will you know it succeeded?
  • Responsibility: Who is accountable to get this done? Who else should be involved?
  • Time frame: What is the priority? When must this happen? What else needs to happen first? What else depends on this happening?

In this phase, the list of tactics will change – some will be dropped, combined, or reimagined as we think about how they will actually come to life, and how they fit in with the existing operations.

3. What’s the whole picture?

In this phase, you’re bringing the whole plan together.

Once they’ve been developed on their own, the tactics need to be reviewed as a whole, to see whether they are collectively too much (or too little). This is also the time to look at sequencing and dependencies. What has to happen, in what order? Does that look like enough to achieve the strategic goal?

Almost always, the first draft that brings all the tactics together proves to be wildly overambitious. New exciting ideas have been grafted onto an existing organization that probably was already fairly busy to begin with. Making it all work might involve eliminating new ideas, combining ideas, discontinuing parts of new operations, or generating new resources.

And seeing everything together highlights opportunities for connections between tactics, ways to combine resources more effectively, or communication pathways that might otherwise have been missed.

Ready to make it all happen…

Overall, tactical planning is a complex process, and we need to make sure there’s enough time devoted to it, for it to be meaningful.

But it can also be a galvanizing, exciting experience for the team involved, breaking down the barriers between strategy and execution and giving a sense that the organization is set up for success. The output is a multiyear tactical plan which you can use to drive forward your communications plans, your operational planning and budgeting for each year, and your performance measures.

Next week, I’ll be writing about some of the common pitfalls I’ve seen in this process, and how to avoid or address them.

If you’d like to talk about how to ground your strategy in practical reality, please get in touch.

Image from Unsplash, by Pawel Kadysz, used with permission.

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