Military theorists categorize decisions into one of three levels. From the big picture to the granular, these are:
Strategic decisions determine the grand direction upon which an entity will embark. Always, strategy precedes action. The object of strategy is to bring about advantageous conditions within which action will occur. In the military context, this means positioning forces for best advantage and judging precisely the right moment to attack or withdraw. Strategic decisions prior to D-Day in 1944, for example, included setting the day and time of the invasion of the European mainland as well as the choice of battleground. The campaign and each battle were conducted within the boundaries of space and time as set forth by strategy.
Strategy is more, though, than laying out the plan—long-term or short—of what we are going to do. As we will see later in this chapter, the triumph of strategy at Normandy was the deliberate framing of the mindset of the enemy. Through deception, misdirection, ruse and ploy, the Allies prepared the way for action in the physical world by manipulating the mental and emotional.
Once strategy is determined, second tier or operational decisions can be made in the proper context. By definition, operational decisions are those that pertain to the broad execution of strategy. In the realm of business, operational planning is usually conducted with a one-year time horizon, fitting into the context of a longer-range strategic plan. In the military, endeavors resulting from operational decisions are often called campaigns. A campaign is a series of military operations or battles carried out over a large geographical area—such as WWII Normandy—in order to achieve a large-scale objective during a war. The operational plans for D-Day, for example, set the stage for landing hundreds of thousands of men and significant amounts of equipment and materials on five Normandy-area beaches as part of the overall strategy for taking back France and ending the war in Europe. Other famous military campaigns include Sherman’s march through the Civil War South, Napoleon’s incursion into Russia, and Schwarzkopf’s Desert Storm conflict in Iraq.
Of course, we talk about campaigns all the time in the context of political elections or a series of television ads. The dictionary tells us that a campaign is “an operation or series of operations energetically pursued to accomplish a purpose.” Generally, a campaign has an identifiable objective and expected time of completion.
On the personal level, operational decisions relate to the “campaigns" that we conduct in pursuit of our life goals. A college course is a campaign toward a degree. A job that we take for a year or so is a campaign toward a more fulfilling career. Setting up a lifestyle in an apartment or condo might be seen as a campaign toward an eventual house.
After operational decisions come tactical decisions, those third-tier decisions made “in the heat of battle.” Military tactical decisions are made on the ground during battle when, inevitably, things do not go as planned, and officers and soldiers must improvise as they adjust to changing circumstances. Tactical decisions must be aligned with strategic and operational decisions. Despite the exhaustive operational planning prior to D-Day, countless tactical decisions were made once soldiers arrived on the scene and took stock of the situation. As the Chinese general and famed strategist Sun Tzu said 2,500 years ago, “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”
The Vietnam War presents an excellent example of tactical and operational success but strategic failure. Shortly after the war, a victorious North Vietnamese general was approached by an American general in a diplomatic setting. “You know,” said the American, “you never beat us on the battlefield.” Pondering the comment for a moment, the Vietnamese general replied, “That may be so. But it is also irrelevant.”
Indeed, history shows that the American military never lost a significant battle in Vietnam. The war was lost, though, at the strategic level. The mission of the United States drifted to the point that merely finding a way out was considered a successful outcome. Napoleon once said that “in war, the moral is to the material as three to one.” With every material advantage possible, America did not have the strategic consensus—or the will—necessary to accomplish a military victory.
Decisions at any level, of course, are a matter of choosing among options. But strategic, or “grand,” decisions differ from operational and tactical decisions in matters of scope, authority and timeframe. To illustrate the nature of these three distinct levels of decisions, let us employ three metaphors: the map, the organization chart, and the calendar.
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There are two types of strategic approach:
Deliberate strategy is process driven. Traditional calls for "strategic planning" indicate a desire for an analytic and somewhat linear approach to strategy.
Emergent strategy, on the other hand, is characterized by recursive learning loops, as an organization sets about on a course and then senses and reacts to opportunites that may not have been recognized at the onset.