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When General Stanley McChrystal led the US Special Operations Task Force into Iraq in 2003, they were ill-prepared to fight Al Qaeda. In his book "Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World," McChrystal writes, “… we found ourselves losing to an enemy that, by traditional calculus, we should have dominated.” The Task Force had to adapt to a networked, fluid enemy operating in a fast, complicated environment. But how?

Thankfully, marketing technologists don’t face life-and-death decisions. But we do confront a fast, networked, complex environment that seems to change faster than we can adapt. What McChrystal learned in Iraq and Afghanistan can help us execute martech strategies. And execution brings us to the final topic in this series of articles: tactics.

From Strategy to Tactics

I define strategy as knowing today why and how you’re going to win tomorrow. I’ve argued we need strategies to navigate situations we can’t control. We turn strategy into more than a piece of paper by making our strategy specific, by tapping the awareness of diverse leaders, and by including our teams. People may feel threatened by a new strategy unless they’re free to critique the strategy and align with it by choice.

To get from an abstract strategy to concrete actions and results, we need tactics. The term “tactics” comes from the ancient Greek taktike techne, which means the art of arrangement. That elegant definition is the one I prefer.

Consider what tactics look like on a football field. The coach arranges who will be on the field, what players will do (e.g., block or run), where they will do that job, and when they will execute their actions. The aggregate of those arrangements is a tactic — perhaps in this case, a tactic to achieve a first down. The tactician seeks an outcome that supports the game strategy and maybe even the seasonal strategy.     

Related Article: The Elements of a Strategic Marketing Program

The New Tactical Leader

Tactics are the work of leaders, but not the kind we see in movies. Power-drunk coaches and domineering generals are poor tacticians. McChrystal developed a new conception of leadership from fighting Al Qaeda. His leader, defined in Team of Teams, would fit equally well in a martech organization:

  • “The temptation to lead as a chess master, controlling each move of the organization, must give way to an approach as a gardener, enabling rather than directing.”
  • “A gardening approach to leadership is anything but passive. The leader acts as an ‘Eyes-On, Hands-Off’ enabler who creates and maintains an ecosystem in which the organization operates.”

McChrystal recognized that to fight Al Qaeda effectively, he needed to distribute the art of arrangement to teams. In a fast, complex environment, teams knew better than McChrystal what was happening moment-to-moment and how to respond.

McChrystal is “Eyes-On,” meaning he maintains a “big-picture, holistic view … no matter how tempting micromanaging may be.” He is “Hands-Off” in that he cultivates a garden in which his team can execute the strategy through their tactics of choice.  

Related Article: IT Should Be Gardeners, Not Gatekeepers

How This Works in Martech

I’ve offered a framework for strategy, tactics and tactical leadership. Let’s plug in some variables to see how these concepts operate in martech.

Using a Mad Libs formula I shared previously, let’s state the strategy for a hypothetical organization in wildlife advocacy: “Our organization exists to express the beauty and value of wildlife for our team of ambassadors who educate children, policymakers and businesspeople. We win by giving this team on-demand access to a library of powerful imagery. Having a fast, quality workflow for digital content creation and an agile system for assignments and approvals ensures that we can win.”

Following McChrystal’s gardener approach, we’d let content creators choose the tactics that produce evocative photos and videos. Likewise, we would empower someone to administer that image library. We trust these individuals, in part, because they participated in building and adopting our strategy.

Let’s say the CEO decides to introduce wildlife advocacy programs in China. The martech gardener (maybe a CMO) would invite qualified team members to implement the martech strategy there.

A director of marketing might open an office in Beijing, hire local wildlife ambassadors, and train them to educate children, policymakers, and businesspeople. Maybe a digital asset management (DAM) administrator configures the image library for Mandarin speakers and teaches new hires how to use it. The team project manager hires someone in Beijing who can implement the workflow and management systems that have worked well elsewhere.

The gardener is eyes-on, hands-off. She evaluates tactics against the strategy and certainly gives feedback. But, she leaves the art of arrangement to her team members.

Related Article: Avoid Brand Disasters With a Visual Content Strategy

The Idea with a Thousand Faces

The scholar Joseph Campbell discovered that the myths of disparate cultures sent heroes on the same journey. Hence, he titled one of his books "The Hero with a Thousand Faces." I find that strategy, however we define and pursue it, is singular. It as an idea with a thousand faces. Whatever costumes it wears, strategy seeks victory. It is about winning.

The point of writing this series was to show strategy’s “face” in martech. Although our conceptions of strategy draw from military and management science, our work is different from anything preceding it. 

Consider that a marketing technologist can connect in ever-multiplying ways with any one of the 4.5 billion people who owns a mobile phone. The proliferation of choices makes martech strategy harder, not easier. We’re tempted to filter our options through tools and process that, like a kaleidoscope, can fracture the light of our message. To reconstitute that light, we need strategy more than ever. We need to put tools and process in their place.  

I hope these articles motivate you to ask tough, uncomfortable questions about your work. Such questions motivated General McChrystal to rethink his strategy: “If we were the best of the best …. Why were we unable to defeat an under-resourced insurgency? Why were we losing?”

Maybe you feel like you’re losing on some battlefields, too. What are you going to do about it?