“Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It's not about money. It's about the people you have, how you're led, and how much you get it.” - Steve Jobs

Strategy sets the agenda for good tactics to achieve a goal

As many of you know, Im the vice president of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA). I am also a former board member of UXNet. This means I think often about how to organize a community and advancing a discipline. This has really been a great exercise in differentiating tactics vs. strategy as well as what it means to lead both those items. I have had some great mentors in this regard like Robert Reimann (IxDAs current president), Challis Hodge (IxDAs co-founder), and Dirk Knemeyer (President of UXNet) to name a few.

With 4 years of my most recent experience in leading and building IxDA I have learned a lot, but I also know I have a lot more to learn. One thing I learned is that organizing and advancing is actually just a design exercise like any other that requires thinking of tactics and strategy and what it means to lead. The other thing I learned is that sometimes the best strategy person may not be the best tactician, and definitely not the best leader. As I said this is also a design exercise and Id like to express a few examples of how this is all connected.

First thought, Id like to define some things.

Tactics – Are modes or points of execution. While they are independent from a strategy, their ultimate goal is to achieve a strategy.

Strategy – Is the reason why we do tactics. They are the end goal, the result we wish to achieve through our tactical execution. There is usually more than one way to successfully reach a strategic goal, and the level of success is directly correlated to the tactics executed.

leading – making sure things go well within the boundaries of what is being led. This means a few things. It means that you understand the end goals and the strategy for reaching those goals. It means that you understand how to execute the tactics. And finally it means you know how to work with those in your bounded space who will help with all the above.

I realize these definitions are a bit vague, but hopefully through the case study that Im going to present youll be able to get a clearer sense of what I mean.

Recently, Peter Merholz, President of Adaptive Path, former President of the IA Institute (IAI) and current board member of IAI, posted a blog entry where he actively criticized the leadership of the IA Community, and it was clear he was explicitly speaking to those who were organizing the IAI community. He made it clear that even before attending he was feeling hopeless about the Summit content and pointed to a key area of disappointmenta specific workshop was cancelled because of lack of attendee signup. He spoke about how the IA Community needs to take on more risk and encourage the equivalent or loss leaders in order to push the IA discipline and community forward.

I read his post with interest but also with shock that someone who has so much visibility in the IA community and has been in the role of leadership for so many years, also misses the point of it all, so while I agreed with him about the disappointment of the loss of this workshop, I also challenged him on his finger pointing as being a bit of the pot calling the kettle black.

Peter for his part has responded to my critique by calling me a narrow minded half-wit and my thoughts as a toxic contribution to his blog. Peter first approached me (not on his blog but in private email) that he was hurt by my comments, He was right to call me on this because they denigrated one of his big efforts last yearIDEA Conferenceway harsher than was necessary. In response to his private email I apologized and tried to clarify my point further. Since then I was alerted to his response to me, which catalogs a list of things that Peter has done while leading in IAI.

When I read his list of events and actions that he achieved, it was clear to me that two things were going on. Peter wasnt leading, he was doing. Peter wasnt using the right tactics to achieve his strategic goals.

While what hes done is pretty cool to read as a laundry list, If one was to analyze the results (which is the content of his post) IA isnt dead it is only sleeping it is clear that the real analysis shouldnt lead to finger pointing at anyone, but a re-evaluation of the tactics used to attempt to reach the strategic goals. It is also important to understand that choosing tactics is a strong part of leading and their choice in and of themselves could be the difference between being visible and leading.

All of the tactics that were listed feel like a plausible way of reaching the desired strategic goals. However, they didnt work primarily the strategy focused on goals of the organization or discipline without navigating the motivations and contexts of those who practice and there would be the advancers of that discipline.

Also, many of the stated tactics were not done through leadership but rather through autocracy. In essence the problem here is someone attempting to lead without making sure anyone was following. If IA is sleeping, it is because the practitioners, the potential followers of any leadership initiative, are not following. If they are not following it means that there is an implicit problem with the tactics being used.

Peter made it very clear before he arrived into Las Vegas that he was skeptical. But from his very arrival at least for those of us who were twittering away, it was even made clearer by his constant messages saying he wasnt even in the building. I mean, I didnt go to many sessions at all and the sessions I went to were quite disappointing for me, but I at least stayed and attempted to make the Summit work in other ways. I dont mention this to try to pick on Peter, I mention it because it speaks loudly to the lack of leadership by Peter. He points a finger, comes, but doesnt really participate and wonders why no one is following or more important responding the way he feels we all should in the community.

For my own part, I do not feel like Im an expert here. This is one of the main reasons I feel my vice presidential position is appropriate for my level of understanding how to lead and to create a tactical plan for achieving strategic goals. I have done well as someone who completes tactics, and who has great insights towards creating a strategy. But I have often failed in understanding how to create the list of tactics themselves. And this is where we get back to design.

On any design project no matter the scale there is always a need to analyze data towards the goal of discovering problems that need to be solved, an understanding of what would happen by solving that collection of problems, and the constraints for how to possibly achieve those solutions. In the design world we use tools like ethnography, active listening, laboratory testing, client discovery interviews, etc. The goal is to understand the holistic problem set as from the point-of-view of both the end users and customers, but also tangential stakeholders. All of these are human beings in the total system.

After we do this level of research, we can then create models (many many models) which will help to bring understanding to the data we captured and thus converting data into information. From this understanding of the humans world and the total contexts of the system we create a set of strategically informed success criteria and from that we model what tactics would help us reach those success points.

One might call that design at the very least, but maybe it can be called strategizing. The next part though is in execution. If you cant do the tactics well, it is probable that you cannot achieve your success points of your strategy. But what is also true is that if the analysis used to create the list of tactics is flawed in some way, no matter how well you do your tactics, and execute, you will not achieve your strategic goals.

For me as a designer and an organizer this happens often. Sometimes, because I dont have enough resources (time, people, money) to get enough data points. Shoot! Even knowing what is enough is a strategic problem in and of itself. Other times it is because I didnt analyze the data correctly. This can happen because I didnt iterate on the modeling enough (usually because of time), or because I got caught in a sandtrap or false path that deceived me into a bad direction. There are many other places where this system can fall apart and one of the reasons why design is actually a very time consuming proposition when done wellmethodically, rigorously, creatively, analytically.

I have been pushed recently to outline a strategy while Im in the midst of creating a tactical plan to help create a conference for IxDA next winter. At first, I felt put off by the request, But after reading Peters article it is clear to me that we do indeed such a strategy statement. The reason why you do that is that you need something to reflect against. You also need to have an understanding of all the points of context and for that to be modeled as well. The reason the strategy and the contextual models are so important is that they act as a comparison point for the tactical planning. Without these two points of evaluative reflection as an organizer or designer, you will not have clear boundaries to help guide your tactical plan. This will lead to great ideas being executed that have limited or no effect of leading towards your desired goals.

So while I was a bit hurt and Peter was a bit hurt through this process, for my part, I feel I learned a great lesson through it all and a lesson that I can use not only in my organizing world, but one that makes complete sense (if not more) in my design work I do.

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