Tactical implementation: The Devil is in the details
Thomas W. Porter
Assistant Professor of Marketing, University of North Carolina at Wilmington
Stephen C. Harper
Professor of Management, University of North Carolina at Wilmington
The realities of putting tactics to work confound people on the corporate firing line every day. Today’s tumultuous marketplace and growingbusiness complexities don’t help. And front-line managers and employees are the ones facing many of these challenges while trying to make top management dreams a reality. Attention must focus on the critical yet often neglected issue of effective tactical implementation, including many of the misconceptions and factors that contribute to its failure or success. Based on an ongoing research program onmarketing implementation challenges, five key principles of tactical implementation are highlighted here, followed by eight recommendations to help managers better cope with it—recommendations that apply to all aspects of business.
“If you are embarking around the world in a hot-air balloon, don’t forget the toilet paper. Once, we had to wait for an incoming fax.” —Richard Branson execution ofmarketing tactics by front-line managers that higher-level strategies are implemented. Tactical implementation—the nuts and bolts and rolled-up shirtsleeves of a firm’s operations—requires front-line managers to organize, plan, monitor, and in many cases perform the tasks necessary to translate strategic goals into marketing actions. Tactical initiatives take the form of projects because theyinvolve nonroutine activities as well as coordination with people and groups throughout the firm. Examples include such programs as advertising campaigns, integrative promotions, sales force programs, and new product initiatives. One of the challenges of studying implementation at any level is that there is often no clear boundary between it and strategy. The experience of Royal Philips Electronics inmarketing its Digital Compact Cassette (DCC) technology offers a vivid example of the kinds of problems companies have with tactical implementation. After spending tens of millions of dollars on DCC development, Philips stumbled in marketing the technology. One executive concluded, “Everything that could have possibly gone wrong in the marketing has gone wrong.” The company made tactical errorssuch as flooding record stores with too many DCC format music titles that did not sell. Upset, retailers returned the tapes. Customers were frustrated because they could not find the music they wanted. Philips made another tactical error in handling a price cut on existing models of the DCC 1
The unstable and ever-changing nature of today’s
marketplace coupled with the increasing complexity oforganizations are making the execution of tactical initiatives “devilishly” difficult. Veteran executives yearn for the good old days when life was simpler and Murphy’s Law (“If anything can go wrong, it will, and at the most inopportune time”) was the basis for jokes rather than a description of daily operations. Those at the top now have to become even more savvy to the challenges faced byfront-line managers and employees, who will determine whether their visions become reality. Their strategies and tactics will give their firms a competitive edge only if they are skillfully implemented. Executives must recognize that the simplicity or intuitiveness of their tactical initiative has very little to do with the challenge of implementing it. The challenge begins not at the start ofimplementation but rather during the strategy formulation process, which can be critical for tactical success. Reliance on the “We’ll cross the implementation bridge when we get to it” philosophy may place the firm in a precarious position. Strategy implementation and tactical implementation can and should interrelate because it is through the design and
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