The accidental strategist

The Accidental Strategist

SOURCE: Flickr user striatic

Author and reformed management consultant Matthew Stewart once wrote in The Atlantic that ”management theory is what happens to philosophers when you pay them too much.” He wasn’t deriding philosophers (which is usually what happens). Rather, he was labeling management consultants and theorists as bloated, undisciplined, and unworthy stepchildren of philosophy, who also deny their lineage.

The quote pops into my head a lot, both as a body blow and a boasting point, because I am a management consultant from time to time, even as I’m an academic. Worse still, I work with nonprofits and in higher education, so the “pay them too much” is a bit of a sting, as well. Yes, I hear you all saying with deep sincerity, ”poor, poor you.”

Thank you. I’m fine. You’re sweet to care.

I recall the quote most frequently when I’m transitioning from one role to another, as I am at this moment — on the Amtrak Northeast Regional train from DC and my faculty job at American University to Philadelphia for Theatre Communications Group’s Audience (R)Evolution Learning Convening, where I play a management consultant role (as part of the AMS Planning & Research support team). Part of my work, alongside Steven Wolff and Lynette Turner, will be describing the difference between a strategy and a tactic to a roomful of theater professionals. Which begs the Matthew Stewart-worthy question:

Who the hell cares what the difference is between a strategy and a tactic?

As it turns out, I care. And the Matthew Stewart quote nudges me to wonder whether anyone else has reason to care, as well.

Our work for this project has included a deep dive into audience engagement literature, analysis of audience engagement strategies by grantees, surveys and depth interviews with theater professionals, and on-going conversations with the TCG leadership and advisory team. The convening, itself, is part of the research, as we seek to test which ways of sharing and assessing strategies have traction with theater professionals, which help them engage and adapt their own work, and which just leave them cold.

At the core of the challenge is that there is no shortage of really smart tactics for building audience, engaging participants, or connecting more deeply with community. But so many of the tactics seem attempted without a larger purpose or framework — without a larger strategy. We’ll offer discounts. We’ll add a talkback. We’ll boost our social media presence. We’ll build promotional partnerships with civic or community groups. All fantastic tactics, but to what end? And how do you observe or adjust those tactics to ensure they’re the right ones? And how do you select the precious few tactics you and your team actually have time, energy, and resources to attempt?

Strategy is the general direction, the larger purpose, the focused intention of your combined action. Tactics are the actions, the specific responses, the smaller steps you take to advance that strategy.

For theater professionals, it might be useful to consider strategy as the arc, the outcome, the intent of the play. Tactics, then, are the bundles of actions you choose to get there. Every extraordinary actor or director knows that their lines, their gestures, their motions across the stage have individual impact, but also a larger purpose toward the performance. They’ve been trained to know this, and to execute it. They’ve practice this duality over thousands of hours, and they struggle with it every additional hour they rehearse. Why that gesture? Why that intonation? How does it contribute to the larger intention of the play?

Is it all semantics? Is the distinction just a product of overpaid philosophers? I don’t think so, but I’m eager to find out. And Stewart’s quote helps keep me focused and humble as I do.

In the meanwhile, I’m happy to have an alternate quote that offers an antidote to Mr. Stewart, from academic provocateur Marshall Sahlins, who anchors his insight to anthropology rather than philosophy:

”At least as far as Anthropology goes, two things are certain in the long run: one is that we’ll all be dead; but another is that we’ll all be wrong. Clearly, a good scholarly career is where the first comes before the second.”



  1. John Abodeely says

    I agree that strategy is very important. If we do not know and cannot articulate why a staff person or an organization does something, then we’re destined not to have the level of impact we could. It’s burning money and energy in the interest of no particular end.

  2. Simon Jacobs says

    Hmmm, it seems to me that you have done a pretty good job of describing the difference: i.e. a tactic is an action that is taken as part of a strategy. So why do you have to travel all the way to Philly when you could have e-mailed the reply? : )

  3. says

    For musicians as well as for theatre people, the difference is obvious, and essential: and for me, something basic in any liberal-arts education. In music, we could say that the FORM of the work is the strategy –be it sonata-allegro, fugue, 8- or 12-bar blues, strophic song, what have you. The discourse is the tactics: HOW the particular composer realizes what she or he wants to say within the form elected for the work. Or, in a simile more like the theatre model you use, the strategy is the work itself and the tactics are the interpretation: the way a particular pianist may interpret Beethoven’s Hammerklavier, or a Chopin Nocturne, or the Barber concerto, as distinct from the interpretation of another pianist.