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What baseball Can Teach Us About Strategy

A few months ago I was watching the Giants play the Angles (June 22, 2021 - Giants 5, Angles 0). In the second inning the Angles had runners on 2nd and 3rd, no outs. The Giants’ pitcher was able to hold the runners and get the next 3 batters out.

So that got me thinking about how the words strategy and tactic often get interchanged. Maybe looking at baseball in a larger context could help explain the difference between strategy and tactics. So here goes:

Let’s first start with some definitions (taken from Wikipedia)

A strategy is a set of guidelines used to achieve an overall objective, whereas tactics are the specific actions aimed at adhering to those guidelines

As definitions go, that’s pretty good. But what are these guidelines? And tactics can be further defined as a short series of actions with the aim of achieving a short-term goal. And actions can be implemented as one or more specific tasks.

The idea that tactics can be a series of actions and task taken over a timeframe (like in strategy), helps explain why the terms can get confusing.

Using baseball perhaps we can better frame how strategy, tactics, actions, competition and playing conditions complement and interact with each other.

First let’s start with the big picture:

What is the overarching goal or objective we are trying to accomplish?

Often this is expressed as a vision statement. Other ways to articulate the big picture goal are:

· What’s your winning aspiration?

· What does victory look like?

For baseball the big picture goal is straight forward: Win the World Series. Of course a major league team will also have business goals, but for this discussion I’ll separate those.

Every business needs to choose where it will play and how it will win

For a baseball team, where it will play is clear: On the baseball fields against the other 29 major league teams.

How a baseball team will win is by fielding the best skilled and coached athletes the organization can obtain that match up, hopefully better, than the talent and skills of the other team.

A baseball team clearly needs capabilities. The defensive side they need pitching and fielding skills. On the offense they need hitting and base running skills. They need to build game strategies (or is this a tactic?) and a winning spirt and attitude to be able to win in any competitive circumstances. And they need scouting to understand how the competitors are likely to play against them.

And finally systems and measurements to achieve the end goal. The most important measurement in baseball is of course the Win/Loss record. Unlike business, competitive sports have clear definition of who the winners are. And of course baseball is rich in several other parameters they measure from Earned Run Average (ERA) to On-Base-Percentage (OBP).

Other systems a baseball team needs are related to keeping the team healthy and fit throughout the long season including fitness and travel logistics.

Game Day Playbook

At the beginning of each game, each coach (or field commander in military vernacular) comes up with a line up to best pair up against the competitor.

And inner game objectives are defined based on the specific playing conditions for the game including how many inning the starting pitcher will play, and how to best pitch and align the defense against the competitor’s batters.

So clearly on game day, there is a plan of attack to beat the competitor. Based on scouting and past experiences the coach tries to anticipate what the matchups are and how his team will best attack and respond to game situations as the unfold.

And before the first pitch is thrown, a pitcher and catcher will come up with the best way to face the leadoff batter. And conversely the leadoff batter will decide how to best face the pitcher.

The moment of truth comes at the first pitch. The game will unfold in recognizable patterns, but because the game has twist and turns, each game presents its own set of challenges and decision making.

Playing Field Realities: Strategy vs Tactics

So was the commentator correct when he said that the Angles used the wrong strategy to score runs with 2 on second and third and nobody out?

My answer is no, this was a tactic or a series of tactics, that the Angles choose based on the game situation. And a series of responding tactics the Giants took to end the inning with no runs.

What about the pre-game planning: Strategy or Tactics?

Here’s where the terminology gets fuzzy. One can argue that at the beginning of each baseball came, the upfront planning is strategy.

But one can argue that what a team does to prepare itself on game day to win is actually a tactic. The overall arching strategy is to have a team that can win more games than any other competitor. And all the upfront strategic planning was designed to execute on each day game.

Having said that, my way of thinking is that the pre-game day planning is strategic thinking. How are we going to win this game today? But at the point of engagement, the strategy is only there to help form decision making and what the best tactic is in any given situation.

The reality of playing field (game situation) ultimately determines what tactics (decision) players and the coach will take, And the results of each action will determine the next set of decisions and tactics.

Long and the short – strategy and tactics are a continuum. There’s an overall plan of attack (the strategy – sometimes thought as top-down thinking), the individual near term objectives (win today’s game), and the reality of the game situation that determine the tactics and actions used on the playing field.

We need to take a long-term view and think ahead, while choosing short-term steps to take now for the sake of what we want later.

To wrap up here are the key takeaways:

1. Be clear on what the overall arching goal is - what victory looks like. In the case of baseball – win the world series

2. Be clear where you compete and how you will win. Baseball of course is on the MLB playing field against adversaries with the same end goal in mind.

3. Prepare your organization by building capabilities that will allow it to execute under predictable and non-predictable situations.

4. Have systems in place to measure progress and keep your team healthy and engaged.

Why the baseball analogy breaks down

The rules of baseball are clear and set. And it’s clear what defines a “win.” The rules don’t change in midseason. Sure overtime the MLB changes rules to make the game better (or at least that is the intend). And yes, sometimes teams cheat or stretch the boundaries of the rules.

And what’s really different in baseballs is that every game has a set of umpires whose job is to keep the game honest and make game situations calls (e.g. strike, ball, safe and out). Sometimes they goof, but most of the times they make the right calls.

But on the business playing field, the rules of the game or much more fluent. In fact a well-known Silicon Valley strategy is to break the rules of the “game” using disruptive technology to gain a competitive edge on the marketing playing field.

And there are limited governing rules and no umpires overseeing every action a company takes to gain an edge over the competitor. Sometimes this is good for the consumer, but sometimes not.

Now of course we are governed by the rule-of-law, a set of ethical norms (most of us anyway), and there are certain protections (e.g. consumer and antitrust statutes) in place. But the law moves slower than the game.

So rules can be bent and even broken, to benefit one’s competitive position. Hopefully for the benefit of the consumer as well. Thus the “rule book” is constantly evolving. And ultimately it’s up to the customer who wins their business.

Final thought on Strategy vs. Tactics from Sun Tzu:

“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy are the noise before defeat.”

Hope my baseball analogy shed some lights on Strategy vs Tactics.

Play ball!


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