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Challenging Technology, Creating Solutions

Tactical Solutions

Timothy Sim

The tactical solution is an old bugbear of mine. Often when a team talks about a tactical solution they are really talking about a quick and dirty work-around (also known as a hack) to achieve a short-term goal. You can imagine my horror when I recently found myself suggesting a tactical solution to a customer to meet a very tight deadline.

When a customer proposes a tactical solution my first question is usually “What is your strategic solution?” closely followed by “How does this tactical solution fit into your strategic direction?”. On the one hand this can come across as a pair of challenging, smart-aleck questions but they are critical because they force everyone involved to think about how a tactical solution will transition into being part of the strategic solution.

If there is no strategic solution, then there is a serious underlying problem that no tactical solution will fix. The project/program is lacking in technical and/or business direction and probably needs to take a step back and carry out further analysis before proceeding.

If they cannot articulate how the tactical solution will transition into the strategic solution, then it is not a well-considered solution and you are straying into hack territory.

One interesting point that unfortunately is indicative of many organisations is that tactical solutions often remain as tactical solutions – or even worse end up becoming the strategic solution – because they never go back to transition the tactical solution into the planned strategic solution.

So why don’t’ organisations go back to ‘fix’ tactical solutions? There are two main reasons which I have observed:

  • Competing priorities and ambitious programmes of work mean that teams never get the breathing space to address the technical debt accrued through tactical solutions. It is more important to continue to deliver additional functionality than it is to go back and fix imperfect technical solutions.
  • Often the business case for addressing the tactical solution is too weak for business to approve. The project/program- is delivered, and there is no budget left.

The kinds of organisations that I have seen address a tactical solution are usually ones who successfully practice an Agile delivery methodology, and often with a mature DevOps capability. This is because the inertia associated with fixing a tactical solution is lower as teams are able to pivot easily, the fixes can be incrementally implemented, and there is buy-in from the business via a Product Champion.

So how did my recent suggestion for a tactical solution go? Thankfully it went well because the customer had already considered the strategic solution, and could map out the path (in terms of execution as well as budget) from the tactical solution to the strategic solution through subsequent release iterations.

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