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In their influential team leadership book, "Peopleware", DeMarco and Lister suggest that managers should provide "strategic but not tactical direction" for their IT teams.

This is intriguing, but they don't go on to explain exactly what they mean! Any thoughts on what this intriguing idea looks like in practice? Is it a good or bad practice?

9

It means that people know how to do their jobs. They don't need to be micromanaged.

The role of a manager, generally speaking, is to tell people what to do, not how to do it.

5

With an example,

When you take your car to the shop, you probably don’t say “Please replace the alternator” you say “When I turn the key, the engine won’t turn over”. Maybe you do need a new alternator, or maybe it’s the battery, generator, solenoid, etc. If the mechanic follows your directions, you’ll get a new alternator but your car still may not start!

So, you might ask what’s the difference, how do I communicate strategically as opposed to tactically? In a nutshell, it’s talking about your objectives and challenges rather than providing potential solutions. For example, you might say “I want users to notice products that are on special at my Web site” rather than “Make the store button bigger and red”. Maybe adding a featured product to the home page would serve that purpose better. You could be missing out on the best solutions, even with the best intentions.

May be the Managers let the team to find out the best solution rather than giving a solution.

2

The strategic direction is the long (>= 3 years in my opinion) term goal.

What do you want to achieve with your team/department/organization some years from now?

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The question has been answered, but I wanted to add an example that helps in understanding the difference between the two. For that, I'm going to use XCOM, a game that is essentially split into two layers: the strategic layer and the tactical layer.

XCOM is the last line of defense against an alien invasion. You are a paramilitary organization. The Earth is being besieged by hostile aliens. You need to save Earth.

First, there is the tactical layer. Here, you have the soldiers, and you engage in direct gunfire combat with the aliens. You move your people through the map, have them take cover, trade shots with the enemy, and clear the map (or complete the objectives).

Secondly, there is the strategic layer. After every (tactical) mission, you return here. This is an overview of the planet. Which countries are being taken over? Which emergencies do you respond to? Given your limited supply of resources, are you going to upgrade soldier armor? Their weapons? Are you going to upgrade your satellite network so you can defend more countries?

The two layers are completely separate. The strategic layers deals with big picture decisions, the tactical layer deals with the "boots on the ground" small scale interactions.
But the two feed into each other. Handling the strategic layer well means that you can upgrade your soldiers' gear and thus have more success in the tactical combat. Conversely, completing tactical missions means you push the enemy back which removes obstacles on the strategic layer.

In software development, the programmers are the soldiers, and the manager is the commander. They perform different tasks, are not capable of doing each other's task (well), but they work towards the same goal.
The manager can't and shouldn't make technical decisions such as which design pattern to use. The programmer can't and shouldn't make management decisions such as the staffing of the team or what gets prioritized.

Effectively, "provide strategic but not tactical direction" means the same as "do macromanage, do not micromanage".

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