How to Balance Short-Term Execution and Long-Term Strategy

Small-to-medium business (SMB) leaders in communications often struggle to reconcile their short-term execution needs with their long-term strategies. Although many are willing to adopt changes to improve their processes, it can be hard to figure out where to start and what to focus on. As a result, only 27% of communications leaders feel highly confident they can harmonize these two priorities. 

Let's explore what communications leaders can do to accomplish both while balancing long- and short-term objectives.[1]

What is the importance of balancing short-term execution with long-term strategy?

It’s important to balance short-term execution with long-term strategy because when the two are in conflict, dividing your efforts can paralyze progress. For instance, if you sacrifice immediate tasks that can satisfy customers’ immediate needs for long-term objectives, you can inhibit short-term cash flow.

At the same time, if you focus only on what’s immediately in front of you, you may create a strategy vacuum where you have enough people but inadequate infrastructure to maximize opportunities.

Striking the right balance is particularly important for communications teams because sustainability depends on forming a strategy to combat challenges coming from competition, disruptive technology, and market factors.

Since communications involves a range of different kinds of work, you need more structure to guide and support your efforts than other teams. This involves having the right strategies, people who can focus on them, and processes that make sure everyone acts in line with each strategy.

Steps for balancing short-term execution and long-term strategy

There are multiple steps that work in concert with each other to help you find the right balancing point between short-term execution and long-term strategy.

1. Make your communication strategy more useful

To make your communications strategy more actionable, you need to leverage SMART objectives to include specific things action-takers can do to impact these priorities. “SMART” is an acronym for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. If your objectives tick all of these boxes, they become growth tools as opposed to intriguing ideas.

For example, suppose the goal is to boost earnings in South American countries by 8% over the next four quarters. Immediately after establishing this objective, you can shift to the “how” by outlining exactly what needs to happen to reach your benchmark.

For instance, your team could:

  • Attend three trade conferences in the region during the first two quarters.

  • Improve the geo-location-based features of the company website.

  • Establish relationships with social media influencers in the area.

  • Promote marketing collateral in social media posts aimed at potential South American customers.

In this way, your team has action steps as opposed to merely an abstract idea of what they’d like to see happen.

The strategy cascade: how your strategy takes shape

The formulation and execution of your strategy can happen using a cascade framework, which involves a linear flow of responsibilities:

  1. Business leaders form a general organizational strategy.

  2. Communications leaders clarify the strategy to identify ways communications can add value.

  3. Once communications’ value-add has been established, the team then prioritizes problems they need to address, arranges the necessary resources, and builds a project portfolio.

These actions are the same when it comes to forming an operational performance strategy and a business impact strategy. Then both of these strategic categories have to be broken down into objectives and metrics used to measure progress towards them.

2. Free up senior staff to focus on strategy

You should give senior staff the time and leeway they need to focus on executing strategy. Even when a strategy has across-the-board buy-in, you still need to designate people to make sure it transitions from idea to action. With every strategy, turning words into actions involves two kinds of skills: concrete and abstract.

Concrete skills refer to the physical actions people take to make something happen, such as writing or graphic design. Abstract skills include those needed for strategizing, such as critical thinking and managing people.

But here’s the problem: In communications, those with more senior roles often have to do more concrete than abstract tasks. While there’s nothing wrong with senior staff digging in and doing manual work, this isn’t the most effective way to leverage their knowledge and perspective. When senior staff has to invest inordinate amounts of time and energy in performing concrete tasks, you may end up with not enough people to manage progress toward your long-term objectives and fulfillment of your short-term tasks.

This is why it’s important to give senior staff the room and tools they need to personally manage the execution of strategy. This requires designing roles built for managing the fulfillment of strategy.

3. Design roles for overseeing the execution of strategy

Strategic work needs to go to senior people, and executing plans should fall on the shoulders of junior people. Conflating the two muddies the waters and robs senior staff of their ability to focus on making sure strategic goals are met.

This has been an ongoing issue, so addressing it may require a drastic culture shift, particularly for communications management and the human resources department. Gartner’s TalentNeuron data analysis system discovered that, when it comes to filling roles that involve concrete work, the hires consist of between 86% and 91% mid-level to senior staff[1], which is the inverse of what it should be.

The answers to the following questions can help reverse this trend:

  • What does everyone on the team actually do, and are these actions strategic or tactical (concrete)?

  • How should we delegate the list of tactical tasks?

  • Do we need to reassign responsibilities and hire more junior staff or outsource some of the work we do?

  • Once junior staff members start performing tactical work, do we need to explain to them exactly what they need to do and what’s no longer expected of them?

  • If a senior member leaves the company or strategic team, should we replace them with another senior person, or can a junior person do some of their job while we divide other tasks up among the rest of the senior staff?

Once you’ve answered these questions and come up with an action plan, you’ll want to make sure you avoid tactical creep. In other words, hold senior people accountable for not, perhaps inadvertently, taking on concrete, tactical tasks that pop up.

4. Introduce processes to prioritize strategy in the short term

Prioritizing strategy in the short term involves saying no to other kinds of tasks. For communications teams, this isn’t easy. After all, many have built their careers around doing whatever’s been asked, no matter how difficult or inconvenient. But to focus on balancing short-term execution against long-term strategy, you have to say no—just to free up some bandwidth.

The easy way to say no is to do it before the question is even asked—with a service agreement. You can treat your service agreement much like a typical SLA from a third-party provider. It should say what you’re going to do and what you’re not. Then saying no is as easy as referring the asker to what’s already in writing.

You can also say no in other ways. For example, you can restructure your staff, assigning them so much strategic work that they literally don’t have time to perform tactical tasks.

You could also hire a business relationship manager that assigns—and rejects—work for your team. In this way, all of the “no’s” fall on one person instead of getting spread throughout your team.

Key considerations in balancing short-term execution and long-term strategy

Despite the challenges involved, a communications team can find the delicate balance between short-term execution and long-term strategy using the following tips:

  • Make sure that your strategies cascade from higher-level business objectives.

  • Ensure that all objectives are SMART.

  • Incorporate “how” plans with all strategies, which grounds your strategies in action steps.

  • Restructure the roles on your team, segmenting strategic from tactical tasks. Give tactical or concrete executional tasks to junior staff to free up senior staff to manage the fulfillment of your strategies.

  • Design and implement processes or positions that empower communications to say no to nonstrategic work.

The importance of balanced short-term and long-term strategy

It’s essential to balance short-term execution and long-term strategy. This helps a communications team avoid getting burnt out from providing ad hoc solutions and align its efforts with the organization’s high-level goals. To find an effective balance, you can use SMART objectives and incorporate “how” steps in all strategies. You should also free up your senior people so they can focus their energies on strategic instead of tactical efforts. In addition, you can introduce processes that make it easier for senior staff to say no to other tasks and hone in on strategy.

Following these steps will have a positive impact on your business, both for the communications team and your organization as a whole.