"42," or why strategic thinking matters

What is the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything?

Well, 42 (of course.)

This classic moment from the comedic sci-fi novel The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (and if you’ve never read it, check out this priceless clip from a movie adaptation of the book) is not only delightful, but a perfect illustration of how too much tactical thinking gets nonprofits in trouble.

How so?

Let's look at a couple of practical examples of tactical thinking versus strategic thinking to help illustrate where I’m going with this...

Tactical: When telling a story, start with engaging visuals!

Strategic: Which story are we telling and why? Who is the hero? How do we want our audience to feel at the end, and what action are we encouraging them to take? How does this story reflect our mission and values as an organization?

  • Once you’ve got those questions down, then totally, start with some engaging visuals. (We love engaging visuals! Video is great for that.)

Tactical: Do A/B testing to see which language works best to drive people to the website!

Strategic: What are we trying to accomplish with this messaging? How does it fit into our greater plan? What does success look like?

  • Once you’ve figured that out, for sure, do some A/B testing with the specifics. Make sure you can act on what you learn and integrate it back into the strategy.

Tactical: Send emails on Tuesday afternoons!

Strategic: What value are our supporters getting from these emails? Why would they open them in the first place? What need/desire are these messages meeting for them at this moment?

  • If you’re clearly providing value in your communications, then maybe Tuesday afternoon actually is a really great time to send your emails. Do an A/B test with some different times and find out for sure!

Ok, I know what you’re thinking. “All the tactics are things I can actually do, and all the strategies are just questions.”

Fair. And accurate.

But first, there’s a reason all the tactical thinking examples are exclamation points and the strategic thinking examples are question marks.

Questions are the mechanism we use to ensure vision is connected to implementation.

Questions are the glue of strategy.

And secondly, don’t get us wrong - we NEED tactics. They’re what set the strategy in motion!

But tactics are answers. They represent possible responses to a question.

We need answers - we're hungry for them.

The thing is, we need the right answers. The answers that match who we are and why we exist as mission-driven organizations in the first place.

What we don’t need are random, disconnected tactics driven by extrinsic motivations (motivations that come from the outside, i.e. this is a “best practice,” this is what X org did and it worked for them) as opposed to intrinsic motivations (which come from the inside, i.e. this tactic is part of implementing this strategy to reach this goal).

In short, we don't need a “Deep Thought” machine that tells us the answer to life, the universe, and everything is “42.” We need to find out for ourselves what the question is (or the answer doesn't actually get us anywhere).

Strategic thinking is a commitment to the visioning, goal-setting, and self-reflection that ultimately bring your questions (and the answers that activate them!) to the fore. And that’s why strategic thinking matters.


We worked with Make-a-Wish discovering their questions, the ones they specifically needed to improve their storytelling. By asking for a deep-dive look at the who their supporters were and how to make their stories focus these individuals, we were able to use the answers to fuel a new, powerful and effective storytelling strategy. Learn more in our case story here.

If you’re ready to unleash your stories with the right strategy - questions and answers alike - let’s talk.

Author: Miriam Brosseau
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