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Many people think of chess as primarily a game of strategy. I did so too, until recently, when I learned that some people think of chess as being primarily about tactics. That is, learning a small set of fundamental “plays” will make you a stronger player. Master the moves first, then deploy them strategically.
Chess succeeds because it models the balance between strategy and tactics and gives each player agency over how to deploy resources to win. Chance plays almost no role; it’s mostly down to skill. And as with many other games, the scenario is “safe” — i.e., the consequences of losing aren’t severe. The model is also simple enough that you can tell who’s winning by looking at the board.
It’s not like this in real life. Very few individuals have full agency over strategic and tactical decisions in more complex domains, such as business. More often, some people make decisions, and others execute them. In real life, it’s also harder to gauge the effects of strategic choices; you can’t easily map the outcomes of tactical initiatives to strategic decisions or tell who’s “winning” — or why — by just looking around.
One way to grok the effects of strategic choices is by looking at a product’s information architecture. A system’s structural distinctions reveal a lot about our strategic intent. For example, a product that embodies a platform strategy — i.e., one that third parties can build upon — will be organized differently than one that aims to be a closed one-stop-shop.
Consider Tesla. While other automakers sell through dealers, Tesla sells directly to consumers. Very different strategies — and they produce different outcomes. Rather than handing off prospects to third parties, Tesla controls the experience end-to-end. The call to action on Tesla.com isn’t “find a dealer” but “continue to payment” — a big difference! And you can see it reflected in Tesla’s website.
Because information architecture straddles abstraction and execution, it’s often the first tangible manifestation of strategic choices. In digital contexts, IA is where strategy becomes “real” — the first concrete manifestation of ideas previously discussed in the abstract through spreadsheets and slide decks. And made tangible, strategic choices can be validated.
Of course, tactics matter. As with chess, even the soundest strategic intent can be bungled through poor execution. Excellent screen-level design is table stakes. But it’s easier to improve tactical execution than strategic thinking.
Architectural distinctions embody strategic choices. As a result, information architecture can be a powerful tool for modeling strategy. An IA grounded in strategy establishes a beachhead for a different way of being in the world — one that enacts new possibilities for the organization.