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In The 33 Strategies of War, Robert Greene defined strategy versus tactics: “Strategy is the art of looking beyond the present and calculating ahead. Along the way, the fuel that propels your company towards its goal will need to be replenished with carefully selected tactics, helping you stay on track towards your ultimate strategic goal.”
With all that said, strategy versus tactics may appear to be one and the same — perhaps even interchangeable. After all, a sound strategy can’t be executed without masterful tactics, right?
However, the distinction between the two is one worth exploring, particularly for anyone who seeks to navigate the short and long-term challenges of leading people in an ever-changing, rapidly-growing workplace. Let’s dive in.
The definition of strategy versus tactics
First things first, let’s define strategy and tactics. This will help clarify how exactly these two are different.
Strategy is the way you approach solving a problem or achieving a goal. Typically, a leader will define this overall direction for their company, team, or organization. Strategy is all about the big picture.
Tactics, on the other hand, are the concrete actions you take in pursuit of an outcome. While you might have one overall strategy for accomplishing your goals, you can use many tactics to help you execute your strategy. Tactics are more about the day-to-day than the big picture.
Here’s a quick example:
Say you’re on a road trip to a vacation destination. The beach resort you’re looking forward to reaching several hours from now is the strategy. The roads, highways, rest stops, milestones, and even detours are the tactics.
Strategic versus tactical planning
Depending on your ultimate purpose, you’ll need to do both strategic and tactical planning. Here’s a quick definition of strategic versus tactical planning to help you find out which could help you:
- Strategic planning defines where an organization, or individual, is going long-term. This could be a simple 5-year plan or a bigger, long-term vision. Ask yourself, what ultimate goal do you want to achieve, and why?
- Tactical planning outlines how to move towards your goals in the short term. Maybe you need to develop certain personal habits or hire a new team member. The most important thing is to ask, what steps will move you forward and help you achieve your strategic goals?
Why it matters: strategy versus tactics
But why does understanding strategy versus tactics matter? Learning the distinction between strategy vs. tactics is crucial for any manager, leader, or decision-maker — especially when their organizations are in a period of rapid growth.
Without distinguishing between the two, it becomes nearly impossible to course-correct when your intended outcome doesn’t materialize. It’s like walking through a dark forest without a guiding light — you can try dozens of different paths, without ever making real progress. Without light (AKA, a strategy), you’ll never know if you’re actually going in the right direction.
You could become far too focused on tactics if you don’t understand the way these differ from strategy. Instead of trying to get out of the forest, you’ll end up going in circles. You might even forget that getting out was your goal in the first place!
If you want to achieve your goals, you’ll need both a strategy (your guiding light) and the right tactics (walking down the right path) to get there.
Breaking down strategy versus tactics
Now that you know why the difference between strategy versus tactics matters, let’s dive a little deeper.
What’s unique about strategy?
“If you don't know where you are going, any road will get you there.” - Lewis Carroll
Every planning process should start with a target in mind. This goal should justify and drive all of your other goals — and ultimately, it will define your strategy. Your strategy provides the answer to the question of “what should I do, how should I do it, and why?”
Strategy is often confused with tactics because both refer to the specific path taken to get something done. However, strategy is far more nuanced. A tactic is simply an action taken: it’s not good or bad in and of itself. A business strategy is a way of determining if a tactic is in alignment with the overarching values of the organization.
Main components of strategy
- Focused on the outcome of long-term goals
- Requires high-level thinking
- Always future-based
- Often involves cross-functional collaboration
- Answers the question: “How does our company fit into the market, the larger community, or the world?”
What’s unique about tactics?
"There are more ways than one to skin a cat." - Seba Smith, The Money Diggers
Once a strategy is established, the team must set themselves on the task of actually executing it successfully. That’s where tactics (also known as execution) come into play.
As the well-known saying indicates, there’s more than one way to reach a goal — the question is how to accomplish it in the right time and with the intended outcome. That said, strategic thinking is required to choose the right tactics for your goals.
You must keep your ultimate vision in mind while you’re building a roadmap of tactics to get there. The right tactics will get you there quickly and efficiently. The wrong tactics will distract you and impact the success of your strategy.
Main components of tactics
- Detail-oriented, short-term actions
- Answers “who, how, and when?”
- Are designed to make progress toward the strategy
- Are designed to generate new information about the nature of the goal and strategy
- Are present-focused (“what can we do now?”) and iterative
What makes a good strategy?
It takes time and input from many voices to develop a good strategy. However, once devised, it can streamline decision-making dramatically. That’s because the primary decision has already been made, so to speak. The other subsequent choices simply need to align with the long-term vision.
If a recent college graduate has a choice, for example, of working as a paralegal or medical assistant, the decision is much simpler if they already know that the ultimate goal is to become a doctor.
The best strategy:
What makes a good tactic?
“A good tactic has a clear purpose that aids your strategy. It has a finite timeline during which specific activities will be completed and their impacts measured.” - Rachel Smith, Strategy Vs. Tactics: The Main Difference & How to Track Progress Of Both
Good tactics are employed with the explicit intention of realizing the goal outlined in the strategy. Each step that a team takes should be clearly defined and unambiguously aligned with the future direction of the company.
Well-aligned tactics increase employee engagement and retention. They also improve employee buy-in by minimizing the appearance of “arbitrary” policies and busy work.
The best tactics:
- Are mission-driven
- Are well-reasoned and make good use of available resources
- Are evaluated for effectiveness
- Occur within a set timeframe
- Are part of a larger plan, not random events
What comes first, tactic or strategy?
There’s really no reason to execute tactics without strategic objectives in mind. That’s why before you start planning specific actions, you need to develop an overall strategy.
When it comes to developing a business plan or strategy, try to keep this in mind. It can be easy to focus on a list of to-do’s that make you look good to other people. However, business tactics like posting on social media or hiring new employees won’t be effective without a long-term strategy.
Examples of strategy versus tactics at work
While strategy is distinct from tactics and execution, the success of one informs — and necessitates — the success of the other. You can’t create a “brilliant” strategy and then simply expect results to happen. You need to have the tactics to actually bring that strategy to life — or else your strategy wasn’t all that brilliant to begin with.
Perhaps the best way to understand the difference between strategy and tactics is to see them at work. Here are some common scenarios that you may encounter as a leader in your organization.
Example 1: Making customers happy
Strategy: Company A wants to increase brand loyalty by providing an exceptional customer experience.
Tactics: Company A reaches out to the customers that have spent the most money in the last ten years to ask what keeps them coming back. They then reach out to customers that only made one purchase and ask for anonymous feedback on what prevented them from coming back. After reviewing the results, they increase the number of customer service representatives and redesign their website to improve the user experience.
Example 2: Improving brand recognition
Strategy: Company B wants to improve brand awareness by making a positive impact on the community.
Tactics: Company B conducts market research to understand what is most important to their client and determines that their client base is concerned with sustainability. They hire an environmental impact consultant to determine where they can reduce their carbon footprint and commit to going green. They also organize a quarterly event where people in the community can come and recycle plastics and electronics and offer their employees paid volunteer days.
Example 3: Reducing employee attrition
Strategy: After several negative reviews on a popular website, Company C wants to attract the best talent by becoming known as a great place to work.
Tactics: Company C tries to pay to have the negative reviews taken down. When that doesn’t work, they reach out to employees that quit to try to find out why they left. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work too well, either. They survey newly promoted employees, who have a mostly positive experience with the company, and ask them what they would change about working there. They also hire a human resources consultant to compare their benefits packages and workplace culture to the companies consistently ranked on the Best Places to Work list and identify some changes that would benefit their employees the most.
In the last example, Company C tried a few short-term initiatives that weren’t too successful. Sometimes, that happens — and that’s okay. Staying in alignment with the strategy helps you identify new courses of action that keep you moving towards the ultimate goal.
How to achieve success with strategy and tactics
Whether you’re creating a marketing strategy or trying to hit certain business goals, developing a plan can be overwhelming. Here are some tips for making your strategy and your tactics as successful as possible:
- Get other stakeholders involved. An organizational strategy will almost certainly require cross-functional engagement. Giving others a role to play boosts ownership and increases the likelihood of success.
- Do your research. In the above examples, every company’s strategy resulted in having to ask — and answer — questions that they had never considered before. Your tactics are much more likely to succeed if you ask the right questions and choose your execution accordingly.
- Go back to the drawing board. If something doesn’t work or works but doesn’t align with your organization’s values, toss it out and start again. How you get there is just as important as when you get there.
- Stay humble. There’s no easy way to say this, but the thinking that got your company to where it is now will likely not take you much further. Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback or even bring in an outside consultant for a fresh perspective.
- Think long-term. Remember, your tactics move you towards your overall strategy, and your strategy informs the tactics you choose. There’s no need to take shortcuts to success. As the saying goes, “nothing worth building comes easy.” But with a solid strategy and well-chosen tactics to support it, you’ll be building to last.
Measuring success with strategy and tactics
You could have the best strategy and tactics possible on your hands. However, if you don’t know how to measure your success, you’ll be lost. There are two main ways to track the performance of your strategy and tactics over time.
First, you should attach specific metrics to your overall strategy. Don’t just say, “we want to grow our business.” Say, “We will grow our business by increasing sales by ‘x’ percentage over the next 6 months.” That way you know exactly what your overall goal is.
Then, use key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure the success of your tactics along the way. These KPIs can be reviewed weekly or monthly to ensure you’re on the right path.
For example, if your strategy is to increase sales in the next 6 months, your tactic could be to have the sales team make 100 calls a day. The KPIs you can track include how many calls they are actually making and how many new sales are they getting as a result.
Knowing the difference between strategy versus tactics can help you achieve your goals in amazing ways. The right strategy will give you a definite long-term vision. The right tactics will drive your success over the long term.
The most important part is to get started. Now that you know the difference between these two, it’s time to jump in and start creating your own strategy and tactics.
Are you looking to improve your leadership skills and guide your team’s strategy? BetterUp can help by providing you the tools and accountability you need to grow professionally and personally.
Betterup Fellow Coach ACC