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Strategy vs. tactics: the difference is execution

July 12, 2021 - 15 min read

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What is the difference between strategy and tactics?

What defines a strategy?

What defines a tactic?

The relationship between strategy and tactics

How to track your strategy and tactics

Strategy vs tactics examples

Strategy vs tactics: is it time to get strategic or tactical?

Creating any kind of plan — whether it is a marketing plan, team building scheme, or blueprint for developing leaders within your business — requires a sound understanding of both strategy and tactics.

Your overall plan is going to break down into both a strategic plan and a tactical plan.

Many of us use the two terms interchangeably and don’t really understand the difference between strategy versus tactics.

However, there is a difference and a pretty big one at that.

Understanding the factors that contribute to the strategy vs tactics discussion is the first step to constructing a sound business strategy or deciding on the digital marketing tactics you’re going to employ.

Let’s take a look at: 

  • The differences between strategies and tactics
  • Why they’re each important
  • Examples of how you can use this information in your professional life

What is the difference between strategy and tactics?

The best way to break down the difference between strategic and tactical execution is to consider that your strategy embodies the following:

  • Closely relates to your main objective or goal
  • Outlines how you plan to achieve your main objective or goal

Tactics, then, are closer to the ‘real world.’ They are the specific actions you’re going to take to deliver on that strategy.

Let’s illustrate this with an example. Imagine that your business objective is to increase your sales.

Based on that business goal, you’re going to develop some specific strategies. Let’s say you develop three:

  • Utilize social media
  • Increase outbound sales
  • Improve content marketing

Based on those three strategies, you’d then dive deeper into the specific tactical action you’re going to take for each.

For example, your social media marketing strategy might involve these tactics:

  • Using paid advertising to promote your new product
  • Engaging with Facebook groups relevant to your target audience
  • Hiring a new social media marketer to post organically five times per day

Your tactical planning might go even deeper, specifying what kinds of posts your marketing person is going to publish.

For instance, one of those posts might be sharing a blog post related to your strategic decision to engage in content marketing activities.

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Why is it important to understand the strategy versus tactics debate?

The main benefit of understanding the difference between strategic objectives and tactics is that it allows you to separate the strategic thinking process.

This helps to create a clear strategy that doesn’t get bogged down in tactical details.

It can be all too easy to fall into the specifics of how you’re going to enact your grand strategy.

This could keep you from spending time as a leadership team or business owner developing an overall strategy that aligns closely with each strategic goal your company has defined.


What defines a strategy?

Strategy is the intent. It determines what needs to be done and why and has a way of assessing its effectiveness.

It’s your mission, your vision, and your long-term objective from the perspective of how you’ll achieve that mission.

It involves intentional and focused high-level thinking that defines a direction to take in the future. Strategies are aligned with the goals, objectives, and broad vision you want to achieve.

Typically, strategy is formed by leaders within the organization. Group-, product-, or campaign-level strategies should be clearly related to the strategy set at the top.

Executives develop the overall company or corporate strategy and set objectives related to the strategy, for example, to be the market leader in electric trucks by capturing the premium truck market in North America. Each function or group will have objectives that drive that strategy and will have to develop its own strategies to achieve those objectives.  Because it is less tangible, part of developing a strategy is developing the metrics you will use to measure and evaluate the progress and effectiveness of the strategy.

When devising a strategy, you need an outward, external-looking perspective into technology and social trends, market conditions, and competition. There are many frameworks to draw upon when developing and evaluating a strategy. Some, like SWOT analysis are more appropriate to launching products in existing markets, frameworks such as OKR can be adapted for many different types of strategies across the organization. 

The components of a winning strategy include:

  • Vision
  • Objectives
  • Values
  • Resource allocation
  • Prioritization of strategies

Strategic planning does not include execution details, however. That’s where your tactics come in.

Why is a strategy important?

A strategy is an element of planning that groups tactics under a common path. With a strategy in place, if a tactic doesn't work, it’s not game over.

When you have a solid strategy in place, you’re better informed to develop specific tactics that you feel will work.

It’s more likely that your tactics will pay off if they are aligned with your strategy. But even if you get some of them wrong, you still have the guidance of your strategy to determine new tactics.

Having a well-defined strategy helps business owners and leaders to delegate tactical planning. This means that they don’t need to be involved in every aspect of delivering on their long-term organizational goals.


What defines a tactic?

Tactics involve putting intent into action by determining how it must be done by focusing on efficiency (cost, effort, resources).

It involves concrete actions and steps to implement that fall in line with direction.

Where your strategy acts as the compass, guiding you toward your goal, your tactics are your roadmap.

They are actionable, measurable, and repeatable.

When establishing tactics, you need to have an inward view that you can execute with fewer resources, time, and money.

Tactics are typically defined and executed by managers. They’re easy to evaluate through well-defined metrics.

Tactical plans can include timelines and implementation details regarding when and where they will be applied in a tangible way.

The components of a well-chosen tactic include:

  • The fit between the tactic and the strategy
  • Who is going to execute the tactic
  • How you will measure the effectiveness of the tactic
  • Timelines implementation

Why are tactics important?

Without a clearly defined tactical plan, you’re just wandering around blindly trying to achieve your goals. You don’t have a real tangible map for getting there.

Yes, you have your strategies. But they are more like guiding stars than nautical coordinates.

Developing tactics based on your strategies allows you to:

  • Assign specific tasks to subordinates
  • Measure success (or failure)
  • Use those results to inform future planning


The relationship between strategy and tactics

We’ve made it pretty clear that strategy and tactics are separate and distinct functions of business planning, despite often being used as synonyms.

These two aspects of organizational success are distinct. They are also often overseen and managed by different parties. But, there is an important link between strategic and tactical planning.

The relationship between strategy and tactics is that your strategy informs your tactics.

That is, you can’t jump straight to designing specific tactics before you’ve spent time fleshing out a solid strategy. Well, perhaps we should say that you shouldn’t.

Because although it’s possible to dive straight into tactical planning, you’re very likely to stray from the right path if you do so.

Similarly, your strategy relies on specific tactics being developed in order to be successful.

You can’t simply develop a high-level strategy and then expect that the correct actions will flow.

With that in mind, how do you actually go about measuring the success of your strategy and tactics?

How to track your strategy and tactics

Your overarching strategy should inform your tactics. If you’ve got your tactics nicely aligned, tracking them essentially means tracking your strategies.

This is a positive thing as many strategies themselves can be hard to track from a numerical perspective.

To track and measure the effectiveness of your various tactics, you need to assign measurable values to them in the first place.

For example, let’s say your strategy is to improve employee well-being or employee retention. Then, your tactic is to hold more company events. You’ll need to ask yourself the question: what quantifies ‘more’?

Is it one more than you held last year? Is it 10 more? Is it one per month, or one per week? Putting a numerical value against your tactics helps you to assess whether they are on track or not.

Sometimes this value is binary. That is, the tactic was successful, or it failed.

For example, one of your tactics might have been to implement a staff Christmas party. You’re only going to have one shot at measuring this each year, so it hardly needs to be assigned a numerical value.

So, how do you go about tracking those metrics?

Here are a few ways:

  • Create a spreadsheet with your tactical metrics, and set up check-in dates.
  • Set up a weekly report from your marketing automation software to report on marketing tactics.
  • Design a monthly employee engagement survey to evaluate the effectiveness of your wellbeing tactics.
  • Use a project management platform to track metrics. Invite managers and key stakeholders to contribute, while delegating necessary tasks.
  • Assign a leader in your company to each tactic, and plan a monthly meeting with them to track progress. Keep notes on these meetings so you can analyze changes over time.


Strategy versus tactics examples

Let’s illustrate the difference between strategy and tactics at work with three examples:

Example 1: applying for a job

Strategies that you might employ to find a new job would be:

  • Using your current skillset
  • Going to college to change your career path
  • Becoming an apprentice and learning a new trade

Tactics examples to achieve these strategies might be:

  • Uploading your resume and applying for jobs
  • Visiting five local colleges
  • Researching apprenticeships online

Example 2: improving employee engagement

Let’s say you’re an HR manager looking to lift employee engagement in your workplace. You might work on a strategy such as increasing employee autonomy and empowerment.

Examples of tactics to achieve these strategies might be:

  • Scheduling one day every two weeks where employees can do any work of their choice
  • Designing a mentor/mentee program within your organization
  • Allowing team members to delegate urgent but less crucial tasks, giving them more responsibility

Example 3: attracting better talent

Another common goal for HR managers is to hire exceptional talent. This often involves attracting and onboarding more qualified and relevant talent.

A strategy for achieving this goal might be to design a scalable and repeatable interview process. Then, middle and frontline managers in various branches will be able to use this process.

This strategy could break down into more specific tactics, such as:

  • Determining applicant evaluation criteria
  • Creating an interview question template
  • Involving a hiring committee or recruiter to make unbiased decisions

Strategy versus tactics: is it time to get strategic or tactical?

The key to being both a great strategic planner and tactical manager is understanding which is required and when.

A strategy is your overarching plan for achieving your goals, but it doesn’t get bogged down in specifics. You can think of this as your compass, guiding your organization toward your objective.

On the other hand, tactics are actionable, measurable decisions that allow your teams to deliver on your strategy. Rather than acting as a general compass, tactics create a roadmap for success that anyone can follow.

Do you need some help growing and transforming your company? Why not check out what BetterUp can do for you and your business.

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Published July 12, 2021

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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