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How strategy and tactics are different and how they complement each other

A woman discussing strategy and tactics with a colleague

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Benefits of understanding the difference between strategy and tactics

Strategy vs tactics: how they are different and how they complement each other

Examples of strategy versus tactics at work

How to track your strategy and tactics

In The 33 Strategies of War, Robert Greene said that “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.” 

At first glance, strategy and 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.

Many people have written about strategy (fewer about tactics). The difference between strategy and tactics can be understood in their purpose.

  • Strategic planning defines where an organization, or individual, is going long-term. What bigger goal do you want to achieve?
  • Tactical planning outlines how to move forward in the short-term. What steps and actions will move you toward achieving the strategic goals?

Benefits of understanding the difference between strategy and tactics

So how does one begin to navigate the difference between strategy and tactics? Put simply, a strategy gets you (and your organization) thinking about the long-term, while tactics are the things that need to happen in order to realize that outcome. 

If, say you were imagining being on a road trip to a vacation destination, then 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.

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. Unfortunately, even the best laid plans sometimes go back to the drawing board.

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Strategy vs tactics: how they are different and how they complement each other

What is strategy?

“If you don't know where you are going, any road will get you there.”  - Lewis Carroll

There’s no sense in starting any discussion or game plan without knowing what the ultimate goal is. The broadest target — the goal that justifies and drives all of the other goals — defines 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, but strategy is far more nuanced. A tactic is simply an action taken: it’s not good or bad in and of itself. The strategy becomes the way of determining if a tactic is in alignment with the greater values of the organization.

Main components of strategy

  • Focused on the outcome
  • Requires high-level thinking
  • Always future-based
  • Often involves cross-functional collaboration
  • Answers the question: “How does this fit into the market, larger community, or the world?”

Benefits of a good strategy

“The most basic idea of strategy is the application of strength against weakness. Or if you prefer, strength applied to the most promising opportunity. A good strategy doesn’t just draw on existing strength; it creates strength.”  - Richard Rumelt, Good Strategy Bad Strategy

While it takes time and input from many voices to develop a good strategy, once devised, it can actually streamline decision-making dramatically. That’s because the primary decision has already been made, so to speak, so the other subsequent choices simply need to align with the overall vision. If a recent college graduate has a choice, for example, of working as a paralegal or medical assistance, the decision is much simpler if they already know that the ultimate goal is to become a doctor.

A good strategy:

  • Streamlines decision making
  • Aligns the team towards a common goal
  • Helps to contextualize setbacks
  • Informs directions for future growth

What are tactics?

"There are more ways than one to skin a cat."  - Seba Smith, The Money Diggers

Once a strategy is established, then the team must set themselves on the task of actually executing it successfully and realizing the vision. 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, with the intended outcome, in a way that aligns with the values of the company.

Erica Olsen, author of Strategic Planning for Dummies, writes:

“Every business has limited resources and deals with a competitive landscape. The more it does of one thing, the less it can do of another. This concept leads to tactics, or the ‘how’ part of the equation. Your tactics help you answer the question, ‘How are we going to accomplish our goal?’”

With a clearly defined strategy in place, determining tactics may not be easy, but the approach for experimenting and iterating tactics should be straightforward. Without strategy, you lose the ability to make the most effective and powerful use of feedback that tactics provide. Tactics move you closer to your strategic goal. They also give you more information about the nature of you goal and whether your strategy will get you there. You’ll know that things are or aren't being done. You'll know whether your tactics have worked to accomplish the goal, but without defining strategy why will remain a mystery.

Main components of tactics

  • Detail oriented 
  • 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

Benefits of good tactics

“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 set forth in the strategy. Each step that a team — or specific member on a team — takes should be clearly defined and unambiguously aligned with the future direction of the company. Well-aligned tactics increase employee engagement and buy-in by minimizing the appearance of “arbitrary” policies and busy work.

Good 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

Examples of strategy versus tactics at work

In his landmark article “The Execution Trap,” Roger L. Martin writes about how countless organizations have fallen prey to the flawed thinking that strategy and tactics (or execution) can operate separately from one another. He writes:

So let’s evaluate the idea of the brilliant strategy poorly executed. If a strategy produces poor results, how can we argue that it is brilliant? It certainly is an odd definition of brilliance. A strategy’s purpose is to generate positive results, and the strategy in question doesn’t do that, yet it was brilliant? In what other field do we proclaim something to be brilliant that has failed miserably in its only attempt? A “brilliant” Broadway play that closes after one week? A “brilliant” political campaign that results in the other candidate winning? If we think about it, we must accept that the only strategy that can legitimately be called brilliant is one whose results are exemplary. A strategy that fails to produce a great outcome is simply a failure.

While strategy is, in fact, distinct from execution, the success of one informs — and necessitates — the success of the other. A strategy that fails to produce the desired outcome might not be "simply a failure" but it isn't brilliant either.

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 and asks 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 conduct a survey of 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 tactics 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.

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How to track your strategy and tactics

In the book Conscious Business: How to Build Value Through Values, Fred Kofman writes:

Asking whether someone is a manager or a leader is like asking whether someone is a soccer player or a ball-kicker. Kicking the ball is the way in which a soccer player plays soccer. It is ridiculous to say that Joe is a good soccer player but a bad kicker, or that we have too many soccer players but not enough kickers. By the same token, leadership is a necessary skill for anyone who manages. Leadership is the way in which a manager manages.

If you coach a soccer team, you might think your goal is pretty simple: to win the game (or develop a winning team). But although your methods for doing so will vary from game to game, one can bet that it will always involve, at some point, kicking the ball. The same is true in leadership and management. Your leadership strategy will always involve managing others, and managing a team successfully requires leadership. If you’re looking to rally a team towards a strategy you’ve set in place, here are some ways you can track your strategy and tactics:

  1. Get others 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.

  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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 short-cuts 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.