The Difference between Strategy and Tactics

Apple WorldThe purpose of this post is to clearly delineate the distinct differences between strategy and tactics, and show how they work in tandem for your organization.

Often, we use the terms strategy and tactics interchangeably and in a haphazard manner.  When probing at online definitions and dictionaries, they often share many of the same characteristics, making them difficult to differentiate.  Rather than debate Greek military etymology, Sun Tzu philosophy, or latest publications from the Harvard Business Press, here’s a simple way to look at strategy and tactics by their associated actions:

[The difference between strategy and tactics: strategy is done above the shoulders, tactics are done below the shoulders]

While a tweet-worthy catch phrase, this metaphor risks glib over-simplification. To explore deeper, let’s dissect strategy vs tactics in the following breakdown:

Breakdown: The Difference between Strategy and Tactics

Strategy Tactics
Purpose To identify clear broader goals that advance the overall organization and organize resources. To utilize specific resources to achieve sub-goals that support the defined mission.
Roles Individuals who influence resources in the organization. They understand how a set of tactics work together to achieve goals. Specific domain experts that maneuver limited resources into actions to achieve a set of goals.
Accountability Held accountable to overall health of organization. Held accountable to specific resources assigned.
Scope All the resources within the organizations, as well as broader market conditions including competitors, customers, and economy.  Yet don’t over think it, to paraphrase my business partner Charlene Li, “Strategy is often what you don’t do”. A subset of resources used in a plan or process. Tactics are often specific tactics with limited resources to achieve broader goals.
Duration Long Term, changes infrequently. Shorter Term, flexible to specific market conditions.
Methods Uses experience, research, analysis, thinking, then communication. Uses experiences, best practices, plans, processes, and teams.
 Outputs Produces clear organizational goals, plans, maps, guideposts, and key performance measurements. Produces clear deliverables and outputs using people, tools, time.

Strategy and Tactics Must Work in Tandem
These two must work in tandem, without it your organization cannot efficiently achieve goals.  If you have strategy without tactics you have big thinkers and no action. If you have tactics without strategy, you have disorder.  To quote my former business partner, Lora Cecere, she reminds me that organizations need big wings (strategic thinking) and feet (capability to achieve).

To illustrate, here’s some specific examples across different industries of how strategic goals can be communicated with clear tactical elements, in a linear and logical order:

  • Strategy: Be the market share leader in terms of sales in the mid-market in our industry. Tactics: Offer lower cost solutions than enterprise competitors without sacrificing white-glove service for first 3 years of customer contracts.
  • Strategy: Maneuver our brand into top two consideration set of household decision makers. Tactics: Deploy a marketing campaign that leverages existing customer reviews and spurs them to conduct word of mouth with their peers in online and real world events.
  • Strategy: Improve retention of top 10% of company performers. Tactics: Offer best in market compensation plan with benefits as well as sabbaticals to tenured top performers, source ideas from top talent.
  • Strategy: Connect with customers while in our store and increase sales. Tactics: Offer location based mobile apps on top three platforms, and provide top 5 needed use cases based on customer desire and usage patterns.
  • Strategy: Become a social utility that earth uses on an daily basis. Tactics: Offer a free global communication toolset that enables disparate personal interactions with your friends to monitor, share, and interact with.

Action: Using Strategy and Tactics to advance your Organization
First, educate your staff and colleagues on the differences of terms and how they vary.  Next, ensure that all tactics align to business strategy, and all strategies take into account tactics on how they will be achieved.  Finally, cascade in all communication how strategy and tactics work in tandem, advancing how your organization can see the larger goals, and better utilize resources to achieve.

That’s my take, but please expand the conversation with your perspective, in the comments below.

Image credit: “Telescope” by Kristin Marshall, used within creative commons licensing.

  • Olawale Daniel

    Hey @1janzlotnick:disqus you’ve explained it all. This is all I need to understand the differences between Strategy and Tactics. Well done.

  • Sam Edge

    Great breakdown. The table is very effective. I’ve worked as a strategic planner for some time and and I typically use a cascading hierarchy Objectives to (SMART) Goals to Strategies to Action Item (which I guess would be tactics). I swear the language is purposefully confusing as a form of job security for Planners. :)

  • Fadzli Ghazali

    Yes we should keep it simple the difference between strategy and tactics. From my experience strategy can be running longer duration and implemented with one or several tactics. Maybe should refer to Sun Tzu on what is his opinion, would be interesting??

  • Difster

    It’s simple… Strategy is the plan, tactics are the tools. This applies to business, chess, war, relationships, etc.

  • Nonentity

    Strategy = general plan conceived for achieving one’s mission/goal?
    Tactic = specific moves one makes or specific steps one takes (by keeping the mission in mind and by following the strategic plan)?

  • James Watson

    Objectives – what are my actions intended to accomplish
    Strategy – how do I plan on achieving my objectives
    Tactics – what actions will I perform, aligned with my strategy, to reach my objectives.

    Before acting: are my tactics (actions) aligned with my strategy (plan) to reach my objective (goal).

  • Tilaak Goswami

    Thanks, every one suggested own views regarding the topic but it has been revealed more broader way.
    Any way, I tried to find out more focussed on marketing strategy and tactic in the net,
    In my workplace, I have found marketing strategy as customer segs>>focussed market>>position our organizational goal set with value addition which stimulates long term planing,
    where as tactic is usually used for shorter times cutomizing the focussed market needs as well as buying capability, so price is fixed in a more competitive way, where prod and service develoment is done and moved from sourcing to distributing area with communicating the sales workforce and marketing promo, and advertisement.
    Tilaak Goswami

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  • Seth Bridges

    To me, it’s all much simpler than the descriptions above. Strategy is the “WHAT,” as in what do you want to achieve? Tactics are the “HOW,” as in the steps, the approach you take to accomplish the strategy.