Strategy Vs Tactics – When we think of business strategy, we automatically think of tactics too. Both are complementary, essential and intertwined. In fact, one cannot succeed with the other. 

Both terms originated from the ancient Greeks and have been most commonly linked to the art of war. In this context, strategy focuses on how martial engagements can be deployed to achieve goals. Tactics describe how military forces are used to achieve these goals. Today, both strategy and tactics define how a business will achieve its objectives and goals in a competitive landscape where customers are a finite market.

By definition: 

  • A strategy is a plan (and method) used to achieve a desired future state for the company.
  • Tactics are the activities that take place to achieve the strategy, allowing the strategic plan to progress from milestone to milestone.

Is it a strategy, or a tactic?

The two concepts are easily confused. So to clarify each definition:

Strategy describes:

  • A pathway to a goal
  • A plan for allocating resources
  • Something that is typically (although not always) long-term in nature
  • The ‘thinking’ aspect, that precedes the ‘doing’.

Tactics describe:

  • The way in the plan will be delivered, in terms of specific actions
  • Concrete actions that are usually short-term in nature, and which are found in resources, detailed plans and best practices.
  • The ‘doing’ that follows the thinking.

There are three good acid tests to identifying whether something is a strategy or a tactic.

  1. Order of play: Strategy will always come first.
  2. ‘Changeability’: Strategies take time, research and careful planning to create because of their long-term vision. This means that they can be changed, but not lightly or easily. Tactics, on the other hand, can easily be adjusted to correct the course of action.
  3. Nature: Strategies are conceptual, but tactics are concrete.

How are strategy and tactics linked?

The best explanation of strategy vs tactics can be summed up by Sun Tzu, who said: “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” They are both completely linked and cannot exist successfully without the other.

What defines great strategies and tactics?

Every organisation will have its own approach to creating its strategy, ideally using a framework such as the Balanced Scorecard which ensures every necessary step of the process is correctly carried out. But what makes these vital concepts great in practice?

A great strategy…

  • Is built upon the organisation’s core values.
  • Sets the foundation for everything that everyone in the organisation does – and guide decision making.
  • Is created with input from across the organisation, so that all departments are aligned.
  • Is clearly actionable.

Excellent tactics…

  • Have clear a clear purpose and are inextricably linked to the organisational strategy
  • Are finite within a clear timeline of specific, planned activities
  • Are measured.

Strategy Vs Tactics in action

A utility firm might exist to sell ‘clean’ energy from renewable sources in order to cut carbon emissions in the atmosphere. To switch a certain percentage of consumers away from fossil fuels, one goal could involve a customer awareness programme designed to raise awareness about renewable energies within a target group. One tactic to deliver this could be a social media campaign. Resources for this project would be allocated, budgeted for and tracked. Owners would be assigned. Deliverables would then be defined, such as creating ad copy, shooting a video, designing banner ads and so forth.

The challenges organisations face

Many organisations make the mistake of leaping to tactics first and gloss over the strategy. Why? Because it’s far easier to write business plans packed with goals, objectives and detailed tactical delivery plans. The hard part lies in getting the right people together to think theoretically and conceptually and agree on the ‘great unifying vision’ that will set the company’s course.

The danger of putting the horse before the cart is clear, however. If you set tactics before strategy, your people will launch off and focus on the projects that really capture their attention and passion. Without the unification of a strategy, departments will work in silos. The scatter-gun approach means that the organisation’s course of travel will be unintended and difficult to correct.

The importance of measurement

Furthermore, neither strategy nor tactics have any value if they aren’t measured. Businesses use KPIs to measure progress towards high-level goals. KPIs will make use of quantifiable data that demonstrates progress and which flags up any area for improvement. 

When measuring tactics, managers will set timeframes, define resources (and budgets) and capture milestones and actions that will ensure they are achieved. Named individuals will be accountable for the delivery of each tactic. When viewed in a plan, the progress towards strategic goals can be seen at any time. 

In conclusion

Strategy and tactics must both exist for an organisation to be successful, and they must work together. Although it’s easy to talk about strategy and tactics as though they are the same thing, business leaders and managers must understand their differences.

It’s useful to note too that even the best strategy and tactics will be incapable of covering absolutely everything that the business needs to do. The key lies in choosing the best strategy and supporting tactics that make the best use of finite resources and which direct everyone’s efforts in the right direction, as efficiently as possible.

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