The Differences Between Strategies and Tactics

The new year ushers in a need to confirm and reassess an organization’s business plan to determine how to reach their overall goals. While these key success factors in business are commonplace, business leaders often take for granted some of the basic things found within them, such as the difference between strategies and their supporting tactics. We have found in the past that these mistakes often lead to missed opportunities and internal confusion. 

As with so many business planning models, both strategy and tactics originated with the military, where there is clear distinction between strategy and tactics. Strategy is the utilization, during both peace and war, of all of a nation’s forces, through large-scale, long-range planning and development, to ensure security or victory. Tactics deal with the use and deployment of troops in actual combat.

Many initiatives and planning approaches–from strategic foresight and business planning to marketing and communication plans–were born out of the application of military principles for everyday business needs. When thinking of the all encompassing business plan (which sets the goals and objectives of a company) the strategies presented allow the organization to harness all of its resources to reach these goals.

As Aashish Pahwa outlines in this helpful article, there are three levels of corporate strategy. The corporate level is the starting point, as it sets the overall direction of the company and includes the mission, vision, and corporate objectives for the entire organization. The second level is the business unit, which takes into consideration the different aspects of the company that will require unique strategies to help support the larger corporate strategy and reflect their given competitive set and go-to-market channels. This becomes very relevant as companies explore new markets and ways to deliver value. The final level goes deeper into each business unit to a functional level of strategy, such as marketing, sales, operations, and finance. Each of these levels provides the organization the ability to create a strong roadmap to achieve their business goals.

If strategies are about creating an overall focus and mobilizing the entire organization, tactics are the individual activities supporting each of the key business strategies. Tactics are the short term activities required to achieve the objectives in the strategy and need to have clearly articulated goals, responsibilities, key deliverables and rational on how they link to the greater strategy. The number of tactics can vary depending on how they support the strategy, and they need to be strongly monitored as the success of any strategic plan is based on managing and ensuring the tactics are completed. This typically is the vulnerability point due to a lack of corporate alignment, decision bias, or poor resource allocation to ensure the given tactic leads to a desired outcome. 

Often organizations are strongly aligned on the strategy but not aligned on the supporting tactics, leading to a dysfunctional initiative. Gaining cross functional alignment on the tactics and ensuring there is a C-Suite owner of the given initiative is one of the most fundamental approaches to ensuring the effort and time devoted to the tactics bear fruit. Ultimately, accountability for taking ownership of the tactic while ensuring on-going status updates will drive the success of any tactic.  The most sophisticated, well-aligned strategy will fail  to have an impact on growth if the tactics bringing it to life are not properly planned, executed and evaluated.