Strategy vs Tactics - What's the Difference?
by Tom Wright, on Oct 10, 2019 12:39:39 AM
You've probably heard these two terms used in various business contexts over the years. And perhaps you didn't really give them much thought. Or perhaps you did, and weren't quite sure what the difference between them really was, or why that even matters. Either way, we're here with the definitive guide to the difference between strategy and tactics. In this article, we'll tackle the following questions:
- What's the difference between strategy and tactics?
- Are strategy and tactics complementary to one another? (Hint: yes!)
- What are some examples of strategy vs tactics?
- How do you measure strategy vs tactics?
Let's start with some simple definitions of the two terms:
What is Strategy?
A strategy is a specific approach that you will take to achieve a set of goals that you have defined. Strategy is by definition fairly high level. For example, Michael Porter suggested that in essence, there are only 3 strategies that a business can ever adopt to succeed ("Cost Leadership" (no frills), "Differentiation" (creating uniquely desirable products and services) and "Focus" (offering a specialized service in a niche market)).
By extension, a strategic plan is therefore a document that outlines firstly a high level approach to achieving goals, and subsequently may further go into detail about what those goals actually are.
What are Tactics?
You'll note that in our above definition of strategy, there is no mention of what we will actually do specifically to achieve our goals. That's where tactics come into play.
Tactics describe the specific actions that you will take in order to achieve your goals. They will most likely be informed by your strategy (i.e. your approach and your actual goals) but they are far more specific. They are not outcomes, nor are they measures of success.
How do Strategy & Tactics Fit Together?
Clearly, strategy and tactics are complementary to one another. In fact we can go one step further and suggest that an organization cannot be successful if it ignores either one of these elements. The strategy is required to set the direction of the organization, whilst the tactics are required to define how you will actually get there.
If we take a look at how strategy and tactics fit together in a typical strategy model, it might look something like this:
As you can see, the top half of the model is concerned more with the strategy, whilst tactics come in towards the bottom, alongside the measures of success (check out this article if you want to learn more about KPIs).
An Example of the Difference Between Strategy and Tactics
To make things even easier to understand, let's look at a worked example of how an organization might move from a high-level strategy into a specific set of tactics.
Let's take the example of a bike manufacturing company:
We will succeed by creating bikes with innovative features which our competitors cannot match, and which allow us to charge a price premium to customers.
Objective: Be recognized by the industry as the leading innovator in the space of on-bike health tracking technology.
Tactic 1: Launch a new bluetooth-enabled module that attaches to the spokes of the bike and sends performance data to a linked smartphone app.
Tactic 2: Send out free bikes to popular tech journalists inviting them to write a review of the bike.
As you can see, you will likely have multiple tactics aligned to each of your Objectives. And your strategy overall will likely included tens if not hundreds of tactics in total.
How Do You Measure Strategy vs Tactics?
Let's take our example from above. Our strategy is all about Differentiation, and from that strategy we have set ourselves an Objective around being recognized as an innovator in our market.
Underneath that Objective we have a number of tactics. But is it sufficient to say that so long as we deliver those tactics, we can consider ourselves successful against our strategy? The answer is no.
Tactics are our best guess at a series of actions that when delivered, will help us succeed against our strategy. But the tactics themselves are not a measure of the success of that strategy.
If we take a look at our strategy model once more, you'll see that we cater for this reality by adding KPIs (measures of success) underneath our Objectives and alongside our tactics.
So in our example above, we would need to add some KPIs into the mix alongside our tactics, along the lines of:
KPI: Be mentioned in at least 10 news articles that focus on transport innovation.
The KPIs sit directly underneath the Objective, and whilst it doesn't relate directly to either of the tactics, it should eventuate if we've selected our tactics effectively.
So the only remaining question is how should you then measure the success of your tactics? Well in truth, this is actually far less important than measuring the success of your strategy. It's also far easier, since the measurement of tactics is typically quite similar to the type of post-implementation reviews that project managers undertake at the end of their projects. That is to say you will look at things such as the timeliness of the tactic, the cost of the tactic and whether or not the tactic was delivered in-line with the initial scope.
Strategy vs Tactics: Conclusion
By now, you should have a pretty good understanding of the difference between these two terms, and just how critical they are to one another.
If you ever get confused about the difference between strategy and tactics, just refer back to the strategy model that we included above. Or download and save the infographic! :)