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Strategy vs tactics: the key differences explained

PostsStrategy & planning
Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

December 27, 2023

Ever jumped headfirst into a task, hoping to save a minute or two? Did it work out as planned?

Sometimes, action without a plan works, and the quick win is yours. But it’s risky, and the chances of that ‘saved’ time catching up with you later are high. Similarly, a plan without action is equally perilous. With a big, bold goal but no clear steps for reaching it, your idea remains a pipedream. 

To have the best chance of success, every project should be a blend of strategy and tactics. They’re the symbiotic dynamic duo your project needs to thrive. 

What’s the difference between strategy and tactics?

Strategy and tactics are two sides of the same coin but with very different goals.

Strategy refers to an overarching plan. It involves thinking about the big picture, the long term, and often, the more abstract aspects of achieving an objective. 

Tactics, on the other hand, are the specific steps you take to execute the strategy. Tactics are more about the here and now, focusing on the practical tasks that contribute to the larger strategy. 

Definition of strategy: extended version

The term ‘strategy’ has its roots in the military, derived from the Greek word ‘strategos’, which translates to ‘generalship.’ Over time, its application has broadened to include business, games, and personal development. 

Essentially, strategy is the art of planning and directing. It’s about determining the best course of action to achieve a desired future while considering your environment and the resources available.

In business, a strategy might involve expanding into new markets, developing new products, or restructuring the organization to improve efficiency. 

In personal development, it could mean setting a career path, pursuing education, or building skills in a certain area. The strategy sets the direction and establishes the framework within which tactical decisions are made.

Definition of tactics: extended version

Tactics are the specific steps taken to accomplish the objectives outlined in a strategy. Originating from the Greek word ‘taktikos,’ which means ‘art of arrangement,’ tactics are about the execution of plans in a detailed, focused manner.

Unlike strategy, which is concerned with the overarching plan and long-term goals, tactics are about the present. Tactics are more about the ‘how’ of achieving goals, whereas strategy is about the ‘why’ and ‘what.’

In a business context, tactics could involve specific marketing campaigns, pricing strategies, or sales approaches. In a personal context, tactics might be daily routines, specific skill development activities, or networking strategies.

Strategy vs. tactics: a side-by-side comparison

FocusBig picture, overall goalsSpecific actions, immediate goals
OrientationDirection-setting, goal-orientedAction-oriented, detail-focused
FlexibilityGenerally more rigid but adaptableHighly flexible and adaptable
MeasurementMeasured in terms of overall progress towards long-term goalsMeasured in terms of specific, immediate outcomes
Resource UtilizationInvolves allocation and management of resourcesInvolves practical application and deployment of resources
OutcomeAchieving overarching objectives, setting future directionAchieving specific objectives, contributing to strategic goals
PlanningInvolves setting objectives, understanding the environmentInvolves detailed planning and execution of actions
AdaptabilityAdjusts to changes over time, based on feedback and environmentQuick to adapt based on immediate feedback and results
Relation to OtherProvides the framework within which tactics operateOperates within the framework set by the strategy

What makes a good strategy?

1. Clear vision and objectives:

A good strategy starts with a clear understanding of what you want to achieve. This vision should be ambitious yet achievable, providing a clear direction for all subsequent actions.

2. Good understanding of the environment

This includes recognizing opportunities and threats in the external market, as well as strengths and weaknesses within your own organization or personal skill set. Tip: set this out in a SWOT chart for clarity and direction.

3. Focus on key strengths

A strategy should capitalize on what you or your organization does best, making it harder for competitors to imitate.

4. Flexibility and adaptability

While a strategy sets a clear direction, it also needs to be flexible. The ability to pivot and make adjustments is crucial in a rapidly changing environment.

5. Alignment with values and principles

For a strategy to be sustainable and motivating, it should align with your organization’s core values.

6. Feasible resource allocation

A good strategy considers the resources available and how to use them effectively. This includes time, money, and human power.

7. Risk management and contingency planning

Anticipating potential challenges and having plans in place to address them is a smart move. 

What makes a good tactic?

1. Alignment with strategy: Each tactical move should directly contribute to your strategic objectives.

2. SMART: Tactics should be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (aka SMART). Each one should offer detailed guidance on what needs to be done, how, when, and how well. 

3. Resource-efficient: Tactics should make good use of available resources, including time, money, and personnel. 

4. Adaptability and flexibility: A tactic should be flexible enough to adjust in response to feedback or changes in the environment.

5. Creativity and innovation: Often, effective tactics involve creative approaches. This could mean finding new ways to solve problems or exploiting opportunities that others have overlooked.

6. Consistency and repeatability: While being adaptable, good tactics also benefit from a degree of consistency. If a tactic is successful, it should be repeatable in similar situations.

The relationship between strategy and tactics

Strategy and tactics have a symbiotic relationship. It’s important to understand how they’re dependent on each other.

1. Strategy informs tactics

Strategy sets the stage upon which tactics are developed and executed. Without a clear strategy, tactics tend to lack purpose or direction.

2. Tactics support and realize strategy

Tactics are the steps that bring the strategy to life. Without effective tactics, a strategy remains theory. 

3. Feedback loop

Strategy and tactics operate in a continuous feedback loop. Tactical outcomes inform strategic decisions, helping to refine the strategy over time. Similarly, adjustments in strategy can lead to changes in tactics.

4. Balance and alignment

The success of a plan depends on finding the right balance between the two. Strategies should be visionary but achievable, and tactics should be practical but aligned with the larger goals. 

5. Dynamic interaction

The relationship is dynamic, not static. As external and internal environments change, both strategy and tactics may need to shift. This dynamic interaction helps you stay responsive to emerging opportunities and threats. 

What comes first, tactic or strategy?

In the planning process, the question of what comes first — tactic or strategy — is fundamental. The general consensus in both theory and practice is that strategy should precede tactics. Here’s why:

1. Setting the direction: Strategy is about setting the overall direction and defining the long-term goals. It establishes what you are trying to achieve and why. Without this direction, tactics can become aimless, lacking a clear purpose or goal.

2. Foundation for decision-making: A well-defined strategy provides a basis for making tactical decisions. It acts as a guide, ensuring that the tactics chosen are aligned with the larger objectives.

3. Resource allocation: Strategy helps in the effective allocation of resources. Knowing the long-term goals allows for more efficient distribution of time, money, and other resources to the tactics that best support these goals.

4. Avoiding tactical myopia: Starting with tactics can lead to a short-sighted approach where immediate actions are prioritized without considering their long-term impact. A strategic framework helps to maintain a balance between short-term gains and long-term objectives.

5. Adaptability and coherence: Having a strategy first enables more coherent and adaptable tactics. If the external environment changes, it’s easier to adjust the tactics while keeping the strategy consistent rather than the other way around.

While strategy usually comes first, the process is iterative. Strategy development often involves considering potential tactics, and as tactics begin, feedback might lead to adjustments in strategy. 

Three real-world examples of strategy and tactics working together

To better understand the distinction between strategy and tactics in the business world, let’s explore three examples.

1. Expanding market reach

  • Strategy: A US tech company aims to expand its market reach by entering the Asian market over the next three years. As part of its strategic planning, the company conducts a SWOT analysis, identifying strengths such as innovative product features, weaknesses like limited understanding of the new market, opportunities in emerging tech sectors, and threats from established competitors.
  • Tactics: To execute this strategy, the company might start by launching a pilot project in a key Asian city, developing partnerships with local distributors, tailoring marketing efforts to suit local preferences, and hiring a regional team to handle local operations and customer service.

2. Improving customer satisfaction

  • Strategy: A retail chain decides to focus on improving customer satisfaction as its key strategy to increase brand loyalty. This strategy evolves from a SWOT analysis, which highlights strong customer service as an opportunity but notes inconsistencies in customer experience across different stores as a weakness.
  • Tactics: The retailer implements a series of tactical measures, including staff training programs focused on customer service, introducing a customer feedback system, standardizing service protocols across all stores, and running periodic customer satisfaction surveys to gather insights for ongoing improvements.

3. Enhancing online presence

  • Strategy: An established brick-and-mortar business wants to boost its online presence. They conduct a SWOT analysis, which reveals a strong brand reputation (strength) but a lack of digital marketing expertise (weakness), with the growing trend of online shopping (opportunity) and increasing competition from online retailers (threat).
  • Tactics: On a tactical level, the business develops a new website, launches social media campaigns, invests in SEO, and partners with digital influencers to promote its online store. These tactical steps support the broader strategy of building a robust online presence.

Why tactics without strategy is a recipe for disaster

Using tactics without strategy is a bit like setting off on a hike without the proper prep. You could just step out the door and go, and in the short term, that might feel productive. But before long, you’ll realize you forgot your lunch, you’re wearing the wrong shoes, and you have no idea where you are. Those few minutes you shaved off with a hasty departure have caught up with you and then some. 

When businesses focus on tactics without a strategy, they risk wasting resources on tasks that seem productive in the short term, but ultimately lead them astray. Over time, this scattergun approach drains resources, demoralizes employees, and ultimately hinders the organization’s ability to achieve real success.

But why do companies do this? There are several reasons. 

  • Short-term wins or quick fixes: We all want fast results. But without a guiding strategy, it’s tricky to gauge whether these actions contribute to long-term success. 
  • The allure of quick results: There is often immense pressure to deliver immediate results, leading companies to prioritize short-term tactics over long-term strategic planning. This is especially common in small businesses and start-ups, where resources are stretched thin. 
  • A simple life: There’s no denying the fact that developing and maintaining a strategy is complex. It requires a deep understanding of the market, the business’s strengths and weaknesses, and the ability to anticipate and adapt to changes. Some businesses may opt for the seemingly simpler route of focusing on tactical actions that produce immediate, albeit short-lived, results.

How to track strategy and tactics

Tracking helps you fine-tune your process as you go. Here are some tried-and-tested methods.

  1. Create a strategic roadmap. This is a document that outlines your strategy, and the tactical steps to get there. 

2. Set clear metrics and key performance indicators (KPIs): Define specific, measurable metrics that align with your goals. These could include financial figures, customer satisfaction scores, market share figures, or specific project milestones.

3. Regular reviews and assessments: Schedule periodic reviews of both strategy and tactics. This could be monthly, quarterly, or annually, depending on the nature of your goals. Assess progress against the set KPIs and make adjustments as needed.

4. Use a balanced scorecard: This tool lets you view the organization from multiple perspectives (financial, customer, internal business processes, and learning/growth) and helps you align tactical activities with the strategic vision.

5. Implement a dashboard or tracking system: Utilize digital project management tools that give you real-time data and analytics, ideally creating your strategic roadmap in the software itself. This helps you track progress and makes it easier to visualize how tactical actions contribute to strategic goals.

6. Feedback loops: Establish mechanisms for regular feedback from team members, customers, and other stakeholders. This feedback gives you insights into the effectiveness of tactics and the relevance of the strategy.

7. Adjust and iterate: Tracking isn’t just about measuring. It’s about making adjustments. Be prepared to iterate both your strategy and tactics based on the feedback you receive.

8. Document and communicate progress: Keep a record of progress and regularly share these findings with your team and stakeholders. This boosts transparency and accountability while keeping everyone aligned with the broader strategy. 

When to use strategy vs. when to use tactics

It’s important to know when to focus on strategy and when to concentrate on tactics. Both are essential, but their relevance might vary depending on the situation.

When to focus on strategy

  • At the beginning of planning: When you’re setting out your goals and deciding on the direction, it’s time to think strategically.
  • During major changes or pivots: If your organization or personal goals are undergoing significant changes, it’s important to revisit and potentially revise your strategy.
  • When long-term goals are not being met: If you’re consistently missing your long-term objectives, it may be a sign that your strategy needs another look.

When to focus on tactics

  • When you have a clear strategy in place: Once you’ve defined your strategy, shift your focus to developing and implementing tactics that will help you on your way. 
  • When facing short-term challenges or opportunities: Tactical planning is key when responding to immediate issues or taking advantage of short-term opportunities. 
  • When fine-tuning performance: If your strategic goals are on track, but you need to improve efficiency, effectiveness, or quality, then it’s time to hone in on your tactics.

Balancing both 

  • Regular alignment checks: Make sure your tactics line up with your strategy, and do it regularly. This keeps both in check for the duration of your project. 
  • Adaptability: Be prepared to switch between strategic and tactical thinking as circumstances dictate. Staying flexible will help you make changes in your stride, whether they’re opportunities or threats. 

How can project management tools help?

Project management tools offer a structured way to organize, track, and manage both strategic plans and tactical initiatives. 

  • Visualizing strategy and tactics: These tools often have features like Gantt charts, timelines, and dashboards that make it easier to see how tactical tasks align with the strategy.
  • Boosting collaboration: With task tracking, real-time notifications, and sharing capabilities, these tools make it easy to coordinate tactical tasks among team members and keep everyone aligned with the strategic vision.
  • Tracking progress: With built-in tracking and reporting features, PM tools automatically monitor the progress of tactical tasks and measure their impact on strategic goals. This helps you spot issues and make timely adjustments. 
  • Resource management: PM tools make it easy to allocate and manage resources, a key aspect of both strategic and tactical planning.
  • Flexibility and adaptability: Modern project management tools are designed to be adaptable, allowing plans and tasks to be modified as needed. 

The bottom line? Integrating project management tools into your planning tactics boosts efficiency. While tools aren’t a magic wand when it comes to project success, they can make managing the process a whole lot more manageable. Why not give them a try today?



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