What is the difference between strategy and tactics?

As a business owner myself, I had to dig deep into how to come up with a strategy. In the process, there was a point where it all clicked and words like strategy and tactics and how they relate to each other suddenly made sense.

As a general rule, strategy is the overall logic of action in a long-term plan to ensure success, whereas tactics are the means by which this plan is executed. Strategy’s role is to set the right goals. Tactics focus on actions and tools to apply in a certain situation.

As this is the general concept, I try to shed some light on the matter in the following article.

The key differences of strategy and tactics

There are a lot of ways where the ideas of strategy and tactics apply. Classic fields are businesses, negotiations, chess and other strategy games and the military. In each case, there is a necessity to pursue a goal over a longer time frame and implement actions in the present in order to reach that goal. 

However, a strategy is not just a long-term goal. It also consists of choosing the right milestones on the way, the right resources to put it and the decision on where to apply these in the most effective manner.

„The core content of a strategy is a diagnosis of the situation at hand, the creation or identification of a guiding policy for dealing with the difficulties and a set of coherent actions.“

Richard P. Rumelt

Tactics on the other hand are more than just the actions with a short-term goal in mind. A tactic is a sequence or certain kinds of actions which aim of reaching a strategically important sub-goal. It also involves the reaction to external circumstances in order to slightly change the tactic, switch it completely or literally „calling off the attack“.

Strategy vs. Tactics

An important sidenote: The further ahead a strategy is trying to look, the less clear the problems in the future can be seen. Because of this, such a strategy has to rely more heavily on principles, guidelines, general advantages and the acquiring of resources over time.

Example of strategy vs tactics in business

A hairdresser identifies the following main challenges in her local market:

  • most competition focuses on either young adults. 30y-50y adults or pensioners
  • all shops struggle with low prices
  • high rents in the city center
  • all owners struggle with employee retention.

She designs her strategy as follows:

  • focus on teenagers and kids, since there is nobody else doing this
  • a shop in the outskirts in order to pay less rent than average
  • opening times only in the afternoon, so money can be saved to pay more to employees to increase retention
  • marketing activities are focused online on mothers, since they usually decide
  • tablets are provided to entertain waiting kids
  • a „relax zone“ for waiting parents is set up to differ from the competition
  • a „style finder program“ (= picture series of different haircuts of each kid over time) is created.

The tactics in this situation could be:

  • using Instagram instead of Facebook for marketing
  • buying armchairs instead of sofas for the „relax zone“
  • choosing Samsung tablets over Apple tablets

One important difference of tactics in comparison to strategy is that tactics can be easily changed without compromising the strategy.

At one point the hairdresser might decide that it is better to use TikTok instead of Instagram or that some sofas would be more comfortable for waiting parents with a second kid. 

What are the key elements of strategy and tactics?

The elements of a strategy and it’s tactics differ in many dimensions. To give you an overview, I list them in the following table „bullet point style“.

ElementStrategyTactic
time focusfuture, long-termpresent, short-term
scopemore generalmore detailed
analysisthoroughsmall in scope
planabilityhardly planable (no SMART)highly planable (according to SMART)
copyingcopying almost not possiblecopying is easy
resourcessets resources activelyuses given resources
changeabilityhard to changeeasy to change
Elements in strategy and tactics

Key elements of strategy

The best book that I read on the subject is „Good Strategy/Bad Strategy“ by Richard Rumelt. I highly recommend that. It clarifies a lot of foggy topics like vision and mission. It is also written with practical application in mind. 

Rumelt’s „kernel of a strategy“ consists of

  1. Analysis of the situation
  2. Guidelines on how to deal with challenges
  3. Set of coherent actions.

Key elements of tactics

In a similar manner the key elements of tactics can be described. Though there is not one single source (that I could find) to clearly outline the key elements in general (= applicable in many settings, like business, military, etc.), it can be deducted from a lot of examples that tactics must have certain qualities.

Tactics

  1. are on the level of execution of the coherent actions set by the strategy 
  2. have a measurable goal in the near future that helps to make progress in a strategic objective
  3. can be changed without compromising the strategic objective.

What is more important strategy or tactics?

Over the years of running my own business, I eventually figured out my answer to that question.

In general, strategy and tactics complement and dependent on each other. One right strategy cannot be successful without the right tactics, and vice versa. However, one can be more important as a current focus, when there are identified weaknesses, i.e. the strategy has a deficit, hence it is more important to fix it at the moment.

In a practical sense, I would argue that for a business strategy is more important. If I find a competitive sweet-spot that cannot be easily copied, I ensure the survival and growth of my business. No tactic can ever do that in the long-term, since eventually the competition will copy what works and therefore limit my options.

What is the difference between strategic and tactical thinking?

One often raised question concerns not only the difference between strategy and tactics, but the difference in thinking about them. Even though it might not be obvious, there can be moats between these two schools of thought.

Strategic thinking is the art of seeing the whole picture and cause-and-effect-relationships among the parts. Tactical thinking is concerned with how to make progress in an operational context. This approach needs more practical wits to be effective on a high level. Strategic thinking seems best served with a more generalist approach.

To give an example:

A marketing specialist can create a lot of material and through her creativity and adaptability is able to change platforms, approaches, pictures and copy. With this she can quickly figure out what works and what not and hence is likely to reach her given short-term goal. All that is tactical thinking.

A CEO on the other hand is forced to consider competition, research & development, employees, costs, profitability, long-term survival and growth of the company and many more factors when making any decision. Also, (and in my experience way harder) there is nobody who tells the CEO what goal is right to pursue. She has to decide what the goal is (and has to live with the uncertainty!). That is strategic thinking.

I also wrote an article about „How do you shift from tactical to strategic thinking?“. It provides you with a roadmap on how to train your mind to think strategically. Of course, it doesn‘t do miracles, but I bet there are a few points that really give you a different perspective.

How to go about strategy?

So, with all the talk about the differences, how can you actually go and get started with a strategy? My honest suggestion is to read Mr. Rumelt‘s book first. If you don‘t have the time, there are a few things you can do, that move you in the right direction.

  1. Think through and define the major problems that face all „players“. In a business setting, that would be a market analysis. In a computer game, that would be defined by the parameters of the game.
  2. Research how the other players (if there are too many, just take the major ones) deal with these challenges.
  3. Find your answer to these challenges! But beware that all your actions have to be at least indifferent, at best complementary to each other. Formulate some guidelines, i.e. Do’s and Don’ts in general terms.
  4. Find specific actions to breathe some life into your guidelines.

Keep in mind: The hardest thing about strategy is that it is essentially an expectation of how you will deal with future situations. These expectations are based on assumptions that are usually incorrect to a certain degree.

If you actually find some more time, go check out my longer article on the 6 steps of strategy formulation. It is a short guide on how to design a business strategy. The steps will give you a certain logic and direction of what to think about and when to think about it. For example, many people start with a goal. However, that is not the most useful way forward.

How to find the right tactics?

Having a strategic concept worked out, you can start to think tactically. In my opinion, the best way to go about it, is to think of a lab that you run. You test your strategic assumptions and keep what works.

This viewpoint assumes that the sub-goals of the strategy are made measurable to come to objective conclusion whether a certain tactic works.

To find the right tactic means combining an educated guess based on experience with trial-and-error. In a business context, it might take years before a right tactic is found. Also, circumstances can change what exactly the right tactic is.

I hope you see, that tactics is an ongoing issue, just like strategy.

Conclusion

Both strategy and tactics are ongoing processes. In a business setting, there is no end to either of them. But, on a personal note, it is fun! 😁 

In my opinion, it is important to always immerse yourself in both. And contrary to the common wisdom of working on your strengths, I would say to also work on your weaknesses regarding strategy and tactics. 

Another point I want to make is, that especially strategy takes time to get right. I mean to see beforehand what could be a viable path and then get it right. I had the school of hard knocks to help me, and even then there is always a high degree of uncertainty revolving around a strategy. Nobody, and I mean absolutely no one, can tell you what the right decisions will be. You just have to live with this aspect.

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