STRATEGY AND TACTICS – THE DIFFERENCE AND THE RELATIONSHIP

7 07 2012

For many, when talking about strategy what they actually mean is tactics. For some, one is applied but not the other while for others the terms are used interchangeably without full comprehension.

Matters are not helped when, as I found at a recent talk, some consultants and coaches use the terms incorrectly. It struck me that a plain English explanation of what each is and how they inter-relate might be useful…..

Let me start by disposing of a common myth; that strategy is the ‘what’ while tactics are the ‘how’. While this sounds convenient and is repeated in a number of articles on various websites and in a number of books, it is incorrect.

The ‘what’ precedes strategy; it is the vision, the goal or the aim. It is a clear description of what success looks like. While vital to successful strategy, it is not the strategy itself and is not what I am explaining today.

The definition of strategy I use is; ‘a plan or design for achieving one’s aims.’ Note that the aim(s) is (are) already defined, that the strategy is the plan, the ‘how’ which describes how that aim will be achieved.

A good vision will look to the long-term and therefore the strategy which delivers that vision will describe the journey over the medium to long-term. In doing this, there is a point at which planning in too much detail is pointless. The variables become impossible to describe, define and decide between. Therefore strategy tends to the bigger picture elements of ‘how’ deliberately overlooking fine, detailed planning.

That component of the strategy is best done short-term when variables are known and more easily managed. This element of the ‘how’ is called tactics. The definition of tactics is; ‘procedures or set of manoeuvres engaged to achieve some end or aim.

The tactics are a component of strategy, they are not separate. Where strategy is the big picture plan for delivering success, tactics are the detailed components which ensure the strategy stays on course and on time.

For many organisations the short-term planning, is all they do. For others the big picture is where planning begins and ends. For others the vision, the picture of success is vague leading to ineffective planning, whether strategy or tactics or both, in pursuit of an ill-defined aim.

Think of it like building a house. Before you can start you need to know what the finished article will look like. This is your vision. In order to build it you need to know what order things need to be built-in, where the walls go, how high the ceilings will be, how the eventual owner will access it and more. This is your strategy. However, before the house is complete and will ‘work’ you need more detail; central heating, double glazing, wiring, gas connections, lights, maybe a letter box, door handles, security features and more. These are your tactics.

In your business you should be able to describe what long-term success looks like (your vision). Without, what are you planning for? In pursuit of that vision you should have a plan or plans addressing the main elements that must be achieved and in what order (your strategy). Without, how will you achieve your vision? How will you know what you should be doing and when (to any purpose)? To ensure that strategy becomes successful strategy you should break it down into detailed plans which leave no stone unturned (your tactics). Without, you have no more than only a general idea of what to do but without specifics.

It is not wise to plan tactics too far in advance, tactical planning should be conducted no more than 12 months in advance, often less. Beyond that, the landscape is too changeable and unspecific, detailed planning becomes less reliable.

In summary, strategy is how you deliver success and, far from being different or separate, tactics are key components of every successful strategy. With strategy alone, with luck you might just get there, with tactics alone you are doing no more than being busy for the sake of being busy.

Or, as Sun Tzu put it 2500 years ago; ‘Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.

© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, July 2012

Read more blogs by Jim Cowan

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5 responses

8 07 2012
Dorian Glass

Hi Jim, well done to you.
Amazing how Viosining / Strategy / Tactics are so mis-understood, especially in such complex & critical times.
Your explanation was beautifully lucid, simple and to the point. A great service to the business world!
With kind regards,
Dorian Glass
Dorian Glass Strategy Consulting

8 07 2012
Nomi Sunrider

A very insightful post Jim. Thank you very much.

So, strategy is the planning of a chain of actions that lead to a well-defined goal, and tactics define the nature of these actions.

Am I correct?

8 07 2012
cowanglobal

Hi Nomi,

You are but don’t overlook that as well as the nature tactics also define the detail.

8 07 2012
Nomi Sunrider

I get the basic idea. Could you please explain those details? Many thanks Jim.

10 07 2012
cowanglobal

Hi Nomi,
That’s a lot to describe and it varies in every organisation although some elements should be considered by all (eg how you answer the phone).
It’s not precise but consider the new house being built in my blog; tactics would include decorating the walls but the purpose of those walls (fine detail) should not be overlooked. Strategically, their purpose is to support the structure and divide the rooms. Tactically they might (eg) surround a psychologist’s room so don’t only need painting but (detail) need to be painted in calming colours. Consider the kitchen; strategically it is the room where cooking takes place, where meals are ‘delivered’. Tactically that will require somewhere to store knives, detail – are there children in the house? If so, good tactics dictate storing the knives out of reach.
I hope that helps. If you have a specific matter you wish to discuss feel free to email me confidentially.
Jim.

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