There are quite a few differences between strategy and tactical planning. In short, strategic planning is used to set destination and how you are going to get there, and tactical planning outlines the specific actions you are going to take along the way. Below, we’ll expound on strategy vs tactics, the differences and similarities between the two, and explain how you can track the progress of each.
About 2,500 years ago, Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu wrote “The Art of War.” In it, he said, “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” Tactics and strategy are not at odds with one another—they’re on the same team. (And they have been for many centuries!) Here’s how we define the tactical vs. the strategic:
A solid strategy reflects the core values of the organization. Your strategic team should gather input from across the organization to ensure there’s alignment between the strategy and each department’s priorities. All strategies should be actionable.
When creating a good strategy, focus on the desired end result (the goal). Your strategy is the foundation for all activities within the organization, and how it’s crafted will guide decision-making as your teams work to achieve those goals. For example, if a furniture company has a goal to expand market share, its strategy could include offering the most competitive prices and always being in stock of common offerings. Leadership teams will make decisions that prioritize lower costs.
A good tactic has a clear purpose that aids your strategy. It has a finite timeline during which specific activities will be completed and their impacts measured.
A tactic for the furniture company would be to analyze manufacturing processes to minimize waste and inefficiencies, thereby decreasing cost and, by extension, prices for customers. The company can clearly measure the success of the tactic by comparing their costs before and after the analysis.
Here are a few examples of how strategy and tactics interact that will help you differentiate between the two terms:
To help clarify the concept even further, let’s look at a few examples.
For a local government, accountability and responsiveness are cornerstones of good governance. Therefore, you may have an overarching goal to improve transparency.
Your strategy: To achieve that goal, you decide to improve your communication strategy by adopting and implementing new channels of two-way communication. Not only will this help you understand what people want (and need), but it will also help you keep people informed.
Your tactics: Some tactics you might use to achieve that strategy could include:
These tactics have a clear end time, and, if accomplished, will ultimately contribute to reaching the overall goal.
Most school systems are continuously striving to improve learning outcomes as demonstrated through standardized test scores. There are a variety of strategies and tactics you could adopt to accomplish that mission.
Your strategy: You decide to focus on incorporating more technology into the classroom as a way to improve student engagement, which has been shown to positively impact learning.
Your tactics: Some tactics you might use to achieve that strategy would be:
These tactics have a clear purpose that will aid the strategy, and a finite timeline. Once complete, they will bring you closer to achieving the strategy.
A common problem faced by many healthcare organizations is related to hospital capacity: The demand for patient beds exceeds the supply. With an overarching mission of improving the health of the community you serve, this is an issue that needs to be addressed.
Your strategy: Since you don’t have land for new construction, your strategy is to make your internal processes more efficient to improve patient flow, thereby freeing up beds more quickly.
Your tactics: Some tactics you might use to achieve that strategy might be:
These tactics will help identify bottlenecks in your existing processes and provide data you can use to make better decisions, all of which will hopefully unlock greater capacity within the resources that already exist.
Strategy and tactics are two parts of the same puzzle—they work together to help your organization achieve long-term success. It’s important to actively review both periodically to ensure you’re making progress.
Let’s take a look at how you would measure each in practice, and how using ClearPoint, a strategy reporting software, can help drive results.
To track your strategy, you’ll need to choose some key performance indicators (KPIs) that will help gauge performance.
A good KPI uses quantifiable data to answer questions about progress and give you ideas on how to further improve those numbers. For example, if your strategy is to increase customer satisfaction, a net promoter score (NPS) could be the KPI. There are many factors that might go into the answer for a NPS score, and with the help of additional questions, an organization could learn which areas to focus their improvements on.
Remember to set targets that specifically detail your KPIs and break them down into achievable timeframes. (Here’s an article that explains how to do that.) Take a look at other organizations in your market or review your past performance to choose appropriate targets. If your KPI performance seems to be consistently lagging without much concern, you could try giving targets more weight; some organizations tie KPI performance to incentives like end-of-year bonuses to encourage engagement.
Following one of our earlier examples, if your goal as a school administrator is to implement technology to improve student engagement and retention, you might be measuring students’ standardized test results. But depending on what kind of success you were seeing, you could then begin measuring scores on classroom tests or overall student grades every quarter. This type of measurement should be able to validate if using technology in classrooms is helping with grades. It might also reveal other new paths to succeeding. Perhaps the technology is having an impact on grades overall, but there’s still a piece missing that better links classroom learning to standardized testing—indicating the need for a change in tactics.
There’s a lot of data associated with strategy tracking—and a lot of pitfalls that could prevent you from doing it right. ClearPoint was designed specifically to help organizations of all kinds stay on track when it comes to strategy execution. It allows you to view all relevant information associated with your strategies and tactics in one place, making it easier to understand and analyze progress, and even change course when you need to. In ClearPoint, you can visualize the linkage between connected elements (strategies and tactics), and create customized dashboards and views that allow other people in your organization to easily gain insight into performance.
As an example, the ClearPoint summary report below is for a local government. It shows a clear alignment between city strategies (goals) and tactics, along with status indicators (green, yellow, or red), qualitative analysis, tactic owners, percent complete, and end dates.
When you can easily see how all the pieces of your strategy—including tactics and KPIs—fit together, you have a clearer view of which activities are actually moving the needle in the right direction. In ClearPoint, you can see the goals that are linked to your KPIs. So, if you see a KPI is improving but the associated strategy remains unchanged, perhaps the KPI doesn’t have the influence you thought it had, and it’s time to go back to the drawing board.
In ClearPoint, you can also create dashboards that pull in additional relevant information. Below is a status snapshot of any of the government’s goals that have fallen behind plan, along with the strategy that was implemented to achieve the goal. You can also see a tactic snapshot showing the status of all of your tactics, and finally, the alignment summary report from above, all on the same page, allowing you to gain quick insights. You can then make any changes in strategy as needed.
With your tactics, it’s more about your planning and the components therein. Tactics typically have a start and end date, certain allocated resources, and a number of milestones and action items to help achieve the tactic. You want to be sure that you hold each member of your organization accountable for the tactics they’re in charge of, so you should always assign ownership when a tactic is assigned. Viewed together, your tactics will give you the concrete steps you need to track anything relating or tied to your strategy, included related OKRs or KPIs. If you’ve allocated resources to a tactic, remember to track how they’re being used and how much budget you have remaining.
It’s easy to speak about your strategy and your tactics as if they’re the same thing. They do rely heavily on one another and are both very important to keep track of, but the terms shouldn’t be used interchangeably.
Before you implement your strategy, make sure you’ve got stakeholder buy-in and you’ve addressed any hesitations. Once you’ve ironed out concerns and are ready to execute, communicate your strategy across the organization to provide meaning and context around each department’s activities. It’s very important that everyone understands your strategy. Teams should know how the tactics they’re working on contribute to the overall goals of the organization.
And finally, don’t forget to consistently review and evaluate your strategy. No business environment stays static, and holding strategic reviews to check in will ensure you adapt to any changes and stay on track.
Looking for the abbreviated version? Here’s a neat visual summary highlighting the key points of this comparison, created with Visme. Enjoy!