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Strategy Vs. Tactics: The Main Difference & How to Track Progress Of Both
You’ve heard there’s a difference between tactics and strategy, but maybe it seems a little fuzzy. Let us clear up the confusion.
You’ve probably heard people in your company talk about both strategy and tactics. These are common terms and are thrown around regularly in articles online and in the office—and are often confused. So, we’re here to set the record straight on the difference between tactics and strategy.
There are quite a few differences—but in short, strategy describes the destination and how you are going to get there, and tactics describe the specific actions you are going to take along the way. Below, we’ll expound on strategy versus tactics, the differences and similarities between the two, and explain how you can track the progress of each.
Strategy Vs. Tactics
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:
- Strategy defines your long-term goals and how you’re planning to achieve them. In other words, your strategy gives you the path you need toward achieving your organization’s mission.
- Tactics are much more concrete and are often oriented toward smaller steps and a shorter time frame along the way. They involve best practices, specific plans, resources, etc. They’re also called “initiatives.”
What makes a good strategy?
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.
What makes a good tactic?
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.
Overall, the rule of thumb for understanding the difference between strategy and tactics is, “Think strategically, act tactically.”
Here are a few examples of how strategy and tactics interact that will help you differentiate between the two terms:
- Strategy is based on extensive research, planning, and internal reflection. It’s a long-term vision, whereas tactics are short-term actions. For example, if your marketing strategy is to improve your influence and performance in social media, then your tactics might be to determine the best channels for your business and the most effective messages for your audiences. Strategies CAN change to adapt to new internal or external factors in an organization, but these changes shouldn’t be made lightly. Tactics can change based on the success of your strategy. It’s much easier to adjust tactics to course-correct than it is to overhaul your strategy, so make sure your strategic planning is thorough.
- Strategy and tactics work together as means to an end. If your strategy is to climb a mountain, one key component of your strategy might be to decide which side of the mountain you should climb. Your tactics would be the gear you’d buy, who you’d bring with you, your complete trip plan, how long it would take to get there, what season you’d go in, and so on. A strategy without tactics won’t ever be executed or help you achieve your goals.
- Strategy and tactics always have to be in-line with one another. You might be really enamored with a particular project (i.e. a tactic), but it’s only worth pursuing if it aligns with your long-term strategy. Thus, your strategy should inform which tactics your organization will execute or fund.
- The best strategy and tactics still won’t cover EVERYTHING. Because resources are finite, choosing the right strategy and corresponding tactics ensures your efforts are directed toward achieving your vision in the most efficient manner possible.
Tracking Progress Of Your Strategy & Tactics
For the sake of example, let’s say your organization’s overarching mission is to reduce the carbon footprint that humans are contributing to. If your strategy is to reduce carbon emissions in a certain area by a certain percentage, one goal might be to educate people about the options available to them in regard to renewable energy. From there, you might decide one particular tactic to use would be a marketing campaign through television ads. From there, you’d track the resources you need for this project and begin checking off items like hiring a producer, writing your script, shooting your scenes, editing your video, and so forth.
Key performance indicators (KPIs) and measures are more geared toward tracking your strategy. If your strategy is succeeding, it means you’re making progress toward your organization’s high-level goals.
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 our earlier example, if your goal is to have more people using renewable energy in a certain area, you might be measuring the number of people using renewable energy. But depending on what kind of success you were seeing, you could change your tactics and begin measuring how successful your marketing campaign is or the number of calls your organization is receiving about your organization’s mission. This doesn’t change your strategy—it just gives you a new path to succeeding in your strategy.
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. 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!