The Difference Between Strategy & Tactics

I’ve spent a lot of time in the last few years talking to all manner of folks about IT and Business strategies and tactics. In the process there’s been some interesting blurring of perception over what constitutes a strategy vs a tactic. This was very much apparent when talking to a senior IT leader who was describing a role which she described as “running day to day strategies using existing solutions” (read: using tactical solutions to get things done [just in time]).

Defining the Difference

Strategy is defined as “a plan, method, or series of maneuvers or stratagems for obtaining a specific goal or result“, whereas a tactic is “the maneuvers themselves” – however a straw poll amongst folks shows that understanding this difference between the two is sometimes hard to translate.

Translating to the Business / IT world

Recently I was talking to a business team at a CPG client about affecting the way they invested in a trade plan. The discussion was pitched at the national (US) level with the execution on a per Retailer level based off that national plan.

I have found the best way to get understanding is to describe the national plan as the “guiding principles”, whilst the per-retailer as the tailored execution plan based off the parameters defined in the national plan (e.g. total spend, ROI, etc). This is strategy vs tactics.

Vision vs Version

After talking with that previously mentioned IT leader, and thinking about how I can help ensure understanding of the differences between strategy and tactic, I have used this term to help define the difference

“Strategy vs Tactics is Vision vs Version” – Strategy is the vision that you have that arrives at and end state, whilst version is the execution of actions to reach that vision (as there could be many versions to reach a vision). This has had pretty good reception and a few “ahhh” moments; hopefully this might help keep your audience zoned in on the right level of conversation, should it be needed.

If you found this article useful, please comment!

Update – The Version is The Action

Rather than lose some valuable feedback in the comments, here’s an update. Nigel wrote:

“The issue I have found to be more common is that the team you are talking to do understand the semantic difference between strategy and tactics … but they don’t see why they need to “waste time putting a strategy together when they could just be getting stuff done” (something I have heard in a senior team meeting before).How do you persuade someone who just wants to “get things done” that it’s impossible to define an (effective) action plan without a longer-term strategy in place?”

He goes on to say:

“I’d be wary of using the term “version” here. “version”, in the way people use it normally, means a different take on something, a slightly tweaked copy of something else.”

And I tend to agree that this is an ambiguity that could arise. When executing on strategy, I would not be surprised if there was a variation in expected actions along the way to get to the same (or near as possible) result. My “version” is the version of actions that are taken, but, as Nigel correctly states, using this in discussion could lead to people creating their own, off-the-plan instance.

To take this a little further, when thinking about my example above, the team created a national plan (strategy) which helped keep everyone informed of the goals and objectives and the parameters to work within. When we arrived at execution, we had to be aware of the nuances of each retailer (e.g. contractual obligations, pre-agreed execution plans, etc), which created a version of the execution . Some were similar; others were far more creative.

When I think to IT driven projects, using “version”, due to the subject matter, could have a far more consequential effect in the mind’s eye. In this case, I might say “action” or “activation” instead – though it’s just not as catchy!

As for how to convince those not appreciating the benefits of strategy, one potential option is to show how they use strategy for themselves. When thinking about their own career, it’s likely they will have goals, objectives and means to get to the next place – this could be both short and long term. The goals and objectives are the strategy and the means are the tactics. Bringing the concepts home to an individual is a good option to consider

Part of the Business Experience Framework is understanding how to communicate the strategy and vision. Aligning people to that brings buy-in and a feeling of being part of the process is key to being successful. This is something I’ll be discussing in a future article.

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3 thoughts on “The Difference Between Strategy & Tactics

  1. Great idea for the blog – will be watching with interest as things develop here. I really enjoyed reading this post and it’s given me a good chunk to think about this morning.

    The issue I have found to be more common is that the team you are talking to do understand the semantic difference between strategy and tactics (as I think most people at a senior level do), but they don’t see why they need to “waste time putting a strategy together when they could just be getting stuff done” (something I have heard in a senior team meeting before). How do you persuade someone who just wants to “get things done” that it’s impossible to define an (effective) action plan without a longer-term strategy in place? The approach you’ve outlined here works really well, because it uses language people understand (and already use correctly) to help them understand the difference between two more nebulous concepts.

    Given that, I’d be wary of using the term “version” here. “version”, in the way people use it normally, means a different take on something, a slightly tweaked copy of something else. Introducing that to define the difference between strategy and tactics is risky as you may leave behind the idea that there needs to be a single vision for the company, but that Marketing have their version of it, IT have their version of it, and so on. “vision vs. action” is the way I’ve described it in the past, bringing in a distinction between the two things that fits with our non-business use of the words: “vision is where you _see_ you want to go, action is what you _do_ to get there”. The company should have a single vision that we all aim towards, but Marketing have their actions, IT have their actions, and so on.

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