Confusing strategy with tactics is a dangerous mistake.
You've almost definitely heard these two terms used in various business contexts over the years.
Companies that mistake their tactics for their strategies are, at best, doomed to mediocre, temporary success. Companies that develop strategic plans with little concern for their tactics fail to implement them.
In this article, we'll tackle the following questions:
- What is strategy?
- What is tactics?
- Strategy vs tactics examples
- What is the difference between strategies and tactics
- How to measure strategy vs tactics
- Strategy vs tactics: the verdict
Check out our strategy vs tactics explanation infographic!
What is strategy?
Strategy is a set of coherent decisions that get you to a specific destination. It’s the overarching approach you adopt to achieve the set of goals you've chosen. Strategy tends to be fairly high level. For example, Michael Porter suggested that, in essence, there are only 3 strategies that a business can ever adopt to succeed:
- Cost Leadership: Offering the lowest priced products in a specific market.
- Differentiation: Creating uniquely desirable products and services.
- Focus: Offering a specialized service in a niche market.
Thus, a strategic plan is a document that outlines the high-level approach you choose. In essence, a strategic plan explains how to achieve a long-term vision or mission for the company.
What is tactics?
Tactics are the specific actions you take to achieve your short-term or long-term goals. They will most likely be informed by your strategic goals and approach, but they are far more specific.
Tactics are not outcomes, nor are they measures of success. Note that there is no mention of the specific actions that go into achieving your business goals in our definition of strategy. That's where tactics come into play.
Strategy vs tactics examples
To make the distinction more concrete, let's look at an example of how an organization might move from a high-level strategy into a specific set of tactics. We’ll use “Best Bicycles,” an imaginary bike manufacturing company:
We will succeed by creating bikes with innovative features that our competitors can't match, which will allow us to charge a price premium to customers.
Objective: Be recognized by the industry as the leading innovator in the space of on-bike health tracking technology.
Tactic 1: Launch a new Bluetooth-enabled module that attaches to the bike's spokes and sends performance data to a linked smartphone app.
Tactic 2: Send out free bikes to popular tech blogs and invite them to write gear reviews.
Tactic 3: Devise a digital marketing strategy that utilizes TikTok and Instagram to expand market share and drive engagement among Gen Zers.
As you can see, you will likely have multiple tactics aligned to each of your long-term strategy's objectives. And your overall strategic planning process will likely include tens, if not hundreds, of tactics in total.
What is the difference between strategy and tactics
Strategy determines where you want to go. Tactics determine how you’ll get there.
Strategy is required to set the direction and destination of the organization, and tactics are required to define the concrete actions you’ll take to reach your destination. Clearly, strategy and tactics are complementary to one another. In fact, no organization can be successful if it ignores either one.
Here’s how strategy and tactics fit together in the Cascade strategy model:
As you can see, the top half of the model is concerned more with the strategy, while tactics come in towards the bottom alongside the measures of success, your KPIs.
How to measure strategy vs tactics
Let's stay on our bike manufacturing company example.
Best Bicycles’s strategy is all about differentiation, and from that strategy, the company has set the objective of being recognized as an innovator in its market. Underneath that objective, Best Bicycles has a number of tactics. But is it sufficient to say that we can consider the strategic implementation successful so long as we execute those tactics?
The answer is no.
Tactics are the best guess at a series of actions that, when delivered, will help the company succeed in its strategy. But the tactics themselves are not a measure of the strategy's success.
If we look at our strategy model once more, you'll see that we represent this by adding KPIs underneath the objectives and next to tactics. So, in our example, we would need to add some measurable goals into the mix alongside our tactics, like:
- Be mentioned in at least 10 news articles that focus on transport innovation.
- Achieve a conversion rate of 5% on Facebook advertisements.
- Reach 10,000 monthly visitors on new blog posts.
The KPIs sit directly underneath the objective, and although they don't relate directly to either of the tactics, they are used to measure their success and progress. If you select your tactics carefully, write relevant KPIs, and hit your target metrics, then you will reach your objective.
Measuring the success of your tactics requires measuring whether you have reached your target KPIs over a specific timeframe or timeline. So, your tactics must progress your KPIs.
If your KPIs are not affected by your tactics, you either have useless tactics or ineffective KPIs.
For example, if one of your tactics is to improve your SEO through content marketing initiatives, you might measure your success by seeing how many keywords you can rank for on the front page of the SERPs. If you want to leverage social media marketing to achieve your goals, you might want to monitor your engagement rates over time.
In truth, measuring your tactics' progress is far less important than measuring your strategy’s success.
It's also far easier since the measurement of tactics is typically quite similar to the post-implementation reviews that project managers undertake at the end of their projects. That is to say, that to measure its success, you will look at the tactic’s timeliness, its cost and whether or not it was delivered in line with the initial scope.
Strategy vs tactics: the verdict
Strategy is an umbrella term that consists of several parts, one of which is tactics. Strategy determines the destination and tactics are the vehicle. Measuring your progress towards your destination is far more important than measuring the efficiency of your vehicle.
Your vehicle might move you quickly but take you nowhere.
Use this strategic planning template to provide your strategy with some structure and clarity on where everything fits.