Strategy Vs. Tactics

I was reminded of the howls from some pundits after a McCain-Obama debate in which the subject of “strategy” came up. The refrain from the left was: “This guy doesn’t even know the difference between ‘strategy’ and ‘tactics.'”

The truth is, people have been arguing about the difference between strategy and tactics for centuries and there is no concrete consensus on the difference. Most people have an overall sense that strategy relates to “bigger” things and tactics more to “small” things. Many others think strategy is somehow better than tactics when it comes to planning.

And, more often, one will hear someone in the workplace telling someone else to think or act “strategically” — when what they really mean is “be smarter.”

Like the term “leadership,” it is a shorthand for a larger idea — but for most people this idea is ill-defined.

This debate came back to me when I saw an argument at e.politics about whether Twitter is a “strategy” or a “tactic.”

I learned strategic planning from one of the people who helped develop our modern understanding of it. While strategic planning has changed many times since it was first elaborated in the late 60’s, this definition from my mentor always sticks with me:

“Strategy is a decisive allocation of resources.”

In other words, a strategy is something that, if you pursue it, other avenues are foreclosed. Many different tactics, on the other hand, could be used in the pursuit of a particular strategy.

In most cases, I’ve found that the answer to this question depends on the size of the theater. What is a tactic when looked at from one level can be a strategy at another level.

As an example, a company might have a strategy to use social media as its primary marketing communications tool. It would use various tactics to achieve that: blog comments, Facebook pages, Twitter, and so forth.

However, depending on the size of the theater you are looking at, a tactic can become a strategy. Just thinking about the fictitious company’s “social media” strategy, imagine the marketing department that is charged with implementing this. The fact that the overall thrust is social media will now be a given, just a parameter. The strategic decisions at this level really will center on which tool to use and how strongly to bet on it.

Published by

Brad Rourke

Director of external affairs and DC operations at the Kettering Foundation.

12 thoughts on “Strategy Vs. Tactics”

  1. Thanks for your insight. I’ve sometimes heard a condescending attitude towards “tactics” by those who espouse strategy, as if tactics are somehow of less value and importance in marketing. It’s an oddly tribal behaviour and unhelpfully simplistic when people are on the same team! The blurred lines between the two are absolutely correct, as one commonly morphs into the other. Perhaps the rigid demarcation is now past its use-by date.

  2. Thanks for a good workable definition of these two key components. I sometimes have the concern that “GOAL” gets forgotten by “brilliant Strategists” and “keen tacticians” all the time. Goal is what you want. Strategy and tactics are ways to get them. And your definition of those two are dang good. Take care.

  3. Brad,

    I’ve always defined the differences in this way: strategy is conceptual, while tactics are implementational. For example, marketing is primarily strategic, while selling is primarily tactical.

    In other words, tactics are what you use to implement a strategy.

    I agree that there can be macro/micro frames of reference, where strategies are needed for individual components of a much larger strategy. I think it boils down to viewing strategy as planning, while tactics are doing.

    John Counsel
    CEO, The Profit Clinic

  4. I was recently researching this subject, and this is one of the better posts I’ve found. For more insight, and a few specific examples, check out the Brand Insight Blog.

  5. I am a tennis teaching pro in Georgia. I teach many teams and individuals how to play the game of tennis. I would love to have your expertise applied to this game. How would you explain to a team and an individual the difference between strategy and tactics as they plan for an upcoming match. Also, if you were the coach with a team on the court for a lesson, how would you explain the differences before you begin the practice session. I am looking for another perspective, other than my own, and my peers who teach the game. Your thoughts and opinion would be valued and shared with my fellow pros of Georgia

  6. The difference between tactics and stradegy depends on the perception of the implier. it is not represented by a numerical value, you cannot scale it or measure it.It is like saying, what is the difference between longterm and shorterm. Obviously you are going to get a different answer from everyone. It is only a determination of a value.

  7. I like the comparison of strategy and tactics from Sun Tsu, author of The Art of War. Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.

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