Strategy vs. tactics: What's the difference?

Sarah Laoyan contributor headshotSarah LaoyanOctober 5th, 20214 min read
facebooktwitterlinkedin
Strategy vs. tactics: What's the difference—article banner image

Summary

The terms “strategy” and “tactics” originated as military terminology, but are now widely used today in a professional setting. Learn how you can use both strategy and tactics to build your business strategy.

Chess grandmasters don't blindly go into the game moving pieces around randomly. They have well thought out and precise moves to gain the upper hand against their opponent.

Chess players use both strategies and tactics to achieve their ultimate goal: to capture the opponent's king. Just like decision making in chess, you can use both strategy and tactics to build and execute your business strategy. Here's how these two techniques can help you achieve your strategic goals

What's the difference between strategy and tactics?

The terms "strategy" and "tactics" originated as military terminology derived from Sun Tzu's The Art of War. Since then, they've been adapted to fit different situations beyond just military usage, including business strategy. 

Definition of strategy

A strategy is an action plan that you will take in the future to achieve a final end goal. Strategies help to define your long-term goals and how you go about achieving them. 

Definition of tactics

While strategy is the action plan that takes you where you want to go, the tactics are the individual steps and actions that will get you there. In a business context, this means the specific actions teams take to implement the initiatives outlined in the strategy. 

If we go back to the chess analogy, strategy is positioning your pieces in a specific arrangement to get to where you want to be. Tactics are that act of moving said pieces into those positions. 

The relationship between strategies and tactics

In The Art of War, Sun Tzu wrote, "All men can see the tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved." Sun Tzu illustrates that while tactics are more concrete and easier to see, an overarching strategy is equally important. The question should not be strategy vs. tactics, but strategy and tactics. Think of these two techniques as two different sides of the same coin—both are necessary to achieve your goals. 

If someone is trying to reach their goals solely with strategy, they won't get anywhere since tactics are the concrete action items that take you where you need to go. When a team only uses strategy, the only thing that they'll be doing is planning to achieve goals instead of doing the work that needs to be done to achieve them. 

On the other hand, you can't achieve your business goals on tactics alone. Tactics without strategy quickly turns into aimless work. When this is the case, people are just taking arbitrary actions with no strategic objective in place. In the short term, this can feel like busywork for team members. In the long term, it can lead to frustration, burnout, and job dissatisfaction. 

What makes a good strategy?

Data-informed decisions

A good strategy is well thought out, planned, and extremely well researched. If you're looking to build a strong, long-term strategy, it's important to gather information and data from past experiences to influence your future decision making process. 

For example, some industries experience seasonality with their business. Knowing how to use that seasonality to your advantage is an example of good strategic thinking and using historical data to your benefit. 

Clearly defined goals

The best strategies are built around clearly defined goals. It's much easier to build a good strategy when you know exactly what you need to achieve. Having clearly defined goals is a key part of the overall planning process for long-term strategy. Some people plan both their strategy and their business goals at the same time, which can streamline the process. But if there's no end goal, trying to create your strategy is like trying to run a race without knowing the route.

Read: Setting business goals: The first step to a successful business

Contingency plans

The success of your strategy is contingent on an expected outcome, but what happens when your strategy gets derailed? This is where a contingency plan comes in. If you build a contingency plan into your strategy, then you can plan for speed bumps. Your team will know what to do to get over the speed bump to prevent the project from getting completely derailed. 

What makes good tactics?

Tactics are short term

If the strategy is the long-term plan, tactics are the short-term steps that help you hit smaller goals. Tactical planning is the act of breaking down your strategic plan into short-term actions.

Read: The importance of setting short-term goals

Tactics are clearly tied to strategy

If you’re struggling to understand how a specific tactic contributes to your strategy, it might not be the best tactic for your strategy. The work you do should actively contribute to the goals that you want to achieve.

The goal-setting framework OKRs is a good example of how short-term tactics connect to a long-term vision. There is one main objective, and there are key results that you set to achieve that main objective. The tactics that people work on regularly contribute to the growth of the key result.

Tactics are actionable and time-bound

Tactics are best executed in a limited time frame. Similar to most goal-setting strategies, creating time-bound deadlines ensures that tactics are actually completed within a set time frame. If you’re not sure how to create actionable and time-bound tactics, try using the SMART goal methodology.

Examples of business strategy and tactics

Here are a few examples of how business strategists can use both good strategy and smart tactics to achieve their business goals.

People team

Strategy: Interview 20% more candidates from historically underrepresented communities in tech.

​Tactics: 

  • Sponsor historically underrepresented community groups that focus on STEM.

  • Create opportunities for students with alternative education paths, such as bootcamps and trade schools.

  • Regularly share job listings on platforms that target under represented communities.

Digital marketing team

Strategy: Increase trial sign ups by 30%

Tactics:

  • Increase visibility on web pages by adding a free trial pop-up at 50% scroll.

  • Offer a free e-book with every trial sign up offer.

  • Promote trial sign ups through social media marketing.

Web development team

Strategy: Decrease page speed by 1 second.

Tactics:

  • Identify excess code that is affecting page speed and find streamlined alternatives.

  • Compress on-page images to less than 1 MB.

  • Reduce the number of page redirects.

Manage strategy and tactics using work management tools

Good strategy starts with organized planning. If you're looking for a way to keep your business goals organized, consider using a work management tool. Work management software can help connect your day-to-day tactics to long-term strategy. 

Try work management software

Related resources

Article

10 questions to ask before finding a mentor