Decision-Making

Strategic vs Tactical

I recently heard a friend refer to a new project as “highly strategic”.  I was curious as to the nature of this great strategic project, as typically people in her position don’t often have responsibility for strategic projects. It turns out that her project was a major new advertising and promotion campaign for a large brand.

My friend has fallen into a common trap. She had misunderstood the nature of strategic versus tactical action. A strategic action involves the commitment of significant assets, organizational resources. It is difficult to implement, and difficult to reverse. Typically strategic moves tend to have longer term objectives.  Tactical actions tend to “fine tune” strategies, involving fewer resources and are relatively easy to implement and reverse. Tactical actions tend to have shorter term objectives.

Strategies usually are about making decisions. And when we make a decision, we typically eliminate an alternative course of action. Tactics are usually much more flexible. Strategies are about “what” we choose to do.  Tactics are about “how” we choose to do it. It is often easier to change the “how” we do things than the “what”.

That’s why developing a strategy is so much harder than developing tactics. Strategies eliminate alternatives and set us toward a specific direction. Those choices are far more risky than a typical tactic. The nice thing about tactics is that they are more flexible. If one doesn’t work, you often have time to try another.

Strategies are the investments of resources that build and grow an organization. Tactics are the day to day actions that get us to our goals.

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16 replies »

  1. This is a very good observation. I was recently asked whether I was a tactical person or strategic. Many times in a person’s career, they will be tactical but the leaders are always one’s who have set goals and strategies on how to get there. They implement tactical operations sometimes, but they are clear with “what” they need or want.

  2. Hi Colleen. I enjoyed reading this blog as I have come across similar attitudes and questions. It is interesting that some manager’s find it necessary to classify people into strategic or tactical. As you correctly point out, a good leader must be both, using either to advantage when required. I am about to scan through your earlier blogs and ‘catch-up’ – love your topics and style! Steve

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment on my blog. I think we like to use classifications to make our jobs easier, but usually it just results in an over-simplification of people, tasks and life. Keep in touch. I enjoyed reading your blog and look forward to lots of debate!

  3. I’m not sure I fully agree with your analysis here. While I agree there is a difference between strategy – the goal and tactics – how we achieve the goal, strategic and tactical when used in the “versus” sense are opposed to each other. Taking a strategic action is something that contributes to and moves us closer to the strategy whereas tactical is (in this context) is something that is (and knowingly so) a short term distraction from the strategic direction.

    For instance the company where I consult has a strategy to become an ASIC supplier but is for now not there. They will take on IP development work as a tactical way of staying alive until they make the transition. Likewise my decision to consult with them is tactical as it generates cash to spend on my own invention. My strategy is to move into my own company once I have enough cash to do so.

    • Typically tactical actions are those that lead us closer to achieving a strategic choice. A strategy is about committing to a long-term course of action that requires significant investment of resources and is difficult to change. Tactical actions are those that are short term and are easy to change. Tactical actions are not necessarily a distraction, if they are linked to a strategic direction.

      Sometimes, a tactical response that is inconsistent with strategy is necessary, because circumstances have changed. Which makes sense.

      In that sense, you are right, the “versus” in the title is incorrect. Strategy and tactics actually go together. My point is that often people confuse a grouping of tactics with strategy – and they are different.

      Thanks for your comment, which helped me think more clearly.

      Colleen

  4. As Roger Moore used to say for 13 straight classes “It’s all about choices”. That has stuck with me my entire career. Tactics are ways of expressing the strategy through action.

    Strategy is about seeing questions before solutions. When your feet are up on your desk, when your biting on your pencil with a confused look on your face, you’re being strategic. Spending 90% on the right strategic question makes the strategic choices easier. Tactics are about seeing solutions, and taking action. When your on the phone to a supplier, talking in a directive way about deadlines or colours or media channels…your being tactical.

    Strategies have no deadlines.

    • Ahh. Roger Moore. The guy who looked like Herb Tarlek. His brand strategy class is one of two that I have used everyday since I graduated (gulp) 20 years ago. Although I’ll never quite get the look, I hope that I can teach the content as well as he does.

  5. Quick question. How do you differentiate layers of strategy from tactics?

    For example,
    Strategy – Grow Market Share to Improve Revenue
    Strategy To Grow Market Share – Online Advertising
    Strategy for Online Advertising to Grow Market Share – PPC/Display Media
    Strategy to Run PPC/Display – Consulting Company or Manage In-House
    on and on and on.

    You see where I’m going here? Is it semantics? Is everything beyond Grow Market Share really a “Tactic” I ask this question because in many companies different stakeholders have different roles in executing on a strategy… And in their own silos these tactics are strategies I suppose…

    I don’t think my thought here is really defined… But I wanted to put it down to get your thoughts… Hope it makes sense.

    • I like to think of strategy as what you want to do at a very broad level, where as tactics are how you want to do it. You are right, where strategy ends and tactics begin is a bit fuzzy, and maybe semantics. I like to think about a strategic choice as one that is difficult to copy, costly, time consuming and difficult to change once it has been implemented. Tactics are about fine tuning the strategy. Tactics don’t cost a lot to change, aren’t difficult to change and are easy to copy.

      Take a look at this post http://colleensharen.wordpress.com/2010/08/04/strategy-vs-tactics-the-elements-of-strategy/ for a better description of strategy from a business level perspective.

      FYI – Growing market share isn’t a strategy – that is an objective. Your strategy might be to differentiate your product using some proprietary technology that is difficult to copy.

      • My comment should have read like a title “Strategy to Grow Market Share and Improve Revenue” I definitely understand the difference.

        I read the post… Not clear. I’m not sure I like that description better… Its not as clear as the description you gave in this post. Although, it does break out the elements in very simple terms.

  6. I found this from another blog – and really like it.
    Mission = the most important thing you and your team aim to accomplish
    Goals = an end-game towards which actions and activities are focused
    Strategy = the plan of attack
    Actions and Tactics = the execution of the strategy

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