What is the difference between strategy and tactics?


I’ve often heard that good execution beats strategy.  My experience is that execution which achieves good long-term results actually reflects a good strategy.  But that strategy may be quite different from the “official” strategy document.  Success requires more than good luck – both a good strategy and good execution are key.

Strategy – Where are you going to end up in the future?  It is critical to look at this from the customer’s point-of-view.  For example, “In five years time, we will be seen as the world’s best online search company.” is much different from (and results in different actions than) “In five years time, we will be the world’s biggest search company.”

Your strategy will define assumptions as to who your target customers are, their ecosystem, and why the customers will be dealing with you rather than your competition.  And of course, your competition will also change.  I’ve seen too many company failures resulting from strategies that basically say “This is what we are going to do.  This is the vision and mission of the company. We hope the customers will buy from us.  Hope is our strategy.”

Strategy describes the company’s position in the customer’s ecosystem.  It is impossible to forecast the future perfectly.  The board and CEO must regularly review the facts, assumptions, and strategy scenarios: the CEO and her executive committee each month, and the board of directors at the beginning of each meeting.

Tactics – What do you have to do to achieve your end result?  What are the type of people you need to build that future? (i.e. board directors, CEO, advisory board, C-Suite, management, and staff) If you are in a rapidly changing environment, you need people who can learn quickly and change quickly – knowing what worked 20 years ago may not be helpful in solving future challenges.

Tactics may include:  organic growth; acquisitions; divestitures; hiring people; letting people go; changes to processes, technology and capital; working with partners; and being part of alliances.

The difference between strategy and tactics – Hannibal 218-204 BC

  • Hannibal crossed the Alps (Romans thought this was not possible).
  • Hannibal won massive victories in Italy in 18 months – 70,000 Romans died in battle of Cannae; ¼ of Roman adult males killed.
  • Hannibal never lost a battle in Italy during the next 14 years – but Hannibal lost the war.
  • Roman Consul Fabius avoided battle with Hannibal but did not win the war.
  • Roman General Scipio did NOT engage Hannibal in Italy. Scipio conquered Hannibal’s financial and logistical bases in Spain and then attacked Carthage, resulting in Hannibal being recalled from Italy.

The difference between strategy and tactics – Tiger Woods – 2006 British Open

  • Competitors teed off, using drivers to hit balls over the bunkers.
  • Tiger Woods typically used a four or five iron. His focus was on:
    1. Getting the ball in the hole;
    2. Determining the best place to putt from; and
    3. Working backwards from the best place to put from; therefore use four or five iron to position for eventual success.

 Your next steps
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What is the difference between strategy and tactics?