The Difference between Strategy and Tactics

Apple WorldThe purpose of this post is to clearly delineate the distinct differences between strategy and tactics, and show how they work in tandem for your organization.

Often, we use the terms strategy and tactics interchangeably and in a haphazard manner.  When probing at online definitions and dictionaries, they often share many of the same characteristics, making them difficult to differentiate.  Rather than debate Greek military etymology, Sun Tzu philosophy, or latest publications from the Harvard Business Press, here’s a simple way to look at strategy and tactics by their associated actions:

[The difference between strategy and tactics: strategy is done above the shoulders, tactics are done below the shoulders]

While a tweet-worthy catch phrase, this metaphor risks glib over-simplification. To explore deeper, let’s dissect strategy vs tactics in the following breakdown:

Breakdown: The Difference between Strategy and Tactics

Strategy Tactics
Purpose To identify clear broader goals that advance the overall organization and organize resources. To utilize specific resources to achieve sub-goals that support the defined mission.
Roles Individuals who influence resources in the organization. They understand how a set of tactics work together to achieve goals. Specific domain experts that maneuver limited resources into actions to achieve a set of goals.
Accountability Held accountable to overall health of organization. Held accountable to specific resources assigned.
Scope All the resources within the organizations, as well as broader market conditions including competitors, customers, and economy.  Yet don’t over think it, to paraphrase my business partner Charlene Li, “Strategy is often what you don’t do”. A subset of resources used in a plan or process. Tactics are often specific tactics with limited resources to achieve broader goals.
Duration Long Term, changes infrequently. Shorter Term, flexible to specific market conditions.
Methods Uses experience, research, analysis, thinking, then communication. Uses experiences, best practices, plans, processes, and teams.
 Outputs Produces clear organizational goals, plans, maps, guideposts, and key performance measurements. Produces clear deliverables and outputs using people, tools, time.

Strategy and Tactics Must Work in Tandem
These two must work in tandem, without it your organization cannot efficiently achieve goals.  If you have strategy without tactics you have big thinkers and no action. If you have tactics without strategy, you have disorder.  To quote my former business partner, Lora Cecere, she reminds me that organizations need big wings (strategic thinking) and feet (capability to achieve).

To illustrate, here’s some specific examples across different industries of how strategic goals can be communicated with clear tactical elements, in a linear and logical order:

  • Strategy: Be the market share leader in terms of sales in the mid-market in our industry. Tactics: Offer lower cost solutions than enterprise competitors without sacrificing white-glove service for first 3 years of customer contracts.
  • Strategy: Maneuver our brand into top two consideration set of household decision makers. Tactics: Deploy a marketing campaign that leverages existing customer reviews and spurs them to conduct word of mouth with their peers in online and real world events.
  • Strategy: Improve retention of top 10% of company performers. Tactics: Offer best in market compensation plan with benefits as well as sabbaticals to tenured top performers, source ideas from top talent.
  • Strategy: Connect with customers while in our store and increase sales. Tactics: Offer location based mobile apps on top three platforms, and provide top 5 needed use cases based on customer desire and usage patterns.
  • Strategy: Become a social utility that earth uses on an daily basis. Tactics: Offer a free global communication toolset that enables disparate personal interactions with your friends to monitor, share, and interact with.

Action: Using Strategy and Tactics to advance your Organization
First, educate your staff and colleagues on the differences of terms and how they vary.  Next, ensure that all tactics align to business strategy, and all strategies take into account tactics on how they will be achieved.  Finally, cascade in all communication how strategy and tactics work in tandem, advancing how your organization can see the larger goals, and better utilize resources to achieve.

That’s my take, but please expand the conversation with your perspective, in the comments below.

Image credit: “Telescope” by Kristin Marshall, used within creative commons licensing.

196 Replies to “The Difference between Strategy and Tactics”

  1. Really useful and effective post.

    Regarding this subject I’m used to associate a simple metaphore: in one ship trip the strategy consists in tracking on the map the route to follow to reach a destination; the tactic is in the actions that the crew takes to steer the ship keeping it in route.

  2. Jeremiah – I agree that the terms are too often confused, but I do not agree with the starting point. Mission and Vision are the higher level terms. I would label most of what you listed as strategy in the examples as Goals – “To be Market Leader” – Strategy, “Offer Lower Cost Solution” Tactics, Get it done by…

    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

  3. Nice post – but difficult to critique unless you define whether you are talking about corporate or business strategy 🙂

    I guess you’re talking about business strategy. In which case, there’s much less of a difference in accountability and outputs than you say. All strategy should also produce clear deliverables. And strategists in my experience work across functional levels of companies, so they’re most often also accountable to specify resources too. Plus, that ‘long-term’ thing? Really? 🙂

  4. Steve, thank you. I wrote this post in considering a broader business audience. The examples are both ‘corporate’ as well as can apply to ‘startups’. So in short, business.

    Good point on deliverables. Each action has deliverables.

    I don’t understand your point on “long term” can you provide more? Love the discussion, let’s share, debate, and learn together.

  5. Mitch, interesting breakdown at four distinct levels. Agreed that you can differentiate even further, but I aimed to simplify by combining “Mission/Goals/Strategy” as one distinct action, named “Strategy”.

  6. Thanks for the comment back Jeremiah.

    By corporate strategy I mean where you should be in the market and longer term planning for that. Business strategy meaning how each function/SBU will get there/contribute. Using that split makes it much easier to define the stuff you did with a lot less crossover.

    Re longer term versus shorter term, strategy obviously applies to both, right? Hence my comment. Plus the split between corporate and business strategy gives you a much more MECE framework to work in – one that works regardless of whether you are a start-up or a big org.

    Still, you’re bound to get many more comments tackling it this way 🙂

  7. I was expecting to read about marketing strategy vs marketing tactics. But this has a much broader definition! Useful post but I’d love to read one which is more ‘thematically relevant’ to internet marketing as a whole. That might be a bit of a minefield, though 🙂

  8. Thanks Steve. Good clarification. I actually thought of business strategy as a broader segment than corporate (I think you communicated that it was the other way in your mind) We could split hairs on corporate vs business vs department vs startup.

    Your points on timeline. I still believe that Strategy is a longer term in duration and Tactics are shorter. Changing strategy often could cause the org to shudder and revolt. Granted, smaller nimble startups may be capable of this, but it’s still an art. Tactics need to radically change depending on market conditions to achieve the goals set by strategy.

    Your thoughts?

    (Yes, I love comments, I read, think, and learn from each one, thank you Steve!)

  9. Thanks Studiium. It’s all going to vary by viewpoint. In some cases, internet marketing for a consumer packaged good company may be a tactic. It really varies per situation. The concept, and breakdown can apply to a specific goal of internet marketing.

    I took the post up a level as I’m often advising “internet marketing startups” as my clients, and sit with the executive team, as well as working with head of web and social at the large corporations. It’s written to appeal to both.

    I agree with you, there’s more to be written on this topic!

  10. I have often wondered why this was such a confusion point for people. Then I watch and see many jump and forget to reflect and ask better questions. SO much of success comes from knowing together with doing.

    Yes for everyone who will come back to argue – action is necessary – I agree.

    I also see too many take action without enough thought if it is the RIGHT action

  11. The nomenclature problem is similar to what we see in software development methodologies where requirements, specifications, and design – the “what” and “how” occasionally get mixed up.

    Mitch makes a great point – having recently gone through a 3 hour session to define and refine our vision, mission, and MBO objectives, I would conclude that vision, mission, and strategy all provide a framework for action (what you want to accomplish or become) without unduly constraining how you do it. Different organizations may have the same strategy, but the tactics are all about execution which is where we see real differentiation. It’s virtually impossible to have a defensible strategy, that’s too lofty (see the recent failure of Monitor as a case in point). Strategy should be internalized by managers at all levels, who must measure the success or failure of their tactics in terms of meeting the strategic objectives.

  12. Really useful post — surprises me that I still see confusion about this at agencies and corp. I do agree with earlier comment that Mission and Vision really are higher than at the strategy level, but should be woven into the spirit of strategy formulation. Also worth noting is the importance of clearly understanding business objectives, as strategies should be tied to meeting those (then you have a solid strategic platform). Thanks for laying this out so clearly.

  13. Cheers. Yep, in my mind it’s the other way round. But as
    @facebook-559546873:disqus mentioned, getting clear on what we call stuff is actually the key to effective strategy. That’s always step 1.

    Re longer term thing: still not sure that’s a useful split. I reckon that’s part of the current bigger business problem. Granular, adaptive and evolving strategies are the ones that work best in today’s business environment.

    Ironically enough, that comes down to communications again – so that the org does not shudder and revolt. Not really an art, I would argue, it’s just that our thinking on the role of communications in strategy hasn’t been updated to the whole enterprise 2.0 environment.

    Yet 🙂

  14. I totally agree with this. Some of the strategy examples above have no real direction to them, just what you want to accomplish. A good strategy should be something you can check tactics against to make sure they are pushing you in the right direction.

  15. An old boss of mine used to describe the difference between the two to me thus:
    “Me strategy. You tactics. Me tell you what to do. You do it”. Very clear.

  16. I run several sessions about strategy vs. tactics while at SAP. One helpful trick to check if you have a strategy (usually timeless) or tactic (tools/technology dependent in your hand is changing the tools and see if it still applies. For example a timess strategy is- “Connect with customers while in our store and increase sales.” If you this is 1901, you’d post large posters and have employees running around and talking with customers. If it is 1987, you’d have electronic boards with specials, if it is 2012 you’d have a HTML5 page or an app that helps you connect to customers and in 2015 you’d fully support google glasses. The strategy never changed, the tactics did.

  17. Hi Jeremiah, I really like that you have chosen the difference between strategies and tactics as one of the topics of your blog because I guess there are still many people who don’t understand the difference. By the way, the first time I have learned it is when trying to achieve some of my personal growth goals related to both making money online and sexually attracting beautiful women.
    And, I can say that knowing this difference definitely helps when striving to achieve any of your goals and dreams.

    Thank you.

    Bruno Babic

  18. Bill, I couldn’t agree more! OGST is my favorite way to address business problems and tackle broad goals. Also it’s an incredibly easy framework if your coworkers are all trying to contribute with a variety of models like this in mind.

  19. I think many people sub-conciously think they work with strategy even though they don’t.

    Why do they do that?

    Because they want to feel important. They want to feel that their thinking and actions matter.

  20. You nailed it. A strategy should have a name, otherwise it is just confused with goals. For example, Starbucks “the third place”. Or Dominoe’s (or Pizza Hut’s?) “we don’t make it til you order it” strategy.

  21. I think what is described here is rather Goals vs Strategy. The desired outcome is a goal, not a strategy. Tactics are even lower level.

  22. Nice article but what you’re describing in your examples aren’t strategies, they’re goals or objectives.

  23. You said, “Strategy: Be the market share leader in terms of sales in the mid-market in our industry.”

    What makes that a strategy? To me, that’s an objective.


  24. The way I was told to remember it…
    Strategy is when you decide to grab someone by the B@lls.
    Tactics is how you squeeze them”

  25. Simple to the heart!

    Now you made my understand the concept far better than all the explanations online.

    Simply put, Boss controls the STRATEGY while the Employee represents the TACTICS that works the plan.

  26. Great breakdown. The table is very effective. I’ve worked as a strategic planner for some time and and I typically use a cascading hierarchy Objectives to (SMART) Goals to Strategies to Action Item (which I guess would be tactics). I swear the language is purposefully confusing as a form of job security for Planners. 🙂

  27. Yes we should keep it simple the difference between strategy and tactics. From my experience strategy can be running longer duration and implemented with one or several tactics. Maybe should refer to Sun Tzu on what is his opinion, would be interesting??

  28. It’s simple… Strategy is the plan, tactics are the tools. This applies to business, chess, war, relationships, etc.

  29. Strategy = general plan conceived for achieving one™s mission/goal?
    Tactic = specific moves one makes or specific steps one takes (by keeping the mission in mind and by following the strategic plan)?

  30. Objectives – what are my actions intended to accomplish
    Strategy – how do I plan on achieving my objectives
    Tactics – what actions will I perform, aligned with my strategy, to reach my objectives.

    Before acting: are my tactics (actions) aligned with my strategy (plan) to reach my objective (goal).

  31. Thanks, every one suggested own views regarding the topic but it has been revealed more broader way.
    Any way, I tried to find out more focussed on marketing strategy and tactic in the net,
    In my workplace, I have found marketing strategy as customer segs>>focussed market>>position our organizational goal set with value addition which stimulates long term planing,
    where as tactic is usually used for shorter times cutomizing the focussed market needs as well as buying capability, so price is fixed in a more competitive way, where prod and service develoment is done and moved from sourcing to distributing area with communicating the sales workforce and marketing promo, and advertisement.
    Tilaak Goswami

  32. To me, it’s all much simpler than the descriptions above. Strategy is the “WHAT,” as in what do you want to achieve? Tactics are the “HOW,” as in the steps, the approach you take to accomplish the strategy.

  33. An individual/organisation has a goal and purpose

    Why does it exist?

    A goal/vision/ grand strategy is not equal to a strategy which in turn is not equal to a tactic which is not equal to project management.

    Strategic planning: set a strategic goal and strategies to achieve it. Simply put, what do we/I (an organisation/individual) want to do and how are we going to do it.

    Planning tools:

    (a or b) understand the current situation in detail

    (b or a) nominate the desired overall goal

    (c) choose ways to achieve it

    Only then can

    (d) management processes allocate resources to implement those strategies and monitor progress towards goal (project management, tactics).

    Go/no-go analysis: used to determine whether to proceed or continue.

    Consider and assess all aspects:

    profit/costs, ˜fun™, possible effect on reputation and strategic fit (does it fit with the goal? If a soccer club want to win a netball competition then that would not be a good strategic fit, they would be better to form a netball club.)


    Goal: gain market share

    Strategy: brand building

    Tactics: advertising, celebrity endorsements, etc.

    Goal: have a more happy life

    Sub-goal/strategy: lead a balanced life of meditation and right activity

    Tactic for meditation: keep the attention at the point between the eyebrows

    Strategies for right activity: take some time every day to interiorize the attention, eat healthily, serve others, get exercise, be prosperous (fulfilling remunerative work), study good books, etc.

    Tactics for right activity, e.g. for a healthy diet (I won’t list for every strategy): eat fruits, vegetables, nuts (chew thoroughly), wholegrains and dairy.

  34. Actually, unless you are in a management role, what your boss is doing is tactics, and what you’re doing is execution.

    – Strategy is long-term, conceptual, and includes how the organization will interact with the outside world (C-level thinking)
    – Tactics are short- to mid-term, and bridge the gap for how execution (individual actions taken/tasks completed) will add together for a larger effect to happen. It’s resource management, or middle-management.
    – Execution is the actual doing of the thing. The people who do things are executors, not tacticians.

  35. Layered into the discussion are objectives.
    The order would be
    Objective – Increase customer retention
    Strategy – Increase retention of the top 10% of customers
    Tactics – Offer customer loyalty rewards to the top ten percent of customers.
    In this example you can see that Strategies are measurable while the Objectives are note.
    What muddies the waters is that many people insist that objectives be measurable which leaves no place for more granular strategies that expand on the objective. You would just have measurable objectives and tactics.

  36. Nice one. My two cents:

    1) Business metrics: Drivers as defined by the business. A time-bound objective for the corporate/start up.
    2) Strategy: Roadmap to achieve the metric
    3) Tactic: Building block milestones that clubbed together, will fulfill strategy
    4) Execute: Implementation

  37. My via view point is organization/management will set the goal and direction. In each level even to the ground level it must have strategy and tactic to achieve the goal. Strategy is multiple concept and ideas to get to the goal where tactics will be the execution of each strategy.

  38. The post has been ever so helpful in differentiating both strategy versus tactics. Blogs as well are helpful in that it also discusses both… Thank you so much for sharing, this will help me with my online classes…

  39. Thank you for the article. In the examples section most of what you have termed strategy, are goals – are they not? Strategy requires a clear next action specified (which is not a tactic). Ultimately how this actually translates in real-time on the field is tactics.

  40. ” Tactics are often specific tactics with limited resources to achieve broader goals” – I’m sorry but your explanation seems to me as confused as the above line .

  41. Strategy – win the chess game. Tactics – Rook to Queen Bishop 4. Execution – take your hand and move the chess piece.

  42. This seems to confuse strategy v tactics with goals v objectives.
    Surely, a strategy includes a top-level plan to reach the top-level goal(s)?

  43. I have a simple trick, the what-how test, for distinguishing and identifying statements that are either strategic or tactical in nature. Strategy is about the ‘what’ piece; whereas, tactical is about ‘how’ one obtains the ‘what’. Of course you may come across some strange applications of strategy. 🙂

  44. Goal: is the destination… Strategy: is the way to reach destination… Tactic: is how you pass the way.. by car, motorcycle, etc..

  45. For an easier comprehension, tactics is the short term plan,for now; while strategy is thelong term plan. Short term plan and the long term plan is said in other words as tactics and strategy.

  46. Great article and discussions/comments. Strategy, Tactics, Goal.. etc.. For me in the end as long as you love you work, you know what you are doing, you’ll be in the right path and in the future you will come up with a good strategy and tactics and you can see your goals clearly as distilled water.

  47. Strategy=direction. Tactics=the vehicle They both rely and need one another to form success!!!!!

  48. Pingback:
  49. +1. Goal is the end state. Strategy is the what to get to that end state. Tactics are how to make the what happen.

  50. Very helpful…but your link takes me to a website still under construction! When can we expect it up and running??

  51. I’ve been using a rather simple distinction between the two, in terms mostly applicable to warfare/games: Tactics is to win the battle. Strategy is to (lose the battle but) win the war.

  52. good piece there.i have a question,how can we define strategic and tactical bottlenecks to development especially in developing countries.

  53. Thank you so much for clearly explaining difference between goal, strategy and tactic.

  54. Good post on trying to be helpful in this area and great conversation in the comments!

    “Strategy” is the new buzzword in the industry that I’m in, digital marketing – with high level folks that have no recognition of the main challenges that strategy should address in their businesses and no action plan tied to their ‘strategies’, to the execution level folks who want more recognition for the outcomes they produce through relabelling their roles.

    Going through this excellent book right now to better understand this subject: “Good Strategy/Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters” by Richard P. Rumelt

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