I could start with a dictionary definition of what each is, but you can go look yourself. Let’s dispense with that for a moment.
Here’s what I think they mean. And here’s where they differ. And here’s where they are horribly abused in corporate America.
A strategy is an end goal, and a general way to get there. “We’re going to win this game, by a lot, and we’re going to explode on offense.” As in, we might have an OK defense… we may give up points, and that’s fine. As long as we net out with more than the other team (of course), we win. A different strategy could be “we’re going to shut them down with a very aggressive defense – not what we normally do – because they don’t expect it.” Again, the strategy is from a different angle, with a goal in mind, but not a detailed list of actions. Strategy is the ‘what’ (and sometimes the ‘why’).
Nowhere in these two very viable strategies is a list of quarter-by-quarter plays, who gets the ball, when they blitz, etc. You know why? Because those are tactics.
Tactics are the operations. The procedures. The execution of a strategy. It’s the ‘how’ to the ‘what’ of a strategy. It’s what needs to happen to make it happen. It’s the no-huddle offense, the lack of sideline routes to keep the clock running, the calculated risk of a long pass for huge gain… It’s the playbook. It’s the steps.
Makes sense, right? Hopefully you’re reading this, sipping your coffee, saying “yeah, I get it Alan.”
Why, then, do people confuse the two? “We need a strategy.” OK, here’s a strategy. “Where are the action items? Where’s the Q4 plan of attack?” Well, those are tactics.
Make no mistake. Each are important. But understand at an acute level that one feeds the other, and that they are not – at all – the same.
p.s.: one of my favorite quotes on this comes from Shannon Paul, who writes: “My point here is to help others get clearer on what strategy really is — if your “strategy” document is a goal with a list of tactics, know that what you have is not a strategy but a goal with a list of tactics.”
image source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/avinashkunnath/3079110411/
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