The differences between goals, objectives, strategy, and tactics

Alan Belniakbusiness6 Comments

compas and map - via virtualtitus on flickr


I was sitting in a meeting yesterday, and someone dropped the ‘s’ word…  Yep – strategy.  This isn’t a bad word.  But it becomes bad when it is used poorly.  Often times (at least in the circles I travel), I hear strategy when people really mean tactics, or something else.  Knowing the differences will not only make you a better business communicator, but it will also help you approach your work differently.


Here’s an example of the differences between a goal, an objective, a strategy, and a tactic.  The order of these is intentional, because one flows to the other; macro to micro; big picture to finite point.  Keep asking ‘how’ to move from one stage to the next.


Let’s use UPS, the parcel delivery and logistics company, as an example.  I’m making up the entries below, but seeing them and how they map to the words is the take-away.


  • Goal: This is the big idea.  Think ‘goal’ in a sporting event (like American football).  The goal is to get… to the goal. That’s the mission, so to speak.  So, for UPS, it could be drive top line revenue, or reduce costs or it could be drive profit.  All are valid.  Pick one for now.  Let’s go with drive profit (which typically means lots of revenue, and little cost, or some other very favorable ratio there).


  • Objective: I like to think of objectives as sub-goals, or mini-goals.  They, too, drive to a point, but you could have multiple objectives that ladder up to one goal.  If a goal is a business platform, the objectives are the pillars. Some objectives here could be maximize time delivering packages, deliver more packages per stop, maximize truck load, optimize truck load, minimize lost time, and minimize dwell time


  • Strategy: This is the plan.  This is what you are going to do, almost at a conceptual level, to address and execute against your objectives.   You can (and should) plan out and think ahead as much as possible to reduce or eliminate variability.  You should have checkpoints and results in mind.  Some strategies (or strategic initiatives) for these objectives could be optimize route scheduling, map out stops smartly to prevent overlapping route driving, smartly group deliveries, design ways to reduce time between stops, reduce time spent not moving/not delivering packages.  The strategy is a compass, where as…


  • Tactic: … this is the map.  Both a strategy and tactics will get you somewhere.  A compass shows you directionality, both where to go and where not to go.  A map is a fairly specific set of instructions.  “Go here… turn here…. 100 feet, then… “  This doesn’t make tactics (or being a tactician) bad.  In fact, with a good goal, objectives, and strategy, it almost frees the tactician into creating more things to do to ladder up to the strategy.  Some tactics for the strategy above could be use side streets parallel to major roads between 7:00a and 9:00a, reduce deadheading by delivering packages both on the way out and on the way back, avoid major thoroughfares during peak hours, avoid left-turns, and favor routes that permit right turns on red.


You can see how the goal flows into the objective, and into the strategy, and into the map.  From the other perspective, you can also see how the list of tactics, together, achieve something (a strategy), and that the strategy, when executed well, will achieve an objective; and so on.


So when I overheard someone the other day say “that’s a great strategy” (like when I heard someone say “UPS favoring right turns is a good strategy”), I cringed.  It’s a tactic.  It’s a means to an end.  It is not a strategy unto itself.


This trap also occurs when upper level management look for mid-level management to write a strategy for an initiative or idea or team.  And when the strategy has no specific “to do” items or a check list of sorts, the upper level management says, “Where’s the action list?”


Those are tactics.  That’s the map.  Not the compass.


image source: compass and map (via virtualtitus) – CC BY 2.0


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