Strategy vs Tactics: What’s the Difference and Why Does it Matter?

In order to do anything meaningful, you have to know where you are going.

Strategy and tactics are two terms that get thrown around a lot, and are often used interchangeably in numerous contexts. But what exactly do they mean, what is the difference, and why is it important? In this article, we will look at the contrast between strategy and tactics, and the most effective ways to use each.

While strategy and tactics originated as military terminology, their use has spread to planning in many areas of life. Strategy is overarching plan or set of goals. Changing strategies is like trying to turn around an aircraft carrier—it can be done but not quickly. Tactics are the specific actions or steps you undertake to accomplish your strategy. For example, in a war, a nation’s strategy might be to win the hearts and minds of the opponent’s civilian population. To achieve this they could use tactics such as radio broadcasts or building hospitals.  A personal strategy might be to get into a particular career, whereas your tactics might include choosing your educational path, seeking out a helpful mentor, or distinguishing yourself from the competition.

We might have strategies for anything from gaining political power or getting promoted, to building relationships and growing the audience of a blog. Whatever we are trying to do, we would do well to understand how strategy and tactics work, the distinction, and how we can fit the two together. Without a strategy we run the risk of ambling through life, uncertain and confused about if we are making progress towards what we want. Without tactics, we are destined for a lifetime of wishful thinking or chronic dissatisfaction. As Lawrence Freedman writes in Strategy: A History, “Without a strategy, facing up to any problem or striving for any objective would be considered negligent. Certainly, no military campaign, company investment, or government initiative is likely to receive backing unless there is a strategy to evaluate…. There is a call for strategy every time the path to a given destination is not straightforward.” And without tactics you become dependent on pure luck to implement your strategy.

To achieve anything we need a view of both the micro and the macro, the forest and the trees—and how both perspectives slot together. Strategy and tactics are complementary. Neither works well without the other. Sun Tzu recognized this two and a half millennia ago when he stated, “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy are the noise before defeat.” We need to take a long-term view and think ahead, while choosing short-term steps to take now for the sake of what we want later.

The Relationship Between Strategy and Tactics

Any time we decide on a goal and invest resources in achieving it, we are strategizing. Freedman writes:

One common contemporary definition describes it as being about maintaining a balance between ends, ways, and means; about identifying objectives; and about the resources and methods available for meeting such objectives. This balance requires not only finding out how to achieve desired ends but also adjusting ends so that realistic ways can be found to meet them by available means.

In The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, Edward N. Luttwak writes that strategy “is not about moving armies over geography, as in board games. It encompasses the entire struggle of adversarial forces, which need not have a spatial dimension at all….” When you think about winning a war, what does it mean to actually win? History is full of examples of wars that were “won” on paper, only to be restarted as soon as the adversary had time to regroup. So being precise in your goal, to encompass the entirety of what you want to achieve, is necessary to articulate a good strategy. It’s not about success in the moment, but success in the long term. It’s the difference between the end of WWI and WWII. World War I was about winning that war. World War II was about never fighting a war like that again. The strategies articulated and pursued by the Treaty of Versailles and the Marshall Plan were full of markedly different tactics.

In Good Strategy, Bad Strategy, Richard Rumelt writes: “The most basic idea of strategy is the application of strength against weakness. Or if you prefer, strength applied to the most promising opportunity…A good strategy doesn’t just draw on existing strength; it creates strength.” Rumelt’s definition of strategy as creating strength is particularly important. You don’t deplete yourself as you execute your strategy. You choose tactics that reinforce and build strength as they are deployed. Back to winning hearts and minds – the tactics require up-front costs. But as they proceed, and as the strategy unfolds, strength and further support are gained by having the support of the local population. A good strategy makes you stronger.

Grand strategy is the art of looking beyond the present battle and calculating ahead. Focus on your ultimate goal and plot to reach it.
— Robert Greene, The 33 Strategies of War

The Components of Strategy

The strategic theorist Henry Mintzberg provides a useful approach to thinking about strategy in adversarial situations. According to Mintzberg, there are five key components or types:

  1. Plan: A consciously chosen series of actions to achieve a goal, made in advance.

  2. Ploy: A deliberate attempt to confuse, mislead or distract an opponent.

  3. Pattern: A consistent, repeated series of actions that achieve the desired result.

  4. Position: A considered relationship between an entity (organization, army, individual etc) and its context.

  5. Perspective: A particular way of viewing the world, a mindset regarding actions that lead to a distinct way of behaving.

Geoffrey P. Chamberlain offers a slightly different perspective on the components of strategy, useful when the strategy is more about a personal goal. He identifies seven parts:

  1. A strategy is used within a particular domain.

  2. A strategy has a single, well defined focus.

  3. A strategy lays out a path to be followed.

  4. A strategy is made up of parts (tactics).

  5. Each of a strategy’s parts pushes towards the defined focus.

  6. A strategy recognises its sphere of influence.

  7. A strategy is either intentionally formed or emerges naturally.

According to Rumelt, a strategy must include “premeditation, the anticipation of others’ behavior, and the purposeful design of coordinated actions. As a general rule, strategy is more important in situations where other parties have the potential to thwart or disrupt actions, or where our plans are at risk if we don’t take meaningful steps to achieve them. Good strategy requires us to both focus on a goal, and anticipate obstacles to reaching that goal.  When we encounter obstacles, we may need to employ what Freedman calls “deceits, ruses, feints, manoeuvres and a quicker wit”—our tactics.

The skillful tactician may be likened to the Shuai-Jan. Now the Shuai-Jan is a snake that is found in the Ch’ang mountains. Strike at its head, and you will be attacked by its tail; strike at its tail, and you will be attacked by its head; strike at its middle, and you will be attacked by head and tail both.
— Sun Tzu, The Art of War

A Few Words on Tactics

Even the most elegant, well-planned strategy is useless if we do not take thoughtful steps to achieve it. While the overall goal remains stable, the steps we take to achieve it must be flexible enough to adjust to the short-term realities of our situation.

The word “tactic” comes from the Ancient Greek “taktikos,” which loosely translates to “the art of ordering or arranging.” We now use the term to denote actions toward a goal. Tactics often center around the efficient use of available resources, whether money, people, time, ammunition, or materials. Tactics also tend to be shorter-term and more specific than strategies.

Many tactics are timeless and have been used for centuries or even millennia. Military tactics such as ambushes, using prevailing weather, and divide-and-conquer have been around as long as people have fought each other. The same applies to tactics used by politicians and protesters. Successful tactics often include an ‘implementation intention’—a specific trigger that signals when they should be used. Simply deciding what to do is rarely enough. We need an “if this, then that” plan for where, when and why. The short-term nature and flexibility of tactics allow us to pivot as needed, choosing the right ones for the situation, to achieve our larger, strategic goals.

If you don’t have a strategy, you are part of someone else’s strategy.
— Alvin Toffler

Conclusion

Although often regarded as interchangeable, strategy and tactics are somewhat different, though complementary concepts. According to the skilled strategist Sun Tzu, strategy is about winning before the battle begins, while tactics are about striking at weakness. Both are ancient concepts that have come to be an essential part of numerous disciplines and offer endless new ways of thinking.

By Farnam Street