What is the difference between strategy and tactics – and why are tactics so important?

Ray Poynter
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Ray Poynter

2 mins

Too many people, too often, seem to think the future is all about strategy. People often shun the everyday needs of tactics for the glory of being strategic. However, this is often a mistake, there is usually more work to be done with tactics than with the strategic.

The Art of War
The terms Strategic and Tactical can be traced back to Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”, written about 2500 years ago. Szu Tzu writes “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” This comment neatly defines the need for the right balance between the two.

Definition of Strategy
A strategy is a plan for how to get to some defined endpoint. Examples of famous strategies include:

  • Nike, achieve fame, a following and sales by telling the stories of people who wear Nike.
  • Coca-Cola, maintain a global advantage through consistency.
  • Whole Food Market (and Patagonia) achieve standing, fame and sales through standing for something.
  • Starbucks, achieve fame and sales through the experience and social validation, not the coffee.
  • Tesla, achieve recognition and demand by starting with an aspiration – the launch vehicle was the Tesla Roadster, which sold for more than $200,000 – the opposite of an MVP (minimum viable product).

The strategy is for the medium to long term. Organizations need to periodically review if the strategy is right, but the aim is to stick with the strategy until it delivers the company to its goal.

Definition of Tactics
Tactics are all the things we do to make the strategy happen. The design of the marketing, the sales, the product, the experience are all shaped by the strategy, but implemented via tactical decisions. Strategic decisions are only made occasionally, tactical decisions are made frequently, in some cases daily. A few people in the organization need to be good at making strategic decisions, but many more need to be good at making tactical decisions.

Insights and the balance between the strategic and tactical
Insights professionals often overemphasize the importance of being able to deliver strategic insights and understate the importance of tactical research. Working at the strategic level can be very rewarding (both emotionally and financially), but for any given client, strategic projects do not repeat frequently.

Tactical research, helping a company choose the right ad, fix an experience problem, design a better handle for the mug, or create a new line extension happens regularly. There is a global growth in evidence-based decision making and nearly all this growth is about tactical decisions. The key features that tactical research needs to offer are:

  • Speed
  • Cost
  • Ease of use
  • Reliability

The need for research is growing, but the growth in the need for tactical research will massively outstrip the need for more strategic research. Both strategic and tactical research can offer profitable options – but I suspect the big money for companies will focus on the tactical. However, higher personal incomes will go to people delivering strategic insights.