Strategy and tactics are treated like champagne and two-buck-chuck

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Strategy and tactics are treated like champagne and two-buck-chuck

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Scan the profiles of your LinkedIn connections. It’s a safe bet that you will find the word “strategy” and its variants appearing throughout. You’ll have to dig deeper to find instances of the words “tactics” and “tactical”, though.

Here’s another safe bet: the majority of your connections – unless they happen to all be CEOs – in fact occupy tactical roles. Ironically, most of them don’t realize it.

MBAs shun the “T” word

In the five decades since business schools started teaching corporate strategy they have churned out MBAs who graduate imbued with the notion that they are its future vanguard. While most leave school without having a full appreciation of the concept there is one thing of which they are uniformly certain: strategy is where the big bucks lie. Ergo, tactics are for the rank and file.

“Strategy” has become the Dom Perignon of the business lexicon, and “tactics” the two-buck-chuck that your neighbors drink.

Phrases like “bosses do strategy; employees do tactics” and “strategy is performed from the shoulders up, tactics from the shoulders down” have not helped the situation. Over time managers have learned to sprinkle the S-word liberally throughout monthly reports, plans and annual budget submissions. Who among us does not have a planning slide with STRATEGY in 48-pt type displayed boldly in the header?

A Happy Meal of Confusing Buzzwords

Annual planning meetings, like the unveiling of next year’s new car models, are the rituals that shepherd in the latest strategies, accompanied by impressive goals and objectives, all tucked pleasingly into a Happy Meal box, each with its own surprise: same words, but different meanings.

Some use “strategy” as a label, others use “game plan” or “action plan”. One presenter’s goal is another’s objective, with many opting to use “Goals and Objectives” to avoid having to explain the distinction between the two. In presentations “strategy” can represent everything from taking a product to market, expanding the sales force, refitting the plant, winning an account, and offering more vegan selections in the company cafeteria. “Tactics”, if the word appears at all, usually play host to a list of actions that could not find room on the strategy slides.

It’s confusing to sort out to all but an experienced participant.

No Enigma Machine at hand

If you have sat through as many of these meetings as I have, you begin to wonder: how will the next layer of management and employees make sense of all this? The answer: they don’t.

Annual employee surveys often bear this out. Employees may be able to recite the organization’s mission and its top goals, but fitting everything together is a Rubik’s Cube that few can solve. The number of goals, strategies, objectives, priorities and actions that flow from business units and departments can be overwhelming, defying any attempt to synthesize them into a coherent and uniform whole.

While senior managers rely on an innate Rosetta Stone to decipher the different meanings that arise from the use – and misuse – of the same words, their know-fails to cascade down and across the organization on its own.

Employees and middle managers, uncertain of how their roles contribute – be it five hundred, five thousand, or 100,000 of them – often disengage as they are unable to see the big picture hanging in the shadows on a distant wall.

It shouldn’t be this hard.

Making sense of strategy, tactics, goals and objectives

While a blog cannot condense the knowledge of thousands of books about strategy and tactics (military, corporate, organizational, biological, political and chess, to name a few categories) the basic concepts and their interrelationships can be laid out in a simple framework.

Distinguishing goals and objectives

Though increasingly used interchangeably, the two terms in fact have quite different meanings.

Goals are lofty, aspirational long-term (sometimes decades-long) aims. As they are often abstract, tracking progress towards their achievement can be difficult.

Objectives are concrete, near-term, specific and well-focused aims. Properly chosen, they form stepping-stones along the path towards achieving a goal. Properly configured, progress towards them is observable and measurable.

Achieving a goal is the sum total of achieving the objectives that lead to it. Without the support of relevant objectives, goals cannot be achieved. Objectives, in the absence of goals, are akin to running a race without any start or finish line: a lot of energy is expended with little to show for it.

Strategy and Tactics both require mastery

All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved. — Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Strategy is the means by which goals are accomplished. Applied to organizations, such as military and business, it is a complex activity that requires skill in both evaluating the environment for risk and opportunities, configuring resources and actions, and then implementing those decisions to achieve a goal. Like an iceberg, strategies are not readily visible – a lament to adversaries.

Strategy is the centerpiece of business school education because it is the ultimate organizational bet: it commits the organization’s resources to a long-term course of action that is not easily or quickly altered. Big bets require skillful players to wage them as everything is on the line. Every CEO, by definition, makes those bets.

Tactics are specific actions and methods by which to achieve an objective. The skillful assembly and use of tactics – those decided in advance, and those chosen in response to unexpected situations that arise along the way – are the building blocks of strategy.

  • Generals develop strategy before battle. They use tactics during battle.
  • Strategy is the big picture. Tactics are the brush strokes that turn paint into art.
  • Strategies areimplemented. Tactics are deployed.

Generally, strategy and tactics share three things in common:

  1. Theyseek to gain an advantage
  2. They involve choosing and executingactions
  3. They are always executed with expressedoutcomes in mind

If finding treasure buried on one of fifty possible islands is the goal, then strategy is the means to find it. Correctly identifying the right island is a worthy objective; tactics are the means to identify it. The skill likes in crafting the right tactic. For example, choosing an island at random to dig is a tactic with 1-in-50 odds of achieving its objective the first time. However, devising a tactic that narrows the choice to one of five islands has a 20% chance of achieving its objective the first time, making it a more effective tactic.

People who possess tactical mastery are in high demand.

Tactics are performed “above the shoulders”

Look no further than professional sports like football to understand the value of skillful tacticians. While the contribution of coaches is strategically importance their role is nonetheless tactical, though they may be skilled strategists as well. Winning games form the objectives. Devising plays, deciding which player to put in each position, what plays to run and how to counter an opponent’s moves are tactical decisions. Strategies are only as effective as the tactics upon which they are built.

Similarly, creative engineers, marketers with social media know-how, treasurers who keep a watchful eye on share concentrations, and sales managers adept at assembling and deploying effective sales team are masterful tacticians – and paid well as a result.

The Bottom Line

Understanding the differences between goals and objectives, and strategy and tactics, is not difficult – the challenge lies in choosing and executing them. The clarity with which a proper understanding of these terms can be cascaded across and down an organization can, of itself, confer a strategic advantage.

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Written by Michael

Michael Douglas has held senior positions in sales, marketing and general management since 1980, and spent 20 years at Sun Microsystems, most recently as VP, Global Marketing. His experience includes start-ups, mid-market and enterprises. He's currently VP Enterprise Go-to-Market for NVIDIA.

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