Strategy or Tactics? Which is which, and why you should care.

Soup Closeup.png

This time of year always makes me want to make a big pot of homemade soup, then curl up with a bowl of it to watch football or a movie. In fact, just the other day, Ashley was saying how much she wants to try butternut squash soup again. My reaction was immediate: “No way!” I’m not making that mistake again. “That was over 10 years ago,” she reminded me. “And we can make it without ginger.”

Yes, we have a Soup Saga in our past. And I still can’t shake the disappointment and embarrassment I felt about the time, energy, and food we wasted on that fateful day.

You see, I can’t stand the taste of ginger. No, that’s too generous. I’d rather give up coffee for a year than have to eat one bite of it! And though Ashley is much more tolerant of the flavor than I am, she too will pass when it’s the primary flavor in a dish. Which is why it’s so amazing that we managed to make an entire recipe that clearly called for ginger, and even tasted it, before realizing our mistake.

How could we have made such a silly error when we both knew what was involved? Well, that’s the point of this post.

A Common Cause of Mistakes

Every day, we’re asked to help organizations figure out why they’re having difficulty overcoming a challenge, improving on past performance, or reaching some identified target. Many times it turns out to be a matter of not fully understanding or valuing the difference between two key things in every organizational toolbox: strategy and tactics.

If you look around the Internet, you’ll find all manner of tips and sayings to help you remember how to tell the terms apart. Unfortunately, most are more cute than they are accurate. Simply put, strategy represents your plan for how you will accomplish something, and tactics are the actions you will take to accomplish it.

In the case of our ill-fated winter warm-me-up, our strategy was to select and follow a recipe. Our tactics consisted of gathering the ingredients and performing the steps explained in the instructions. Where things went sideways for us was that we didn’t consider whether our strategy was sufficient for what we were trying to accomplish. As a result we didn’t rule out recipes that included a flavor we despise because neither of us realized just how strong a flavor you get from so little ginger.

Thus, our strategy had a serious flaw. But nothing is set in stone, right? We could have made up for our mistake along the way–except that we were so focused on following the steps, we completely ignored my repeated gag response to the growing pile of grated root! Too committed to the strategy and tactics we had identified at the outset, we didn’t make room in our plan for the flexibility you need to possess when reality rears its ugly head.

This may seem like an overly simplistic example, but it’s actually not too different from what we witness every day. We have worked with plenty of organizations that adopt a plan without considering whether it will work, jump into tactics without asking whether they’re appropriate, or fail to stop and check their progress against their goal while they can still change course.

Ignoring Strategy is an Impossibility

Whether you fully understand the difference between strategy and tactics, or even appreciate the need to use them, ignoring them isn’t an option. After all, choosing not to create a plan and/or the steps to realize it is still a strategy, it’s just not a very good one.

Maybe your organization used the same exact appeal tactics as last year and simply hoped people would give more. Or sent an appeal letter containing an image or message that’s clever, but not necessarily consistent with the theme of the campaign. Or maybe turnout for one of your events fell short of the target, because the tactics used to drive attendance could never have realistically met the need in the first place.

Choosing the right strategy and tactics to meet your goals is not a one-time deal. Your needs will change from project to project–and even in the midst of a project. Being smart about strategy requires engaging in an ongoing process of evaluation, refinement, and assessment.

So how can you get wiser about your strategy and tactics?

First, remind yourself as often as you need to what the terms mean: Strategy is a plan for accomplishing something; tactics are the actions you use to accomplish it. These terms are interrelated and often used interchangeably, which leads many people to confuse them and/or ignore one or the other.

Second, make sure your strategy is the right one before you start using tactics to support it. In our case, the best roasting, chopping and pureeing in the world (tactics) would never have overcome our unfortunate recipe selection (strategy). Of course, the flip side of that is making sure that when you do land on the right strategy, you use the right tactics; by not carefully following the instructions, we could have just as easily ruined a more ideal recipe.

Third, be willing to change course. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of being flexible in the face of something that’s just not working. One organization we work with was falling short of its year-end appeal goals. With just one more email scheduled to go out, the prospects for success were dim. But the project manager buckled down, whipped up a new email with a different approach than what clearly wasn’t working–and guess what? They ended up with record results. Hint: If you’re gagging at a pile of ginger, something needs to change.

Next Step: When Strategy and Tactics are Not Enough

OK, so you’ve mastered the relationship between strategy and tactics and you’re excited to use them more thoughtfully. That’s great! But many people still struggle with accomplishing what they set out to achieve. That’s because (spoiler alert) simply having a strategy and tactics isn’t enough. You might have a well-written plan and detailed instructions for your next appeal, but how do you know whether you’ll hit your target?

I’ll answer this question–and report on our next attempt at butternut squash soup–in an upcoming post. 

Image Credit: Rick Cox