If you were to ask ten people in your organization to define the word, “strategy,” chances are you’d probably get between eight and ten different answers ranging from, “A plan,” to, “A series of tactics,” to, “Something management does to justify their salaries.” Which is an interesting observation to make because if strategy is so fundamental to the success of any business or organization, one would think that there ought to be more clarity around the concept (but there isn’t). However, before I define what I believe strategy is, let me clarify what it isn’t (and why I’m pretty confident that your “strategy” probably isn’t one).

The biggest misconception I’ve encountered about strategy is that it’s synonymous with long-range planning (it isn’t). In fact, for most organizations, their “strategic plan” isn’t very strategic, it’s simply a long range plan. In other words, throwing the word “strategic” in front of the word “plan,” does not make a plan any more strategic than throwing the word “friendly” in front of the word “service” makes your local cable company representative friendly.

Now, to help you see how important this distinction is between strategy and planning, I’d like to share with you four key distinctions between strategy and tactics (tactics being the sub-points of a plan).

1. Strategy is about direction, tactics are about action. Strategy seeks to answer the question, “What do we want to be?” Whereas tactics answer the question of, “How are we going to get there?” In other words, strategy isn’t about how to, it’s about want to. Strategy points out a direction for an organization. It tells everyone, this is where we’re headed and here are the boundaries in which we’re going to play on our way there. True strategy work doesn’t tell anyone, “Here’s what we need to do next week.” Nor does it say, “Next year we’ll sell x number of widgets.” However, it might tell us, “To fulfill our mission and vision, we need to add x (another revenue stream) to our product mix,” or “We need to change our market segment,” or “We’re a product-driven company, not a method of distribution company (or vice versa).”

2. Strategy focuses on the future, tactics focus on the present. Strategy always looks at the future, and then looks back to the present, whereas tactics always look at where we are (the present) and then project into the future–which is a huge difference. For example, a strategic decision might be to completely cut off a line of business, not because it’s failing, but because it’s not where the company is headed. Whereas a tactical plan will always start with the current lines of business and figure out how to make each one of them incrementally better. In other words, tactical plans usually only lead to incremental improvement, whereas real strategic formulations can/should radically change and accelerate the growth of the organization because they’re not hindered by current “realities.”

3. Strategy is an executive function, tactics are an operational function. In other words, strategy formulation is the big picture work that top level executives must be involved in. This is the work that determines the nature and direction of an organization. However, planning and tactics are operational responsibilities and therefore should be developed by those who are responsible for implementing them. Or to put it another way, strategy is best done “top down,” whereas tactics are best done from the “bottom up.” So, once the executive team has developed an organization’s strategy, those who are most closely responsible for the results ought to be involved in setting the tactics necessary for achieving the strategy that the executive team set.

4. Strategy is about perception, tactics are about execution. Strategy is about defining how an organization wants to be perceived in the marketplace (as the organization that best provides the products and/or services that its market needs/wants/desires). Tactics are about figuring out how to be best execute that strategy (i.e. how are we going to get there). Or to put it another way, strategy work is about developing and gaining clarity about an organization’s competitive advantages so that it can communicate those differences. Whereas tactics are focused on the steps to ensure that those differences do exist.

That said, I know there are some (okay, many) who would eagerly jump past strategy formulation work in order to jump right into tactical work. Why? Because they want action. They want to know what they can start doing tomorrow in order to make what they’re doing better. However, the obvious problem with that mindset is, “It doesn’t matter how fast you’re going, if you’re going in the wrong direction.” In other words, if the strategy isn’t right, the tactics probably won’t be right either.

So, as you review the four differences between strategy and tactics, is your “strategic plan” really strategic? Or is it simply a long-range plan dressed up in a fancier title? If you want to accelerate your organization’s growth, then you’ll want to take the time to do real strategy work. Why? Because when everyone is clear on where you’re headed, the “how to get there’s” become obvious and you’ll end up getting where you want to go faster, with less friction and more joy.

Oh, and one last thing, if you’re wondering how I would define strategy, here’s my definition, “Strategy is a framework that guides the choices an organization makes about its nature and direction, as well as its operational activities and tactics.” Strategy isn’t a plan, it’s an intentionally designed framework that helps everyone in an organization know how to make choices about both what to do and what not to do on their way toward fulfilling the mission and vision of that organization. Done right, it makes everything easier!

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