It’s that time of the year again when most businesses and organizations (just like yours) begin to work on their strategic plans for the coming year. However, the vast majority of strategic plans aren’t very strategic at all. Why? Because most strategic plans are simply tactical plans dressed up with the phrase, “strategic,” in front of them.
However, just adding the word, “strategic,” in front of the word, “plan” does not make a plan strategic any more than throwing the word “friendly” in front of the word “service” makes your local cable company’s customer service friendly. It just doesn’t work that way.
In order for a plan to be strategic, it needs to answer strategic questions, not tactical ones. So, what’s the difference between the two? Here are four key distinctions to keep in mind as you work on your strategic plan for next year.
1. Strategy is about direction, whereas 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?” The first two words of those questions offer a good guideline for you to use in order to remember the difference between a strategy question and a tactical one. If someone uses the word, “How?” it’s probably a tactical question (e.g. “How will we generate more leads?”). Whereas if they use the word, “What?” it’s probably a strategy question (e.g. “What do we want to be different about our company by 12/31 of next year?”).
In other words, 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. However real strategic work doesn’t tell anyone, “Here’s what we need to do next week.”
2. Strategy focuses on the future, whereas 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 wants to go.
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 a business or organization because they’re not hindered by current “realities.”
3. Strategy is an executive function, whereas 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 actually 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.” Once the executive team has developed a business or organization’s strategy, then those who are most closely responsible for the results ought to be involved in selecting the tactics necessary for achieving the strategy that the executives set (i.e. authority and responsibility should always go hand in hand). Note: Boards should not create strategic plans, only refine and improve them.
4. Strategy is about perception, whereas 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 best execute that strategy (i.e. how are we going to get there). Or to put it another way, strategic work is about developing and gaining clarity about an organization’s competitive advantages so that it can communicate those differences to its market. Whereas tactics are focused on the steps to ensure that those differences do exist.
That said, there is a strong natural tendency for executive teams (and boards) to jump right into tactical work. Why? Because they want action. They want to focus on what they can do tomorrow. It feels better. However, the problem with that kind of thinking 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, tactics are irrelevant!
So, as you review the four differences between strategy and tactics that I’ve listed above, is your “strategic plan” really strategic? Or is it simply a long-range plan dressed up with a fancier title? If you want to accelerate your business or organization’s growth, then you’ll want to take the time to create a real strategic plan. Why? Because when everyone is clear on where you’re headed, the “how to get there’s” become obvious and you end up getting where you want to go faster, with less friction and more joy.
To your accelerated success!
Note: If you ever need help developing a strategic plan that can accelerate the growth of your business or organization, make sure you contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org (or call me at 301-602-0448). This is what we do!