Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”

The quote comes courtesy of Chinese military general, Sun Tzu’s Art of War, and is oft-quoted in the marketing world for how beautifully it sums up the difference between strategy and tactics.

I know, most of us often use the terms “strategy” and “tactics” interchangeably and very few care to understand the difference between the two. Trust me, even the savviest marketers trip over this. No wonder many businesses (including huge brands) jump to execution without really understanding what they should be executing. Result? They risk going the way of Kodak, Xerox, and Blockbuster—the poster kids for how poor strategy can lead to a company’s demise.

A few months ago, I met this business owner who was trying to grow his company’s presence on social media. I asked if he had a plan to go about it. His response—“well, I post on Facebook and LinkedIn a little but don’t know if Twitter is worth it.”—quickly reminded me of countless other people who are probably doing the same thing. Jumping to create profiles on various social media outlets without taking the time to fully understand how or if this will impact their business.

You wouldn’t drive a car without knowing where to go, shoot without aim, or pop pills without diagnosing a need, would you? Then, why would you want to run a business without a roadmap? Why would you let your business drift along without purpose?

And yet, that’s exactly what businesses often do. They focus on tactics; strategy is the part they turn a blind eye to.

So what’s the difference between strategy and tactics?

A strategy is a plan for how a specific goal could be achieved, while a tactic is the action you take to achieve it. In other words, a strategy is the answer to what you’re going to do to meet a goal; a tactic is how you’re going to do it.

For example, if you want to increase your sales revenue, that’s your goal. One of the ways you could achieve that goal is by driving more traffic to your website – that’s your strategy. You could build landing pages, engage customers through social media, create email marketing campaigns, and so on— and these would be deemed as tactics you could implement to execute the strategy you’d outlined.

Strategy and Tactics Must Go Hand in Hand

Going back to the quote I started this post with, Sun Tzu not only describes the difference between strategy and tactics, but also underlines their interdependence.

Simply put, strategy minus tactics is just big thoughts and no action. Tactics without strategy is plain chaos, a disaster waiting to happen.

Therefore, if you want your organization to achieve goals, then you have to make sure your strategy and tactics work in absolute tandem.

Besides tying everything nicely and giving your business a clear course of action, a well chalked-out strategy also —

  • Helps identify the key areas for business growth
  • Boosts business performance
  • Improves employee performance as they know exactly what they need to do
  • Contributes toward a better understanding of customers
  • Helps eliminate factors that aren’t pushing the business toward long-term objectives
  • Prevents waste of time and money on tactics that will never yield results

Done right, putting strategy at the core of your key management processes and systems can truly be a game-changer for your business.

How to Do It Right?

David P. Norton and Robert S. Kaplan in their widely-acclaimed book, The Strategy-Focused Organization: How Balanced Scorecard Companies Thrive in the New Business Environment, have laid out five key principles needed to build a strategy-focused organization.

  1. Translate the strategy into operational terms
  2. Align the organization to the strategy
  3. Make strategy everyone’s everyday job
  4. Make strategy a continual process
  5. Mobilize change through strong, effective leadership

Try this five-step process to bring strategy at the center of your organizational wheel. That way, you can be more in control of where you want your business to go and how you will get there.

Remember, a great strategy never depends on tactical brilliance for success. However, even the best tactics can’t make up for a lack of strategic thinking.

Lastly, here are six tell-tale signs that your business lacks a strategy and badly needs one:

  • Your target audience is ‘everyone’
  • Your social media channels show months or years of inactivity
  • You are analyzing customer data in silos, or not at all
  • Your business is running in the same exact way it started
  • You rarely come across exciting new business opportunities (or fail to recognize it when you see one)
  • You’re clueless about what your competitors are doing

So before you decide whether to put your money into Facebook or Twitter campaigns or how email marketing stacks up for your business or whether buying that shiny new automation tool will solve all your business problems, take a step back to put your strategy in the right place. You’d be surprised how that one step alone will weed out a lot of your business issues.