What is the difference between strategy and tactics – and how do goals and objectives fit in?


We often hear the words strategy and tactics, usually closely followed by goals and objectives. Is there a consistent way in which we can use them when thinking about a situation?

A good starting point is Liz Ryan’s story about how an old boss defined strategy as how to get out of the woods.

Thinking about a situation like being lost in deep woods is a good analogy for a problem we have to solve.

We know we need to get out but we can’t see very far ahead – so what are we going to do?

Jeremiah Owyang writes about strategy being done above the shoulders and tactics being done below them.

Strategies are about options. Tactics are about actions.

Before we delve into that – Mikal E. Belicove reminds us of the GOST model – Goals, Objectives, Strategies and Tactics.

A goal is somewhere we want to be – like an X on a map that marks where treasure is hidden.

An objective is something we can attain – a specific something – like getting hold of a ship.

A strategy, then, is to evaluate the options we have and select the ones with the greatest chance of success.

Strategies and tactics are linked – head and hands working together.

We decide that we will go a certain way, and that means we must do specific things in order to succeed.

Is it any use trying to get these words straight – will it help us in any way?

Yes. All too often, we see what others do and think that the way for us to succeed is to do the same things.

But, all we are seeing in action are their tactics. We don’t understand the strategy that led to the selection of those tactics.

All too often the ways that worked for others will not work in the same way for us.

Steve Jobs, for example, was apparently a tyrannical perfectionist whose near obsessive character built Apple into what it is today.

Should a modern CEO therefore cultivate a tyrannical, perfectionist and obsessive character?

Most would and should hesitate at the idea.

The classic quote about strategy and tactics is from Sun Tzu, who wrote Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.

Strategy and tactics must be intertwined and executed in context. Some strategies work better than others depending on the environment.

If we’re large, we should use overwhelming force. If we’re small we should move quickly and be hard to catch.

We’ve got to find a strategy that is right for us – and then select and execute tactics that will help us win.

It’s really that simple. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

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