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Strategy vs Tactics: From Warfare To Business

Strategy vs Tactics: From Warfare To Business

Strategy vs Tactics is another one of those debates that rages everywhere in the business world from executive boards to freelancers. For instance, I remember working with a company where the CMO went: “This year’s marketing strategy is to generate more awareness for our brand.”
Likewise, the Head of Sales insisted that: “We need to generate more revenue from our existing accounts.”

I was baffled. My brain translated it as “This year’s strategy is to have a goal.”

You see, strategy and tactics are not synonyms: They come from the warfare lingo, and while they both describe the planning of military actions, they apply to different skills. To something known as the 3 Levels of War:

  • Strategy
  • Operations
  • Tactics

So, what’s the difference?
And why does defining it even matter, if we already defined what strategy is?

Tactics | Strategy vs Tactics

Tactics is the lowest of the 3 Levels of War. The purpose of tactics is winning a battle. This is where men fight each other in units of any size, all enabled by organization, machinery and equipment. At the tactical level there are winners or losers. It is the level of battle. All battles are win or lost, but very few battles decide the outcome of an entire war.

In Business Warfare, if we may design with this strong word the daily competition of companies in the marketplace, tactics are advertising campaigns, content creation, outreach initiatives, sales interactions and hiring interviews. Like in real warfare, there are here winners and losers:

  • A key hire you needed to make goes to a competitor
  • The ad campaign converts an unprecedented rates
  • You attend and event & nothing comes out of it
  • Your sales representative signs a client

Strategy | Strategy vs Tactics

The skill of Strategy stands at the highest level among the previous three. As Richard Rumelt often reminds us, a key feature of strategy is that it doesn’t start with goal-setting: It starts with examining the challenges that make our goals hard to reach and prioritizing some of them – which by definition means we’ll have to make cuts and sacrifices in other areas.

Strategy’s goal is to win the war, and its tools are diplomacy, propaganda, the population, the economy, and strategies are designed by high-level statespeople with the aid of experienced military commanders. Strategy is what helps a country decide whether to attack on multiple fronts, or whether to deploy the Air Force or try to peace diplomacy talks.

For example, Ukraine’s decision not to allow any men out of the country? A strategy decision that impacts the population. Unlike tactics, that rotate around individual battlefields, strategy thinks in broad terms such as continents, geopolitics and theatres of wars.

In Business Warfare, a strategy is your M&A approach (not the acquisitions per se but rather the logic behind them), your decision to build a brand that appeals to a specific audience and makes you stand out from your competitors. Strategy is finding your differentiating capabilities and deciding to cut personnel to make room for more investments in those capabiliti4s. In this context, strategy impacts the overall direction and the destiny of the business.

For example, deciding to open up a new market or study a new product is a strategic decision.

Now, in the Strategy vs Tactics debate, this explanation leaves a massive gap between the two levels. That same gap is the one very few companies manage to bridge. And those who do, end up in lists that include the word Fortune. So, how do countries bridge it, and what can we learn from the and apply to business?

Strategy vs Tactics: From Warfare To Business
Strategy vs Tactics: From Warfare To Business

Operations | Strategy vs Tactics

Operations involve armies and departments such as the Navy, the Army and the AirForce.
These departments are coordinated by massive logistical efforts with the goal of achieving tactical victories and strategic success.

No individual battle is important enough to win or lose a war, but a streak of victories will influence the final outcome of it. Few tactical battles are decisive, which means they will influence the outcome of the conflict, but many operations are – such as capturing a key bridge or hitting key ammo depots. Operations take massive amounts of resources and time, and they are successful only when their outcome meets a strategic goal.

In Business Warfare, the equivalent to operations are maximizing the customer experience (akin to maintaining and defending a strategic position), acquiring specific M&A targets (comparable to capturing a key bridge), investing in brand building, and working on a long timeframe to sign a pivotal deal. It is important not to confuse this concept of Operations with the more general term of business operations.

Now, let’s summarize what we’ve learned up until now:

Strategy vs Tactics | In A Nutshell

As of right now, we have drawn a parallel between business and war, creating the term Business Warfare to describe three levels:

  • Strategy: Examines the challenges, prioritises 1-3 go them, establishes goals, makes the resources available, sets out a general approach.
  • Operations: Execute concrete steps to set out the goals and reach the objectives using the means available.
  • Tactics: Enforce the strategy through direct action or confrontation.

To put strategy vs tactics in an simpler metaphor, imagine you have to go on a trip. You must pick whether to go by car, by train or by plane: The decision of which means of transportation to use is strategic, for it will depend on your budget, on the amount of things you need to carry, and on your priorities.

Once you decide how to get there, you have to pick a rent a car, pick and airport and buy a plane ticket, or decide which stations to leave from – that’s a an operational decision. Then, you have to jump on a train, plane or car, actually go to the place and deal with delays, refuelling, waiting times, etc. Each one of those is a tactical aspect of your trip.

To simplify it even more:

  • Strategy is like having to reach a destination and jumping on a car: You can get to the same destination by taking dozens of routes.
  • Operations is like picking the car: Do you rent one, or take yours? How much can you save in fuel? How can you get there faster?
  • Tactics is like doing the actual driving: Are there accidents on your route? Can you take alternative paths? How many times do you need to stop for a break?

Finally, let’s answer a question that comes up all the time when I talk about this:

“Okay, but then… what the hell is a plan?”

A plan is a set of tactics you deploy to reach a specific outcome. A plan assumes that all goals are equally achievable and ignores what makes them difficult to reach. Unlike a strategy, plans are not flexible and changing them creates discomfort.

In a vehicle metaphor, a strategy is like driving a car – you have plenty of freedom to choose how to get from point A to point B. You can stop, drink, eat. Then go again. Then stop and enjoy the sunset. And then reach your destination. A plan, instead, is like jumping on a train: You know you have to get from point A to point B, but you can only do so by jumping on a vehicle whose direction you cannot determine.

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