The complementary nature of strategy and tactics has defined their intertwined existence. In the military realm, tactics teach the use of armed forces in engagements, while strategy teaches the use of engagements to achieve the goals of the war. Just as the term “strategy” originated with the Greeks, so too did the term “tactics.”

The original meaning of “tactics” is “order”, literally the “ordering of formations on the battlefield.” Chinese General Sun Tzu described the difference this way: “All the men can see the tactics I use to conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which great victory is evolved.”Fast forward to business today and we see the two terms misused, confused and abused in many different ways. The difference between strategy and tactics is often described as “strategy is long-term and tactics are short-term.” While the two terms may adopt these characteristics at certain times, this is an inaccurate and incomplete way of explaining their meanings.

Strategy and tactics are both how you will achieve your goals and objectives. Strategy is our path or bridge for going from where we are today to our goal. It’s our general resource allocation plan. It might be to engage industry thought-leaders to become advocates for our product. The tactics then are how specifically or tangibly we will do that. They might include items such direct marketing letters, face-to-face meetings, key talking point scripts and an iPad app. If your team is still having trouble differentiating between strategy and tactics, they can use the “Rule of Touch.” If you can reach out and physically touch it, it’s a tactic.

The “long-term and short-term” descriptors for strategy and tactics may or may not apply. A strategy that successfully helps you achieve your goal in two months might be short-term compared to tactics you’ll use for two years in maintaining competitive advantage. Using time as the criterion for distinguishing between strategy and tactics simply doesn’t make sense.

Since we can’t see or physically reach out and touch strategy, it’s often skipped in favor of going straight to tactics. Many of the business plans I review list goals, objectives and then tactics. If you don’t set strategy before tactics, then you have no way of intelligently changing course when you’re not meeting your objectives. At that point it becomes “tactical roulette”, where you continually chamber a new tactic and pull the trigger in hopes that something hits the target. Sooner or later, you’re looking at a dead business. As my great, great, great, great, great grandfather Rich Tzu once said: “Think strategically, act tactically and wash your hands before you eat.” He was always a stickler for good hygiene.

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