What is the difference between strategy and tactics?

What is the difference between strategy and tactics?

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

Sun Tzu

In business we often confuse tactics with strategy. The media refer to some business’ actions as strategies when in fact they are in reality; tactics. For example, with the recent COVID outbreak in Australia, the media referred to hotel quarantine and border closures as strategies when in fact they were tactics in the strategy to stop the spread of the virus.

A tactic is an action or event to achieve a desired outcome.

A strategy is an integrated plan which helps an organisation achieve its objectives.

Tactics are usually designed by middle-level management, whereas top-level management create and implement strategy.

For example, if the strategy of a business is to increase profitable market share (a top-level management action), a tactic could be to increase prices or reduce discounts combined with a marketing campaign (middle level management actions). Tactics often change with the changes in market or economic conditions (the present), whilst strategy remains same for a long period (the future).

If the strategy is wrong, the best tactics in the world will not ensure the strategy is successful. Military conflicts are often good examples where despite sound tactics, a strategy that is wrong will never be achieved. In the Vietnam War, first the French and then the Americans failed due to poor strategy.

A better example is the nasty civil war called ‘the Bush War’ in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) from the early 1970s to 1979. In June 1977, Time Magazine reported that “man for man, the Rhodesian army ranks among the world’s finest fighting units“. The Rhodesian military developed a tactic called ‘Fireforce’.

It was a counter-insurgency military tactic using helicopter-borne and parachute infantry to envelop guerillas in the bush before they could flee. The operational assault usually comprised of a first wave of 32 soldiers carried to the scene by three helicopters and a Dakota aircraft, with a command helicopter and a light attack Lynx aircraft in support.  One of the advantages was its flexibility. When contact was made, typically with 6 to 12 insurgents, the 32 soldiers of the Rhodesian Army had immediate superiority on the ground. The tactic quickly yielded an 80–1 kill rate by trapping the guerillas and eliminating them by air and ground fire. However, despite its success measured by the kill ratio, it was not enough to keep the Rhodesians from losing the war, or realising that the war could not be won. KPIs need to measure progress towards an organization, or in this case a government’s strategic goals. Clearly kill ratios, which were also used by the Americans in the Vietnam War were not the right KPIs to meet the strategic goals.

What the Rhodesian Government failed to understand that the ‘bush war’ was political in nature. It was a war for the support of the Rhodesian Africans, not the minority white population. The right-wing government was ill equipped politically to win over the Rhodesian Africans to their side. The government’s budget and efforts were directed to the military side of the war and not the political one. The strategy of stopping majority rule was flawed, politically, morally and geopolitically. Having the best counter insurgency military in the world could not prevent black majority rule.

Also, a minority led white government, not recognised by many countries surrounded by hostile African nation states was never going to prevent guerilla insurgents from entering the country. Furthermore, in the later stages of the war the apartheid government in South Africa withdrew support further isolating the Rhodesian government. There was no plan B until the last year of the war and by then it was too late.

In conclusion, strategy is about choosing the best plan for accomplishing long-term goals of an organisation. Clearly kill ratios, which were also used by the Americans in the Vietnam War were not the right KPIs to meet the strategic goals. Tactics are normally the instant reaction of the organisation, in response to the changing environment whether political or business.

Can you think of examples of where tactics would successful, but the overall strategy failed?

The accompanying table below is a good reference for identifying what is a tactic and what is a strategy.

Basis for ComparisonTacticsStrategy
MeaningA carefully planned action made to achieve a specific objective is Tactics.A long-range blueprint of an organization’s expected image and destination is known as Strategy.
ConceptDetermining how the strategy be executed.An organized set of activities that can lead the company to differentiation.
What is it?ActionAction plan
NaturePreventativeCompetitive
Focus onTaskPurpose
Formulated atMiddle levelTop level
Risk involvedLowHigh
ApproachReactiveProactive
FlexibilityHighNormally less flexible
OrientationPresent circumstancesThe future

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