One Man’s Strategy is Another Man’s Tactic: The Importance of Understanding What Strategy is… and is not
By Ricardo Azziz | March 21, 2013
“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”
Sun Tzu (Chinese General and Writer, b. 500 BC)
The need for strategy and strategic planning is highly touted. A myriad of articles, analyses, and thought pieces in the business literature highlight this critical process. Accrediting agencies demand institutions have a strategic plan in place, and that there be a system to ensure the timely completion and closure of relevant tactics/actions. In fact, we are in the midst of generating what will be GRU’s first Strategic Plan.
But I see lots of confusion around the use of the terms ‘strategy’ and ‘tactic’. So what is “strategy”? And how about “tactic”?
- Firstly, much of the confusion lies in semantics, particularly around our understanding of what the term “strategy” is. Strategy is often used to denote the entirety of a strategic plan, i.e. the strategic goals and the resulting tactics to accomplish. However, I prefer to use the term “strategy” to only denote the strategic goals, priorities or direction from which a variety of tactics will emanate (or for which a variety of tactics will be needed). This allows us to clearly distinguish “strategy” from “tactic” (as the quote from Sun Tzu does), and “strategy” from “strategic plan” (in this case the entirety of the plan including strategy and tactics).
We then have a variety of derived terms: strategic aspirations (defines strategic directions that are stretch goals that the organization believes will carry it towards a higher or more desirable state), strategic planning (the process by which a strategic plan is formulated), strategic goals (the overarching results sought by the proposed strategy or through the implementation of the strategic plan), strategic direction (the general course of action defined by the proposed strategy – more below), strategic thinking (how individuals attempting to formulate a strategy should think), and so forth.
- Secondly, we should understand that while strategy and tactic are both action-oriented statements, strategies are directional and intentional (the ‘where are we going’), while tactics are operational and responsive (the ‘how we will get there’).Strategies, or better still strategic priorities or goals, at least at the highest levels, should emanate from the mission and vision of the institution, modulated by its management principles and core values. Alternatively, tactics are a directed response to the formulated strategy.Strategy is defined by the moment at which you must make choices about what you will and will not do, specifying a direction in which to go. The best way to test if a statement is a strategy and not a tactic is to determine whether the action invoked takes us away from and towards a position. If it is a strategy it does, if it’s a tactic it doesn’t.For example, if we were to say that the action is to invest in biomedical research is a strategic priority, this would mean that we are heading into this research area, while leaving investment in other research areas. In other words, a strategy is associated with prioritization and decision-making… being everything to everybody is not a robust (nor feasible) strategy for any entity. Alternatively, a decision to hire a radiation oncology chair does not necessarily mean we would not be investing in other Departments, and is clearly a tactic to fulfill a higher strategic goal (in this case to achieve NCI-designation of the Cancer Center). Often distinguishing a strategy from a tactic requires us to stand back from the situation being addressed, and assess our proposals with an objective distant eye.
- Thirdly, we must recognize that one person’s strategy can be another’s tactic, depending on where they are in the ‘strategic hierarchy‘. For example, a state’s governor may wish to grow the biomedical industry (i.e. a strategic priority for this elected executive), with one of the many tactics used to achieve this strategy being to direct public research universities to expand their biomedical research and technology transfer portfolios.However, for the university, the governor’s tactic becomes one of its strategic priorities. And the among the many tactics used by the university president to achieve what is now a university strategic priority may include doubling the number of investigators, or expanding the clinical-translational research efforts, or striving for NCI designation of the cancer center… all university level tactics that become the strategic priorities of those leading these efforts (e.g. for the SVP Research, VP Clinical-Translational Sciences, or Cancer Center Director, respectively).
And so on and so forth, in iterative cycles (see Figure), with each strategic priority stemming from a tactic becoming more specific and less directional, until all we are left with are tactics. So in defining a strategy we must first always establish at what level in the organization are we referring to (e.g. state, university-wide, college, unit, etc.). A tactic for the university may well be a strategic priority for a college or unit.
In ending, we should recognize that much of the confusion in distinguishing a tactic from a strategy is due to three factors: differences in terminology, not fully understanding that strategies are directional while tactics are not, and not recognizing that we must first define the level in the organization we are referring to, as one person’s strategy can become another’s tactic.