Don’t Confuse Strategies with Goals and Tactics (Part I)

I’ve just been reading The Difference between Strategy and Tactics by Jeremiah Owyang which repeats the same mistake that people often make: confusion over what a “strategy” is and how it differs from goals and tactics.

First, let’s go back to the definition of strategy, from Merriam-Webster:

Strat-e-gy (noun)

: a careful planar method for achieving a particular goal usually over a long period of time

: the skill of making or carrying out plans to achieve a goal

So a strategy is a path to a goal, not the goal itself.

This so often gets badly confused:

(Executive) “Our strategy is to become the market-share leader in our sector”

(Student) “My career strategy is to get a 1st class degree in law”

(Football Manager) “Our strategy is to win the game and get to the top of the league”

(Unemployed) “My strategy for paying the bills is to win the lottery”

“Strategies” like these are not strategies, they are goals. They may well be a clear description of the desired destination but they are no use at all in helping us get there.

This is what goes wrong time and time again in businesses: leaders espouse “strategies” that are nothing more than goals and the rest of the organisation is running around in circles with no idea of how to get there.

Leaders espouse “strategies” that are nothing more than goals…running around in circles with no idea of how to get there

Why does this matter? After all, isn’t this just semantics?

Aren’t you just being a pedant?

It matters because when leadership’s job is strategy and they spend all their time on goals then they do not provide a sensible route for the organisation to follow to reach those goals.

The goals become empty statements of desire. We might want to win the football game or the lottery, but we don’t have a plan.

…sat in boardrooms listening to goals pretending to be strategies and thinking ‘this team hasn’t got a clue…’

It matters because the hard part is strategy (and tactics as we’ll see), not goals. Setting the goal should be easy, simple and not take long to do and it shouldn’t be too specific – or there’s a risk of self-limiting ambitions. To obsess about details of goals is to put focus and energy on the wrong thing.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve sat in boardrooms listening to goals pretending to be strategies and thinking “this team hasn’t got a clue how to get there”.

Let’s examine some of Owyang’s examples of “strategies” from the article:

Strategy: Be the market share leader in terms of sales in the mid-market in our industry.

Strategy: Maneuver our brand into top two consideration set of household decision makers.

Strategy: Improve retention of top 10% of company performers.

Strategy: Connect with customers while in our store and increase sales.

Strategy: Become a social utility that earth uses on an daily basis.

We can see now that none of these are strategies at all – these are in fact goals – there’s no “how” here, just “what”. He even talks about “strategic goals” – another confusion. And this matters because we can talk endlessly about these ‘strategies’ and be no closer to knowing how to implement them.

In Part II, we’ll explore what to do about this and how to handle tactics.

Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV

Posted in Decision-Making, Leadership, Strategy.

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