You are probably a tactician. So What?

Understanding the difference between strategy and tactics is key.

A bit harsh? Maybe. But any business venture or decision involves some level of risk. Unfortunately, not every risk pays off and sometimes, despite our best efforts, strategies fail.

There are many reasons why this might happen. Perhaps the market has changed and the original assumptions are no longer valid. Or maybe the competition has reacted in a way that was not anticipated. It is also possible that the strategy was poorly executed or that it was simply the wrong strategy for the situation. Whatever the reason, when a strategy fails it can be costly in terms of time, money, and resources. In some cases, it may even mean the end of a business. As such, it is important to understand the reasons why strategies fail so that we can learn from our mistakes and avoid repeating them in the future.

That said, it might not be your fault. The CIM (2019) identified several challenges to marketing including strategic gaps and a general lack of knowledge of core marketing principles. You might be forging ahead with your latest marketing 'strategy' not realising that your efforts are merely tactical actions.

Marketing Strategy

Strategy vs Tactics

I hear the word 'strategy' used all the time, daily almost. 'We need to discuss strategy', 'what's the strategy here', and 'let's implement this or that strategy'. Unfortunately, for the majority of the time, they are talking about tactics, the individual steps and actions that support the strategy. In the Art of War, Sun Tzu wrote: 

All men can see the tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved.

Conducting a Google search for marketing strategy examples reveals page upon page of results that barely contain a single credible strategy, but yield a bounty of advice on what are actually marketing tactics. No wonder people are confused.

Rock (1987) asserted that strategy is easy, but tactics are hard, and he paid more attention to those who created the business plan than those who created the proposal. I wholeheartedly agree with this notion. We all know those 'idea' types that puff their chest, waxing lyrically about all of the great and wonderful ideas that they have, but then fail at the first hurdle when it comes to any form of execution. 

So tactics underpin the strategic vision and are relatively short-term, actionable, measurable and time-bound.  Overall, the rule of thumb for understanding the key difference between strategy and tactics is, “Think strategically, act tactically” (Messineo). 

So What is a Strategy?

A strategy is a set of clear choices that define an organisation's future direction and purpose, and a strategic marketing campaign will steer the organisation in a particular direction. A successful strategy must do three things: first, it must articulate a clear and compelling vision for the future; second, it must identify the key areas where the organization can create value; and third, it must establish a clear link between the two. 

Vermeulen (2017) argues that many strategies fail because they are not actually strategies, either because the firm does not have anything worth executing, and what is proposed does not involve a clear set of choices that define what the firm should and should not do. Moreover, he suggests that what many think are strategies are simply just organisation goals.

It is important to remember that a strategy is not static; it must be regularly reviewed and updated in response to changes in the external environment. However, by providing a clear framework for decision-making, a good strategy can help an organization weather the storm and seize opportunities as they arise.

One of the hallmarks of strategic thinking is the ability to see the big picture. This means being able to take a step back from the details and look at the situation as a whole. For some people, this comes naturally. They are able to take in all of the information and synthesize it into a coherent plan. However, for others, this is a much more difficult task. They may have trouble seeing how all of the pieces fit together, or they may become bogged down in the details. As a result, they may struggle to develop a clear line of strategic thinking. It may be due to a lack of information or experience, or it could be that they simply don't have the right mindset. Whatever the cause, it can be difficult to overcome these obstacles. However, with practice and patience, it is possible to develop the skills needed to think strategically.

Strategy Execution

Great performance requires an outstanding strategy and solid execution, yet weak execution is sometimes used to justify a poor strategy. Today's leaders require a fresh way of developing strategies. They can no longer develop a plan for several years and then just implement it. The strategy-to-execution gap is a continuing problem with no easy solution, asserts Wiita and Leonard (2017). They discovered that teams that thrive in this field are those who decompose strategy into clear, realistic deliverables and then cascade these deliverables downward via regular communication. The most effective senior teams construct a transparent boundary between the organisation's mission and its daily operations. In addition, they are nimble in changing course as the business's needs change, and are better able to transfer organisational resources to ensure the plan is accomplished.

Kenny (2019) suggests that the fundamental challenge of strategy execution is translating abstract notions about what makes an organisation competitive into specific activities for individual-level progress. He explains that there are five rules for strategy execution: Narrow your focus; Make your strategy statements imperative: Give the statements real owners: Separate out your meetings: Appoint a monitor - In other words someone with the requisite authority to hold statement owners to account by regularly inquiring about execution progress.

How to Kill a Strategy

Whilst incompetent management, and indeed lack of planning and control are key contributors to failure (Strataegos 2014), one of the biggest dangers to successful strategy implementation is micromanagement. When managers focus too heavily on the details of execution, they often lose sight of the bigger picture. This can lead to decisions that are not aligned with the company's overall goals, and it can prevent employees from taking initiative and being creative. As a result, micromanagement can interfere with even the best-laid plans and ultimately lead to failure. 

Maybe senior leaders should look toward developing a Mission Command mindset. It is a simple concept, asserts Duke (2015); empower and teach your front-line leaders to make decisions in line with your long-term objectives. Increasing numbers of organisations delegate mission command to front-line leadership, and they acknowledge that those on the ground must function as local 'leaders' in order to develop creative solutions and fresh information.

A mission command structure enables employees to adapt quickly to a changing situation and capture opportunities by utilising their initiative, experience, and skill to guarantee that the strategic objectives and the organisation's response priorities are reached. It also permits an agile and speedy first reaction to changes, prior to the activation of conventional procedures. Critically, a key tenet of Mission Command is that leaders should focus on the decisions that only they can make, and they should devolve decision-making as far out as possible, as those nearest to the problem are best placed to act decisively (Anker 2017). 

Potentially this is simplified by the quote attributed to George S Patton: "Don't tell people how to do things; tell them what you need them to achieve and they will astound you with their ingenuity."

Look Ahead

While it is true that some people are naturally more strategic than others, do not be discouraged if you do not consider yourself to be one of them. There are a number of things you can do to improve your strategic thinking skills. First, take some time to reflect on your past successes and failures. What went well? What could you have done differently? Second, try to see the big picture and think long-term. What are your goals? What are the potential obstacles? And finally, don't be afraid to experiment. Trying new things is essential for growth, both personally and professionally. 

  • 1 - CIM., 2019. Today's top five marketing challenges. CIm Content Hub.
  • 2 - Duke, W., 2015. Mission Command - A Military Idea Wins Big in Corporate America. Afterburner.
  • 3 - Kenny, G., 2019. 5 Simple Rules for Strategy Execution. Harvard Business Review.
  • 4 - Messineo, R., . Strategy Vs. Tactics: The Main Difference & How to Track Progress Of Both. ClearPoint Strategy.
  • 5 - Rock, A., 1987. Strategy Vs. Tactics from a Venture Capitalist. Harvard Business Review.
  • 6 - Strataegos., 2014. Why Strategies Fail. Strataegos Strategy Consulting.
  • 7 - Vermeulen, F., 2017. Many Strategies Fail Because They’re Not Actually Strategies. Harvard Business Review.
  • 8 - Wiita, N., and Leonard, O., 2017. How the Most Successful Teams Bridge the Strategy-Execution Gap. Harvard Business Review.
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Posted by Steve King
This article was written by Steve King
I am a marketing and analytics professional with over 15 years experience in strategic marketing development. I am passionate about working with organisations that want to improve their marketing effectiveness and get more from their data; who wish to use its potential to describe what has happened, prescript operational activity and predict business outcomes.