Strategy is the systematic approach to the execution of initiatives which dictate and steer tactics. And even that which some consider to be strategy is really still only an initiative. The difference being that an initiative, even if correctly defined and properly coupled to the company vision, is still only part of the strategy. Here’s my best analogy: A tactic is having your sailing team work in sync and switching tacks (moving the sails to the other side of the boat) as smoothly as possible when rounding the buoy during a race. If executed properly, we have a chance of keeping up with the competition. And in fact, it’s assumed that if we’re to be considered true competition in this race, we do in fact have this tactic down pat. Another tactic might be to deploy your spinnaker (that big billowy sail at the front of the boat) when you’re headed down wind, and recover it (haul it back in) as you head up wind.
An initiative is to set out on and complete the first leg of a race, or the second leg, or the third. Side note: Each sail race is in the shape of a triangle which forces each sailing team to sail both into the wind and with the wind at some point during the race. So the initiative for each leg of the race will be different and specific to that leg based on the direction the team is expected to sail. Each initiative will therefore require different tactics in order to accomplish them.
Strategy is the pre-planning of each initiative in anticipation of the sail race course layout. It is the discussion and decisions that lead to the call-out of the specific tactics we expect to employ for each leg (initiative) of the race. It is the big picture we can all share and work toward with the intention of winning the race, not just one leg. It give us the heads up as to what tactics we must brush up on and be prepared to execute when the time comes. But it is not the discussion of the execution of those tactics. That happens in the heat of the moment when you’re running any given leg of the race; that’s called management and team work.
Now for the difference between tactics and strategy. Two teams set out to sail a course. Both are seasoned sailing teams with great tactics. One team has studied the course, their opponents, the weather, the boat, and even the team itself. The other will rely on their great tactics and give it a go. Who do you really think is likely to win this race? Which boat would YOU want to sail on?
As a final note, I’ll share what has become one of my all-time top ten quotes.
“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” - Sun Tzu