Pop quiz: Which of the following are tactics, and which are strategies?
- Planning a marketing campaign on social media
- Selling online
- Branching into the U.S. market
- Developing a product for a new target market
- Securing a round of financing
- Applying for a patent
- Hiring a new VP to manage your digital transformation
In my previous article, I shared this quiz with you, which I use as an ice breaker in the strategy workshops I lead. This exercise demonstrates two challenges about strategy: how to define the word, and how easily it gets confused with tactic. And because this is so ambiguous, most workshops I run come to the same conclusion: “It depends.”
Indeed, it does depend. But… on what?
On many factors, from the context of your organization to your role, decisional power, and even your personality.
Do you really need to understand the difference between a strategy and a tactic?
Knowing the difference won’t make you a more creative strategist. That said, understanding why the confusion exists will certainly help you to build better strategies adapted to your reality, and limit misunderstandings within your team. By clearing this up, I hope to show you that strategy is possible at every level in your company.
By definition, a strategy is a collection of tactics that help you to reach your goals. Depending on where you are in your organization, what your boss interprets as a tactic is probably something you see as a strategy which can be broken up into a series of tactics. And so on and so forth.
RUSSIAN NESTING DOLLS
Imagine for a moment a set of Russian nesting dolls, where each wooden doll is opened to reveal another one beneath, then another, and so on, until we come to the smallest doll made of solid wood. That’s an organization’s strategy in a nutshell, with four dolls nesting in one another. From biggest to smallest, they represent a company’s:
- business model
By component—the fourth point—I mean in its simplest form. That is, all the elements needed to keep your organization functioning, whether it’s a machine, human being, skill, trademark, patent, working capital, software, and so on. Just like with our Russian nesting dolls, the component is integrated within the process, which is integrated within the business model, which is finally integrated within the global organizational vision. They are all interdependent on one other.
Depending on your role within the organization, what you do falls within one of these four dolls, and you have a certain threshold of “strategic control.” If you are the president and sit on the board of directors, you are one of the larger Russian dolls—that is, you represent the company’s vision. If you’re part of senior management, you are the next biggest doll, and you oversee the business model. If you are employed as a department head, then you are in charge of the processes and procedures of your department. And last but not least, if your role is coordination, then you are responsible for the components that you coordinate.
In general, your role in the company is what determines what you see as a tactic versus a strategy. I’ve presented this as a “bottom down” approach to make it easier to understand, but keep in mind the process is pretty organic.
A CONCRETE MARKETING EXAMPLE
Let’s say, during a town-hall meeting, your president announces their new strategic vision to ensure the company’s continuous growth: entering the U.S. market.
The president believes this will lead to the development of new tactics associated with the company’s business model. The Marketing VP interprets these tactics as strategies that they must break down into tactics themselves. These tactics will affect processes. For example, the addition of a new client segment will be interpreted as a strategy by the person in charge of components, such as the digital campaign coordinator. At a certain point, the global strategy (that is, entering the U.S. market) will be watered down to the simplest tactic: a $10,000, 6-week keyword campaign targeting an area of New York.
We could use an example from any department at all—HR, finance, accounting, operations. The mechanism is always the same.
If this tactic, and all the tactics that follow, is not given enough thought and is badly executed, the global strategy will never work. Which reinforces the idea that strategy lies in every layer and level of your company.
In short, whether you’re a strategist or an aspiring strategist, you must understand where your place is in your company’s Russian nesting doll—and what your strategic reach is. This will enable you to:
- better understand your role in the global strategy
- frame your playing field
- limit your frustrations and those of your team
- push to strategically demand more visibility
- understand the influence you can have on the global strategy
The last point is the most important: You probably have more influence than you realize, because strategy is organic. It is not always organized as a bottom down approach, and sometimes your tactics will influence global strategy. That’s the subject of our next article, in fact. Democratizing strategy!
ANSWERS TO MY QUIZ
Now that you’ve read this article, answering my quiz should be a breeze:
- Planning a marketing campaign on social media (process strategy)
- Selling online (business model strategy)
- Branching into the U.S. market (vision strategy)
- Developing a product for a new target market (business model strategy)
- Securing a round of financing (process strategy)
- Applying for a patent (component strategy)
- Hiring a new VP to manage your digital transformation (business model strategy)
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