Abraham Lincoln must have have been highly accomplished with a hook and cane pole. It’s a rational conclusion when one appreciates his deep understanding of both strategy and tactics.
For many of us, the terms are intertwined, frequently interchanged, and often confused.
Strategy and tactics. Tactics and strategy. Like so many terms in business, these have come from the military. Strategy is the planning of the grand scheme of how to win the war. Tactics are the planning of individual battles. Strategy is a decision of what to do. Tactics are choosing how to do it. Tactics constantly change. Strategy does not.
Fishermen instinctively understand the best bait in the world won’t work when you drop your hook into a pond without fish. Choosing the right fishing hole is strategy. Selecting the bait is a tactic.
Deciding whether to move the troops is much like a decision about where to fish.
In 1861, President Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William H. Seward, recommended the “border strategy.” He proposed that the Union army amass on the perimeter of the Confederacy to contain the Confederate armies and protect the Union States.
Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles proposed an alternate strategy: to invade the Confederacy and quickly subjugate its government. But no matter which strategy Lincoln approved, troops would have to be moved into position.
How does one move troops? Put them on a ship in Annapolis and sail around Florida to position them on the Confederacy’s Gulf Coast border? Put them in railroad cars and tote them to Richmond? Or line the men in formation and march them to Georgia? Any of these choices is tactical.
To surround or to invade? Strategic decision. Transporting the troops? Tactics.
The problem most businesses have is strategic.
Tactical marketing solves an immediate problem to move merchandise. Strategic marketing plans for the longer term, finding your unique value and growing a business around it.
- A farmer choosing a 5 bottom plow over one with 3 bottoms is tactical. Planting potatoes is a strategy.
- A doctor printing a new brochure is a tactic. Speaking before the Rotary Club is a different tactic. Writing a newspaper column is another. Specializing in diseases of the elderly is a strategy.
- Choosing to debate a political opponent is an exercise in tactics. Publishing a position paper is a tactic. Appearing on late night TV is a tactic. Running for office is the strategy they support.
You’ll notice that in any situation there are only a handful of viable strategies, but dozens of appropriate tactics.
This is an important observation when these terms are being carelessly flung around, especially when you may be considering hiring marketing help. Most of the sources you’ll find, regardless of what they’re called, are collections of tactics. “Strategies to Turn Your Company Around in 90 Days,” “Networking Strategies for Business,” or “One Hundred Strategies for Doubling Your Sales,” are effectively discussions of which fishing lure to use. They are descriptions of tactics.
Focus on choosing your pond more carefully.
Its not whether to run a Hot Summer Nights Sale at your automobile lot, but rather whether your dealership should be in the used car business at all.
Its not whether you should have an ad in the Yellow pages, but instead determining the which message that ad will plant in the in the minds of your prospective customers.
Just as it doesn’t matter which bait you put on your hook if you’ve chosen a pond with too few fish, your choice of tactic doesn’t matter when you’re using the wrong strategy.
When you find yourself cutting price to match the new superstore, selling more volume than you’ve ever sold before, and still watching your profits shrink month after month, it doesn’t matter which tactics you might choose to spur repeat sales. Your problem is that you’ve chosen the wrong enemy and are strategically engaging in a war you can’t win.