Words are interesting things. They can be hot buttons. They can convey meaning or cause confusion. We can’t accomplish anything in management without words, so in that sense they’re the fundamental units of currency. But they can also seduce us into thinking we’re on the right track, even when we aren’t.

Strategy is a seductive word. It can mean a variety of things, depending on the user’s intent. One person may employ a “strategy” to get to the airport on time for a flight. A second may call a fundraising event a “strategy” for raising money. A third may discuss “strategy” as the thing the French army didn’t have in WWII, but which the other allies did have in defeating Germany (and thereby liberating France). 

What is Strategy?

I define strategy as “a connected series of actions with the intention of accomplishing a set of goals over a defined period of time.” Organizational strategy centers around goals for the overall direction of an organization: progress toward achievement of its purpose and a healthy state. It has three elements: 

  • Programmatic strategy focuses on those activities and services designed to accomplish an organization’s mission, or purpose.

  • Operational strategy refers to the inner-workings of an organization that enable it to pursue its program activities in a productive manner.

  • Financial strategy relates to achieving financial goals, which is ultimately all about the mission too.

Put these together in a thoughtful way, with the right amount of detail, and you have a holistic organizational strategy.

What Isn’t Strategy?

But strategy, the word, is often used to refer to tactics, such as the first two examples above. Getting to the airport is just a step on the way to something else of greater import. I may have a strategy for achieving a unique feat I can blog about, such as hiking the circumference of Australia, and getting to the airport is one of many steps required to do that. Even the hike itself is a step toward a larger goal. I may have goals of doubling the size of my homelessness prevention program while improving our financial position, and a fundraising event may be one step toward that end. Going to the airport, hiking the circumference of Australia and conducting a fundraising event have two things in common: all three will make you miserable and all are tactics, not strategies. 

A tactic is a way to get from A to B. It can be in service of a strategy, or it can be independent of any strategy.  If my objective is to go to my neighbor’s house just to see what’s going on, I have no strategy, but I can still go there, and I can either walk, run or ride my bike. If my goal is to see my neighbor’s new house (which would not be a very ambitious goal), I will need to get there somehow. Either way, the going is a mere tactic. 

Tactic, the word, doesn’t sound too exciting, so I might try calling it a strategy. Doesn’t change what it is, though.

A lot of strategic plans would more properly be termed tactical plans, as they prescribe a set of tasks that are not clearly connected to the achievement of strategic goals. Other strategic plans err in the other direction and may be more properly termed missions/vision statements or such – they have broad concepts (e.g. ending homelessness) but lack defined goals and outcomes. One is in the weeds, the other in the clouds. Neither tends to be effective.

When tactics abound in the absence of a robust strategy, it could mean any of a few things. The organization may be so busy with day-to-day work that there’s little time to reflect on direction or build out plans. It may mean that we are so attached to particular tactics, familiar ways of doing business, that we don’t want to think about them in the larger context. Or it may mean there’s an avoidance mechanism at play – strategy is hard, so we focus on things we know we can get done.

Robust organizational strategy has a framework rooted in a sound business model. (See this PIMG white paper on that topic.) Executing the strategy will require many well-chosen tactics. But a set of tactics can’t substitute for a real strategy. The strategy tells us which tactics will be most productive and where they should lead. Then we can try them, evaluate and re-calibrate.

Examples of tactics substituting for cohesive strategy:

Without a solid strategy things can go badly, one way or another. Tactical approaches can go disastrously wrong, even when specific tactics go well. The moral: Lead with strategy, pick your methods, then execute.