December 2010

I was at an event recently where the participants were asked to develop strategies for handling a large problem.  When the various groups reported on their efforts, there was not a strategy provided.  All tactics.  What’s the difference?

Strategy, a word of military origin, refers to a plan of action designed to achieve a particular goal. In military usage strategy is distinct from tactics, which are concerned with the conduct of an engagement, while strategy is concerned with how different engagements are linked. How a battle is fought is a matter of tactics: the terms and conditions that it is fought on and whether it should be fought at all is a matter of strategy, which is part of the four levels of warfare: political goals or grand strategy, strategy, operations, and tactics. Building on the work of many thinkers on the subject, one can define strategy as “a comprehensive way to try to pursue political ends, including the threat or actual use of force, in a dialectic of wills – there have to be at least two sides to a conflict. These sides interact, and thus a Strategy will thus rarely be successful if it shows no adaptability.” (from Wikipedia)

I define it more simply–strategy is what you want to do or accomplish, in a broad sense, while tactics are the details of how you execute to achieve the strategy.  The best illustration of the difference I’ve observed is a debriefing provided by General Normal Schwarzkopf following the first Gulf War.

Notice how General Schwarzkopf discusses things in broad generalities with occasional forays into detail. But he never once talks about what steps a specific force took to accomplish its strategic objectives.
Why is all this important? Business leaders often set strategies. Lawyers need to be able to do the same.