How to explain goals vs strategy vs tactics

For someone who really doesn’t get it? Any ideas or analogies that can make it really clear?

I’ve tried things like:

Your goal is to Visit the Grand Canyon in 2011
Your strategy is to drive there in a minivan
Your tactics are to get in the car, point it south, stay withing the speed limit and fill up as needed.


Goal: Win the war as soon as possible
Strategy: Kill their king
Tactics: Bribe the gards, Steal a map, Sneak into the palace, Bring a knife and a gun, Shoot to kill, Run away fast.

This is to help her with business goals but she doesn’t really get the concept in the first place and I’m not helping her very successfully.

Any ideas?

Games work pretty well for showing the point


Goal: checkmate an opponent’s king

Strategy: I’ll open with “insert famous opening” and attempt to control the middle of board.

Tactics: I will move my knight here to respond to you moving your pawn.
The main thing to focus on is that tactics are short term decisions responding to circumstance while strategy is more of a big picture long term plan.

The terms are often misused, “strategy” being used when “tactics” is meant and vice versa. But I agree with the chess interpretation: tactics are series of well-defined, near-term actions for which you can predict the possible outcomes with some degree of confidence. A strategy is a longer-term, less precise plan with grander ambitions but less certain outcome.
And obviously goals deal with what you want to achieve, rather than how you achieve them.

Goals are what you want to achieve - they can be as simple as “leave the house” or “acquire a peanut butter sandwich” up to “increase the GDP of the country”. It’s whatever you want to make happen or get.

A strategy is the short and long term plans for making the goal happen, how you’re going to get from where you are now to where you want to be (hopefully with some clear evidence that what you’re going to do will be successful).

Tactics are the operations you will undertake to implement the strategy.
So, some examples:

goal - improve literacy rates in the country
strategy - increase the number of high quality teachers and reduce poor behaviour in schools
tactics - introduce golden hellos to teachers with specific or high level qualifications, hire behaviour specialists nationally to work with schools to develop behaviour strategies and interventions at a pupil and school level.

goal - lose 20lb
strategy - reduce calorie intake and start walking more
tactics - use the weight watchers system of points to measure and reduce the amount of calories eaten, buy a pedometer to measure steps taken per day and meet a daily target of 10,000 steps

goal - find and eliminate Osama Bin Laden
strategy - improve diplomatic ties with countries that we suspect have links with al Qaieda, improve the quality and quantity of intelligence resources globally
tactics - increase foreign aid to countries that are willing to provide good information on al Qaieda, hire more CIA agents with a requirement that 30% have some specific expertise in terrorism and/or Islamic extremism.
Finally, a way of helping to understand the difference is to remove one of them from the equation and see what you have.

Without a goal you’ll be doing things but you won’t know what you’re trying to achieve, so all your efforts are meaningless. “We’re going to increase defence spending and the military capabilities of the armed forces through targeted recruitment, better training and investment in equipment” There’s a strategy and tactics, but as there’s no goal you could just keep increasing spending forever as you don’t know what you’re trying to make happen; when do you have a strong enough force? At what point is spending too high? You don’t know what you’re trying to achieve so there’s no real way to know.

Without a strategy you’ll know what you want but you won’t know how you’re going to get there, so your actions may not have the effect you want or may not work at all. “We want to reduce levels of smoking in the population so we’re going to reduce the price of bananas and put up petrol tax”. It’s clear what the goal is, as are the tactics to achieve it, but there’s no link between the two so it’s probably not going to work.

Without tactics you’ll know what you want and have a plan of how to achieve it, but you won’t actually be doing anything to make it happen. “We want to lower the rates of human trafficking through better communication between public agencies, improved immigration checks and more punitive penalties for people caught trafficking others. We’ve written a 100 page strategy document which is going to sit on a shelf for the next five years before being reviewed.” Here the goal is clear and there is a strategy for achieving it, but it doesn’t matter if the strategy is a good one or not as it’s not actually being put into effect, so nothing will happen.

Is it obvious that I work in government policy implementation? :slight_smile:

It’s hard to improve on Illuminatiprimus’s excellent work.

Several disjointed thoughts …

  1. Goal is what, strategy & tactics are how. Getting that distinction clear is step 1.
  2. For small easy goals, strategy is often irrelevant. The link between the goal & the range of possible steps (tactics) to achieve it is direct enough that the concept of strategy is an unnecessry complicator. e.g. Problem: My coffee’s gone cold. Goal: Drink a cup of hot coffee. Tactics: Go upstairs, empty cup, refill with hot coffee, return to typing on SDMB. Strategy: We don’t need no steenkin’ strategy.

That’s fine until they try to apply this technique to larger problems. That also means you have to be careful about using trivial problems as training examples. If you’re struggling to shoehorn a strategy layer into your examples, pick bigger (or longer-timelined) examples.
3. Many people have a very hard time separating defining the problem from deciding the solution. Given a vague notion that something needs changing, they jump impulsively to proposing some actions. If your person can’t separate goal from tactic this is probably what’s going on with them.

You may need to first teach problem definition as separate from solution. A problem is usually described like “The actual situation is X and the desired situation is Y.” Often that leads directly to the goal “Change the actual situation to be Y.” But not always. Particularly if X & Y are a long way apart, you may have to settle for a goal of “Move actuality 10% of the way from X to Y.” Teaching your subject to think or at least talk in these terms would be a start.

Yes. This! I think what you’ve said here will be very helpful, because I know the problem isn’t her not figuring it out as such, it is my failing to teach her in the right way I think you’ve described the spot where we aren’t connecting.

Not much to add to the above as far as the difference between goals, strategy and tactics.

As far as planning and implementation though, two acronyms I always liked are SMART and PDCA.

SMART is an effective method of developing action plans - laying out tactics and strategies in concrete terms. As the Wiki page notes, there are several variations, but my preference follows


PDCA stands for Plan-Do-Check-Act. It is an effective method of implementing those action plans.

While they are mostly used for business operations, I have also seen them used for personal planning.

I doubt this is what you are after, but the above always helped me with making tactics and strategies more tangible.

The real power of thinking about problem definition and then goals is that (if well done) it forces the people involved to explicitly acknowledge what they know and what they don’t know. And to explore the space around their current reality until they really understand it. Not just have a collection of vague half-formed incoherent sound bites about the situation or their emotional reaction to it.

The very best strategy & tactics will prove useless if they’re directed in the service of a goal that makes no sense for the problem you actually have.
As to strategy vs tactics …

Once you have a problem defined (e.g. a well-understood difference between the actual & ideal desired states) and a goal (a new practical target state) defined, you can often look at the causes of the current state as places to start hunting for strategy.

e.g. The problem is “young adult literacy is weak here compared to other nearby cities”. Causes might be “local schools suck”, “lots local of families are transient”, “lots of local families don’t speak English at home”.

So given those causes you could decide your strategies would be “improve schools”, “Change curriculums to better fit short-term students’ needs”,and “Change curriculums to better deal with readers for whom English is their second language”.

Your tactics would be *how *you actually implemented those things.

In short, strategy is cause-based, tactics is outcome-based. This approach is NOT the standard way of thinking about strategy in geo-politics or military fields. But it can be useful when applied to public policy or business problems.

SMART is a fine way to evaluate tactics. But that makes it a process used near the end, not near the beginning.

In any real world effort, as you apply your tactics and the situation begins to change (or not), you should be in a feedback loop to re-evaluate your goals & strategies. At which point some parts of SMART can be brought to bear on them as well.

Not every gets the difference based on examples. There are other tests.

Eg. It’s only a goal if you couldn’t do something else and still get what you want.
Walking down the street isn’t my goal - I could still get to school without walking.
Running ten miles a day isn’t my goal - I could still get fit even without running.
Therefore, my goals are probably getting to school and getting fit. My strategies are walking and running.

Strategy and tactics have always had a fuzzy borderline. Tactics are immediate, shorter term, and with more certainty than strategy.

Are you having trouble with someone understanding the concepts, or are you bothered that someone isn’t using the words in the same narrowly defined way that you are?

Because there’s no English Academy that’s defining ‘goal’ as having any particular relationship with ‘strategy’ or ‘tactics’. In English, a ‘goal’ is something you want. It could be short-term, long-term, an intermediate step towards a longer-term desire, or whatever.

If, for a particular discussion, you want to define a ‘goal’ as occupying some unique place in a planning method, go ahead as long as you explicitly tell everyone that you want ‘goal’ used in a particular narrow sense. There’s certainly no point in being upset if you haven’t defined it and someone uses it in a different sense than you. For all you know, they were having a planning discussion yesterday with someone who used ‘goal’ to mean the shortest-term measurable accomplishment, and ‘objective’ to mean the longest-term desire.

Now I agree that if anybody is distinguishing ‘strategy’ and ‘tactics’, then ‘tactics’ is the shorter-term, smaller-scale term, but remember most English speakers don’t really distinguish them, so they’ll use them interchangeably. Again, it’s quite possible to have a productive discussion using the two words to clearly specify larger-scale versus smaller-scale methods, but you need to make sure the other person understands that’s how you’re using them.

Thanks for the added thoughts.

We use SMART but have not yet gotten to that point. Once we get the goals identified we’ll put it in that framework.

I wouldn’t characeterize myself as bothered or upset. I am troubled that my way of teaching and leading is failing her. As her manager I don’t want her to just fill in check boxes, but to have a chance to truly develop in her role. Part of that is learning this stuff. The company does have specific ways the terms are used but on top of that, learing the theory of goal, strategy, tactics is useful in itself I think.

as for the difference between strategy and tactics, it’s hard to beat Mao’s summjary of guerilla warfare:

"The strategy is one man against ten.

The Tactics are ten men against one."

That sounds contradictory, doesn’t it? So you have to unpack it. Mao recognized that in most guerrilla situations, the guerillas are greatly outnumbered. As a result, if they clearly state their strategy, they have to recognize that they are a vastly outnumbered force against a superior force.

How can they possibly win? by adopting the tactic of only attacking when they are in a situation where they outnumber the dominant power, on a local basis: ten guerillas against one. That in turn means that the guerillas must constantly be looking for ways to ensure that they will be in the majority in a particular operation, even if in the grand scheme, they are in a decided minority position.

Goal is the objective. It can be long-term or short-term.

Strategy is the broad steps you need to achieve long-term objectives; it includes support activities (logistics are an essential part of strategy). It’s what you do when the bullets aren’t flying.

Tactics are the specific tiny steps you need to achieve short-term objectives. It’s what you’re doing while the bullets zip by.