What is the difference between a Strategy and a Tactic?

The difference between strategies and tactics came up today during the MSNBC coverage of the election, and of course also a while back during one of the debates. I believe Sen. Obama was accused of not knowing the difference between the two, and he asserted that he was fully aware. But I don’t know, and I rather suspect that there’s not a single GQ answer. I’d like to pose the question: what is the difference between a strategy and a tactic?

A tactic is what you implement to win the battle.

A strategy is what you implement to win the war.

Tactics win battles, strategies win wars.

I always thought that a series of tactics make up a strategy.

I’m sure you’ll get military types along to answer this, but from what I understand a strategy is an over-arching plan for victory, while a tactic is a smaller-scale battle-plan that wins strategically important victories. In essence you could consider them the same thing except used for different scales. Strategies are more vague goals that are achieved through superior tactics.

Good strategies win wars, good tactics win battles.

Getting the answer to your question was your strategy; posting your question here was your tactic.

Tactics are like ‘how do we effectively fight in an urban environment’.

Strategies are like 'We need to take this specific city in order to deny it to the enemy because of X"
In terms of an election, campaign tactics would be ‘we want a program to get out the vote using local volunteers’

Strategy would be ‘We need to win Ohio and Florida’


Oy gevalt.

There is no perfect line distinguishing them, but you can think of it as a layer.

First we have a GOAL. This is what we want to achieve.

Second, we have a STRATEGY, where we identify the major elements we need in order to acheive the goal.

Third, we have TACTICS, which are the base-level methods we use in accomplishing the strategy.

Examples are easier to understand. Let’s say you are a Presidential candidate. You goal is to become President. To do that, we examine the field and learn you must win the electoral college. Winning this is equal to becoming President. Therefore, you take a look at estimate what key states are needed to swing the election to your side. You concentrate your efforts on these states. This is your strategy: you indentify the key factors you need and plan to control. Then you figure out what elements you need, what methods of campaigning and so forth, are neccessary to accomplish the strategy.

Military matters are another good example. Your goal is to win the war, but not just “win it”, win it by conquering cities/defeating armies, bleeding the enemy’s coffers/nuke and drop (…paratroopers on skis).

I order to do this, you analyze the situation and look for key armies, or powerful defensive points, or logistical targets, or whatever. You then create a tactical model of how you want to actually fight. Do you withdraw behind field fortifications, or win by manuevering the enemy into a bad spot, or try to move so fast he can’t keep up, or having so much firepower he gets obliterated?

Anything more removed from the actual goal winds up falling within the level of Support, which is very important but not as immediate. Logistics has won wars, but it acts alongside and supports every step from goal to strategy to tactics. There are also intermediary layers, but we don’t need to really go into that - just note that it can be hard to discern where strategy leaves off and tactics begin in some cases. A fast-moving army may have a battlfield advantage (tactics) but also a really good strategic advantage. But how it gets used depends on culture, the general, the political leadership, the landscape, etc.

when in doubt, look stuff up:

Although I do want to point out that both words can be used to mean the same thing:

A tactic is tarring your opponent as a terrorist pal.

A strategy is running a juggernaut campaign that gets lots of press, raises lots of money and gets people excited about your message and out to vote.

Sorta what Archive Guy said.

I always think of it terms of chess: tactics are sequences of moves in which you can predict all outcomes with certainty. Strategy is moves which don’t yield any immediate demonstrable benefit, but which experienced players believe will prove to be beneficial in the long run.

Generalising that, tactics deals with areas in which the likely outcomes can be predicted with a reasonable amount of confidence. Such is the nature of chance and circumstance that tactics are necessarily concerned with smaller scale things that happen in the near future. Strategy deals with vaguer, longer term matters whose outcome is less predictable.

To use a potentially sexist dating analogy…
If prior to a date, you have flowers delivered to a girl, that is strategy.
If you take her out and get her drunk, that is a tactic.

From a military perspective I’ve always thought that strategy is an attempt to set the terms of the conflict and tactics are actions during the conflict.

Tactic: bombing a bridge to delay reinforcements, goal of winning a battle right now.
Strategy: systematically bombing a ball bearing factory to delay tank and plane repairs, goal of winning the war in 3-6 months

From the Greeks:
Strategos- army leader (or general)
Taktike- organization of the army

Strategy is the overall goal to achieve, tactics are used to achieve it.

The #1 way, IMO, to learn to differentiate strategy and tactics is to learn to play go at the single-digit kyu or amateur dan level.

Secondarily is to consider war, with its tactical maneuvers and strategic points. Sometimes this can lead to confusion.

Third is to consider poker, where strategies affect how you play from hand to hand but tactics describe how you play that particular hand. (E.g., bluffing is a tactic; bluffing often might be a strategy, or part of a strategy.) This can also lead to confusion.

The problem is that there are layers where tactics build a strategy that is a tactic in a larger strategy. So in some sense, the difference is perspective.

So, learn to play go. There’s just no substitute. Plus, it will help when China takes over the world.

I usually think of strategy as the big picture - vision, goal, direction. Tactics is the execution and implementation.

Strategy, unlike tactics, has more to do with game theory.

To take the 2008 election as an example, it was a tactic for the McCain campaign to use negative advertising and it was a strategy of the Obama campaign to talk about the economy.

Mao’s summary of guerrila warfare:

"The strategy is one man against ten.

The tactic is ten men against one."