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So what exactly is 'strategy' and does it differ from 'tactics' or 'operations'?

There have been endless debates about the meanings of strategy, tactics, operations and related strategy-words. The fact that these debates are endless, and the fact that it is widely reported that less than 10% of strategies actually have any impact, suggests that more clarity is required.

I’ve read many of the arguments and definitions and then I’ve carefully observed real-world practice and have concluded that many definitions are relativistic – i.e. they depend on where the person creating the definition is standing.  I therefore offer the following perspective:

“Strategy is the planning that people above you in the hierarchy do and tactics is the planning that people below you in the hierarchy do.  This rule applies irrespective of where you are in the hierarchy”

So a strategy to improve a city’s bus system would be a tactic within a strategy to improve transport in a region.  But this strategy to improve transport in a region would be a tactic within a government’s national strategy to improve the wellbeing of its citizens. 

So in the real world, the strategy-tactics spectrum is an unbroken continuum. 


Phil Driver is the author of Validating Strategies: Linking Projects and Results to Uses and Benefits published by Gower.

APM members can claim exclusive discounts on Validating Strategies: Linking Projects and Results to Uses and Benefits and a range of Gower titles, click here for more details.

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  1. Phil Driver
    Phil Driver 10 June 2014, 11:40 PM

    Hi Joseph,I sense that you and I are both addressing the challenge of presenting strategies in simpler and more meaningful formats so that strategies are widely understood by many stakeholders and can be readily implemented.  Were in agreement re the continuum of strategy/tactics and the need to link process to purpose.  Your WHYcode has some parallels with our OpenStrategies approach (www.openstrategies.com) which structures the what/why/how concepts in a directly implementable manner based on the logical sequence: organisations run Projects that produce Results that consumers/citizens Use to create Benefits = PRUB.  PRUB is the process.  Uses/Benefits define the why. Projects/Results define the what/how. The PRUB-sequence connects the what/how to the why in the form of PRUB-based SubStrategies which can be directly implemented. The PRUB information structure can be used to create SubStrategies for high-level Aspirational strategies, for mid-level Guidance strategies and for grass-roots-levels Operational strategies.  Our system integrates all levels of strategies into an OpenStrategies Pyramid.But coming back to the key point of my original blog: strategy/tactics is an unbroken continuum.  It therefore makes sense that the same strategy language/linguistics is used at all levels in this continuum.  We believe that PRUB defines the ideal strategy linguistics at all levels of strategies and encapsulates the smallest amount of strategic information that has the highest value to the most stakeholders. I suspect that we could have an excellent and detailed off-line discussion to compare ideas and learn from each other because were both grappling with the same challenging issues.  

  2. Joseph Ferri
    Joseph Ferri 10 June 2014, 11:19 AM

    Hi Phil, I really liked your article because you cut through the hype and get to the real point.  Strategy and operations and tactical actions are all process - they are all part of the same thing.Historically, the probllem comes down to the poor way that we define process, whether it's processes related to general operations or process we undertake when we execute a project - we focus on how we do things, we don't integrate WHY (purpose) for every step in the process or project.The WHY Code does address this very problem and mmakes it easy to align the most detailed process to the highest, strategic objective.  You can take a look here - www.whycode.com.  Plus there is an interested presentation that they've hosted on project requirements here - https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1BuRfJ3egExpHH76veAGzNfQW2lnSYbm_XAcWto8fWfQ/pub?start=true&loop=false&delayms=5000#slide=id.g34bab0f91_413I'd be interested to know what you think. 

  3. Merv Wyeth
    Merv Wyeth 07 June 2014, 08:59 AM

    Hi Phil,I am pleased to see this important discussion getting the oxygen of publicity on the APM web site and agree with your analysis. On many occasions I have seen those in 'strategic' positions look down their noses at others who operate in a tactical world. In my experience the word tactics, or tactical, is often used in a perjorative sense!You will know that those of us who have been exposed to your elegantly simple P-R-U-B methodology have been extremely impressed. Projects and Programmes (initiatives if you like) producing results from which people use to derive benefits. The benefits logic here is compelling, and this chimes well with the discipline of Benefits Realisation Management. The context for all such acitivity in any enterprise is ... the strategy. As you say, in your book Validating Strategies "A strategy is only a strategy is people change their behaviour." It is okay to have an aspirational strategy but unless it leads to an operational strategy (sub-strategies) or implementable action plans - then it is of little, or no, value. How about Strategy 2020 folks?I look forward to further discussion on this topic, and know that I will be looking, with a fresh pair of eyes, at how this terminology is used in the future.ThanksMerv